Suffolk: Colin Jones is making his own chainmaille... by hand

Colin Jones and a chainmaille coif

Colin Jones and a chainmaille coif - Credit: Archant

His imagination was gripped in childhood by tales of knights, Merlin and King Arthur, so it’s not surprising that artistically-minded Colin Jones, above, is now making his own chainmaille. STEVEN RUSSELL stepped into the workshop to hear about Byzantine and Dragonscale weaves, and the need for patience

The tools of his trade: Colin Jones's workshop

The tools of his trade: Colin Jones's workshop - Credit: Archant

Colin Jones isn’t really one for modern electronic gadgets. “You put me in front of a computer and I’ll just about be able to turn it on and j-u-s-t about be able to work my email. But give me a block of wood and a penknife and I’ll build you a shopping mall!” he smiles.

Colin Jones coiling wire that he'll later cut to make chainmaille rings

Colin Jones coiling wire that he'll later cut to make chainmaille rings - Credit: Archant

There’s evidence (though not quite of shopping centre proportions) in the living room of the family bungalow near Stowmarket. It’s one of his mum’s favourite pieces: a half-round wooden table with elegant legs whose style has a French name that’s slipped Colin’s memory. There are white inlays around the edges and down the sides of all three legs, while the top features a symmetrical marquetry pattern.

Making chainmaille demands patience and dexterity

Making chainmaille demands patience and dexterity - Credit: Archant

He made it in about 2000, while studying cabinet-making at college in Ipswich, and has always had a practical streak. “I’d been making things for 20-odd years with Lego: guns and swords, spaceships and castles! I think that’s where everything came from.”

Colin Jones's chainmaille bracelets

Colin Jones's chainmaille bracelets - Credit: Archant

In recent years jewellery has become his passion – and, more recently still, it’s chainmaille that’s been eating up most of his free time outside work, inspired by ancient weaves from the late 14th to 16th centuries.

Chainstore: Colin Jones in his workshop near Stowmarket

Chainstore: Colin Jones in his workshop near Stowmarket - Credit: Archant

Most of us probably think of chainmaille only as a bygone form of armour, but it’s enjoying a modern lease of life as a jewellery-making technique.

There’s more to it than meets the eye, too, with a spectrum of different styles available – some of them easier to make than others. Their names are evocative, too, from full Persian to European 4-in-1.

Most Read

The tiny little metal rings and the patterns they form are addictive, Colin reckons. Moreover, he doesn’t buy in his jump-rings ready made but cuts them all by hand.

(By the way, I’ve seen chainmaille spelled like this, or as chainmail, or as two separate words. Colin uses the first, so I’m sticking to that.)

It’s not uncommon for him to spend six hours a night in the cosy workshop he and his dad built in the garden about three years ago. This is the well-lit “cosy cave” where much tea is drunk. Sometimes he’ll put a DVD (sci-fi and fantasy, most likely) in the little player on his bench – not because he’ll watch it like a hawk but because the slight background distraction actually forces him to focus harder on his handiwork. It stops his concentration wandering as the hours tick by.

Sometimes, his parents chase him up and warn that it really is time to get some shuteye.

There are pieces of chainmaille in his workshop in various stages of progress: a sleeve, for example, and coifs (worn on the head). They’re deceptively light to handle, feel as smooth as silk, and look much like cloth from a distance.

One coif, a mixture of silver-plated and brass rings, features a diamond pattern on the side and a swirly design on top. It’s taken its creator just over four months of toil in the evenings and weekends to get this far. “I don’t think there’s been a weekend when I haven’t been in here over those four months,” he admits.

“It’s not a quick process; but if you’ve got the determination, if you believe in something and want to do it, do it. It might take you 10 years, but it’s 10 years that’s well worth it.”

That sleeve he hopes will one day become part of a complete suit – finished by December of next year, if all goes swimmingly.

He demonstrates how those tiny rings are threaded through others and then closed with some thin round-nosed pliers. Frankly, I’d have neither the patience nor dexterity. (Or eyesight, come to that).

Intriguingly, Colin doesn’t draw a pattern or design before he begins creating it in chainmaille.

