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Pretty much any material can be made into maille, the definition of maille being a 'fabric' of interlocked rings. So far there's spaghettio maille, hula hoop maille, balloon maille....you get the point.
On a more practical level, there are many materials that would make wearable maille (be it armour or jewelry). Some of those would be plastics, but the first thing that comes to mind is metal (well that and I know squat about plastics:)). There are many metals, all with their pros and cons.
Mild steel is easy to work with, authentic (well, from the point where they learned how to make steel from iron) and works as riveted maille, which is a type of maille that's pretty light for how strong it is, and it was the primary type used in the middle ages in Europe. Riveted maille has rings with ends that overlap a bit, with a rivet going through both ends. Mild steel is prone to rust if you don't take care of it religiously.
Stainless steel stays shiny much longer (it will stain, but only
Galvanized steel, or 'galvy' is a much used material because it is easy to get a hold of, doesn't rust much and is easy to work with. It is basically mild steel with a zinc layer that protects it against the elements. The main problems one can have are oxidation of the zinc, rusting of exposed steel and the Smell. The zinc can turn dark or go dull with age or exposure to sweat and moisture, but some like the look that this gives. The ring ends will not be caoted so they can rust, and heavy wear and tear or poor quality galvy can cause flaking of the zinc layer so the steel will become exposed and can rust. Also, some wire comes with a strange smell (other than the basic metal smell, that's always there) when you buy it or acquires a nasty smell after wearing it. Body chemistry plays a part here, some people just turn galvy smelly and some don't. It doesn't mean you're unwashed or anything, it just means your skin doesn't want you wearing galvy and is being vocal about it.
Bright aluminum is very popular for non-traditional maille applications. It makes very light tank tops, neckties, jewelry and even dresses. It recreates the look of maille, but not the weight. Bright aluminum is used where appearances are most important, it is a purer alloy of aluminum. It can be somewhat more brittle than dull aluminum but this doesn't matter much except for use for armour purposes, where dull alu is the preferred type of alu. It does not usually leave marks on skin. This is very good for costume purposes as it's lighter than most materials and easy on your hands as you work with it.
Dull aluminum is an aluminum alloy that is less pure than bright aluminum. It is tougher and less brittle, and in thicker wire gauges will make fully functional armour. But dull aluminum is lighter than most armour grade materials. It does have a problem with black rub-off that doesn't stop but washing it every now and then helps. The rub off washes out with water so it's not that big of a deal.
Anodized aluminum is aluminum that was put under an electric current to make it absorb dye, and then sealed to keep the color in. The color is a layer that can wear off or be scratched with other metal objects, but if your skin isn't the kind that eats metal, and you don't carry bracelets in your pocket with your keys, you can have a lot of fun with this.
Copper is easy to get (in the form of electricity wire). It is soft (how soft depends on the kind you get) and heavy, and is usually used to add color to a project, although some make entire projects with it. A whole shirt would be hard to wear and in soft copper would probably be torn apart under its own weight, but in jewelry it works just fine. Copper starts out as a shiny warm orangey color and turns brownish pretty fast. A dunk in lemon juice can make it shiny again. Copper can turn your skin green, but hey, if you like the woodelf look...:)
Again, some people experience more green skin than others. (Actually I've toyed with the idea of making a chain weave armband to see if it leaves a pretty temporary tattoo)
Enameled copper or artist wire is usually a very soft kind of copper with a plastic color layer around it (sometimes it is silver plated to get some shine). You can get it in many colors, as well as metal tones. The color layer is rather vulnerable to scratching or being marred by your tools though, and the wire is dead soft so you need thicker wire for the same purpose as when you're working in other materials.
Brass and bronze are copper alloys. Brass tends to be goldish and bronze more copper/brown toned. Brass is authentic in trims for maille shirts of a sturdier material, but bronze is used for trim now as well. Brass is a popular gold substitute in maille jewelry and both materials are valued for their color as most maille materials are silver toned. They are easy to work with and harder than copper, but still not armour grade. Depending on the alloy and your body chemistry, it will or will not have a bit of the greenman syndrome that copper has.
Titanium is a pretty high tech material. It's light and strong (heavier than alu though) and can be given different colors with an electric current or heat. The color layer is actually harder than the titanium itself, but again, don't keep it with your car keys. Common sense still applies. The original look of it is a dull grey shine that some hate and others like. Most people with metal allergies can wear titanium, this metal is used a lot in surgery where people have to walk around with a plate or screws in their body for a long time.
Niobium is the high end color prettiness metal. It can be anodized with an electric current to take on different colors and the color layer is pretty hard and thick. I have a friend who has a very aggressive body chemistry, and niobium is his preferred colored material because it tends to hold its color for at least a month or two (where alu is eaten away in a matter of weeks). On us, the ones who can wear piercings longer than half year without them being dissolved, the color should last a very long time (if not for a lifetime).
All these materials can be bought in readymade rings for the ones who don't want to coil and cut. But anything you find might make good maille, you only have to try (this reminds me of several people I know who get a strange look in their eyes when they see metal coat hangers, or turkey trussing wire, or the twisty things you use to close plastic bags).
That was pretty much it, I haven't covered every conceivable material but I hope I've managed to shed some light on this without confusing people even further. Besides, I haven't contributed much to the forum in terms of textile tips, I should share what I do know. If you have any questions, let me know or ask the nice people at the Chainmaille Board http://www.chainmailleboard.com/
== J B Brouwer
For costume purposes, go for aluminum (dull is prettier but bright alu is cleaner, your call). It's much lighter than other materials and this will make it easier to wear during those ten hour trilogy movie marathons. The strength depends a bit on the alloy, but a 16 gauge 3/8" alu ring should generally do the trick.
== J B
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This page was last updated 04/22/08