“The way I do most of my stuff is that if I can see it in my head, I can build it. If I find it hard to imagine something, then I know I’m going to have trouble!”

Chainmaille is a fickle mistress, testing the staying power of those who court her but rewarding their devotion with her beauty.

Rings sometimes come off, a bit like a dropped stitch in knitting. “It happens to everyone.”

Colin admits, too, that he recently had one of those episodes when he felt like throwing in the towel, convinced in a low moment that all the time and energy he’d put in was akin to beating his head against a brick wall.

He shows a piece he’s made: a copy of the famous red and blue “S” emblem on Superman’s chest. When you hear it’s made of more than 15,000 jump-rings just 2mm across, and notice how complicated the design is, you realise the scale of the emotional investment.

Colin admits there were times when his optimism flagged. “Trying to get sweeping curves in chainmaille is… challenging!”

Nevertheless, he had ambition.

“I wrote to DC Comics, asking for written permission to do this. I wanted to do the emblem, and then I thought ‘Why not go further? Full suit, head to toe, including the cape. Which I did start.

“But then they sent an email back, saying ‘Sorry, we can’t give you permission to use it.’ So I’m going to have to work around it and see how I can do it: might try to get a charity involved and auction it to raise money when it’s done.

“You sometimes have little doubts. But the way I think about it is there’s always something in life that will push you back and try to force you to give up. But if you love it enough, you’ll keep going.”

He came to chainmaille after starting to make jewellery – something that itself had led from another creative project. Adjourn to the bedroom for details…

There, on a wall, is a sculpture he made for an art show at Cotton in 2001. It’s called Passions Growth. A tree represents life, and the branches the choices we make (or decline) in life.

Most of the leaves are made from recycled cans – Colin having to make the marks on them by hand. “I spent hours – evenings and weekends. There were times mum and dad would say ‘Stop that banging! It’s 11 o’clock!’ Basically, all I had was a little screw, a hammer and a little pair of metal shears.”

There look to be an awful lot of leaves. “I lost count at about 300...

“Doing this one night, I got so fed up with it. I sat twiddling a little bit of wire and thought ‘That’s quite nice.’ I bent the wire round and started making a bracelet. That’s how it came about: from this one sculpture.”

He showed people what he’d been making and was asked if he could do it in silver! Colin bought his first lot of sterling silver wire and experimented, armed at this stage with only a pair of pliers, small vice and a hammer.

The deal invariably was that he’d do the work and those who’d asked for a bracelet would pay for the materials.

Does he know why it gave him a kick?

“It was the look on people’s faces – the sheer joy of seeing someone’s expression at seeing something hand-crafted and thinking ‘We never knew you could do that.’”

His entry into the world of jewellery-making started in earnest about three years ago. Early on, Colin was working from a desk in his bedroom and using a standard reading table-lamp. “There were a couple of times I thought I’d go blind!” he jokes.

His bracelets were originally chunky copper. Things developed as he read about ideas and techniques, and he branched out to also make pendants and necklaces. Tools were bought, such as a proper jeweller’s saw with a very, very thin blade of 0.4mm.

Colin made pieces for friends at the pub who’d like what he did, and that led to requests from friends of friends.

It was his childhood interest in knights and castles that saw him embrace chainmaille a year or so ago. (“I was brought up with the Knights of The Round Table, King Arthur, Merlin and all that: books, films, TV. Anything with swords and armour I was into.”)

He chanced upon a craft magazine. Someone had sent in a photograph of a chainmaille bracelet on a mermaid theme, decorated with shells. Colin thought he’d never be able to make something that. “Then one day I was in here and thought I’d try it and see what happens. I tried it in copper first: the least expensive stuff. From there, I fell in love with it. If you get into it, after a while it’s so addictive.”

It is labour-intensive, though – particularly as Colin eschews the use of muscular power tools. “When I say something is handmade, I want it to be handmade,” he stresses.

Hence, his rings start off as wire he buys. This he then winds round a rod to produce a 12-15cm length of spiralled metal that’s essentially a tightly-coiled spring.

He clasps this between thumb and finger and carefully cuts it. Five or six little rings fall off with each stroke.

Amazingly, Colin reveals that up until this year he was still preparing wire by winding it around a drill bit. Now he uses a homemade (and hand-powered) winding machine made from wood.

Even so, it can still take five to 10 minutes to spin a coil. They can’t be hurried, as the tension needs to be right. If not, the rings won’t be properly formed and the quality of the maille will suffer.

At least the modern world offers some advantages compared to those making chainmaille centuries ago, when they’d actually have to start by casting their own metal, and didn’t have tensioned tools, either.

Er… can’t help noticing that Colin has strapping on one of his hands and forearms. Anything to do with his labour-intensive pastime, perchance?

Well, yes. It’s a strained wrist, which happens from time to time. Having to cut the rings by hand, by holding the coiled wire tightly, can take its toll. It’s a repetitive strain injury, basically. “Stainless steel, being harder, is worse than copper, because you have to hold it more firmly.”

With his growing fascination with chainmaille, much of Colin’s jewellery output morphed from wound wire to maille bracelets.

He’s dipped a toe in the water by putting some up for sale via www.etsy.com and styling himself as PendragonJewelery. The soft, coloured, chainmaille bracelets – using the European 4-in-1 weave and materials that include sterling silver, silver-plated metal and enamel – each take between four and five hours to make and feature about 600 rings.

Colin’s also set up stall at some fairs – selling a bit of jewellery, demonstrating his maille-making skills, and chatting about his passion for the craft.

He’s not pushing the sales side at the moment, though. There are only so many hours in the day and he’s decided to use what time he has got to produce a collection of “display pieces” he can use to showcase his abilities.

Once he’s got some in the bag, he can make a sustained effort at marketing himself and attend more events next year – perhaps linking with re-enactment gatherings and heritage-style occasions.

He’s grateful for the support of family (“they put up with me!”) and friends, including Paul and Helen Chaplin and Jodi Palmer, who have helped establish a web presence and sponsored him for the fairs.

The patience he has to show in making his chainmaille has also been apparent in the way his hobby has developed. Colin’s bought better and more useful tools as and when he’s had the money, for instance. He has to balance his away-from-work enthusiasms with the demands of a full-time job, after all.

After Stowupland High School he’d spent a year studying carpentry at West Suffolk College before those further two years in Ipswich to focus on cabinet-making.

Colin says he spent about a year going from one job to another, “trying to find my way in life, I suppose”, before landing the position he has now.

He’s been with QK Honeycomb Products for 11 years. The Stowmarket firm supplies lightweight honeycomb panels to the leisure industry. Its products are used by the major caravan, motorhome and holiday home suppliers, as well as in things like shop displays, office furniture and exhibition equipment.

Dreams? He’d love to be able to expand: to sell more; write a book about how to make jewellery and maille; possibly to even run classes. They’re all long-term goals, though.

“It does take patience,” he says of the hobby that’s rather more than a hobby. “Advice to anyone: if you want to try it, try it – but if you can’t look at yourself in a mirror for 30 seconds, you’ve not got the patience!”

He’d like to stretch himself, too. Colin, who belongs to a local archery club, is trying to make an arrow from chainmaille, with a rod through the middle for support, and has his eye on further challenges.

“People don’t realise how much you can do with it. One idea, which I’m still stuck on, is to make a chainmaille rose. I’ve got the leaves and the stem; I haven’t been able to work out the bud...

“One chap made a whole chess set out of it. Another guy took four years to build a miniaturised castle!”

The daylight that was streaming through the workshop window when we started chatting has been replaced by velvety blackness. It’s time to go.

Colin’s going to pop out to meet some people, but plans to return and add some more rings to the diamond-patterned coif. He concedes it might be 2am before he calls it a day.

Why is he so committed?

“I honestly don’t know,” he smiles. “Sometimes I think I’m mad. You can write that! But it is satisfying.”

Colin can be contacted on Facebook – colinjonesjewlery – and on email at colinjonesjewelery@outlook.com

Become a Supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Become a Supporter