This tutorial shows how to use modern tools and materials to make reasonable facsimiles of garment-weight hooks, eyes, and lacing rings from Northern Europe in the 1500s-1600s. I have no evidence for what the period method of manufacture might have been, other than speculation based on studying surviving originals. I managed to acquire a cache of assorted hooks and eyes from the Netherlands, 16th-17th century, all found together in the mud. There’s a wide variety of shapes and sizes, and I’m not sure whether this might have been from the workshop that made them, or from a tailor’s shop that used them. There are several groups within the cache, particularly the eyes/lacing rings, that appear to have been made on the same size pliers or round mandrel. In “Mythbusters” terms, the construction method here is PLAUSIBLE.
From the level of corrosion, all of my originals appear to be copper alloy (read: something in the brass/bronze family). Heavier and larger ones- such as for pavilions- may have been made from iron wire. They had not yet learned to isolate some of the raw components (such as zinc), so brass and bronze from that time period were variable in their content and working properties. One major distinction between modern brass/bronze and Tudor bronze is that Tudor bronze frequently included lead. At the temperature where bronze melts, lead boils. That pumps a lot more into the atmosphere than simply melting lead. Even if it were available nowadays, I would not work with leaded bronze.
Some of the surviving ones appear to be gilded. This is pseudogilding, a type of corrosion that deposits pyrite on the surface. This happened over the centuries as they were buried, and would not have been present on ones of the time. They may have originally been tinned to prevent corrosion, as some straight pins were, but I see no trace of it. That’s another toxic process that I prefer not to expose my lungs to…
In regards to corrosion from wear- these were usually on middle or outer layers- waistcoats, breeches, jackets, etc.- very rarely would these be used on the frequently-washed linen skin-layer (shirt or smock). The outer layers were buffered from skin oils, and laundered rarely when needed (wool can be “dry”cleaned by beating or brushing in many cases), so that reduces two main sources of corrosion. Lanolin remaining in the wool fabric may also have protected against corrosion. Annealing the wire gives a lovely brown patina that may also be protective.
On to making them!
Safety and general notes:
This uses some basic wire jewelry techniques (making eye pins, general familiarity with handling pliers). It could be a suitable project for older children, though I’d recommend that an adult perform the annealing step. Use caution when hammering; the pieces are quite small and smashing a finger is a possibility. When you’re trimming off the pointy pinch-ends of the wire, small pieces will go flying. You can direct where it goes by angling your cutters towards your lap or the ground, but if you’re doing this in a group, eye protection wouldn’t go amiss.
Tools:Left to right:
- Flush cutters. Get good ones. I like Craftsman, but what you want in general is a sturdy and good quality brand from a hardware store- don’t even bother with the wimpy little ones in craft stores. I’ve broken too many of those.
Pliers: None of these have serrated jaws. Serrated jaws chew up the wire. These are all jewelry pliers, can usually be found at Michael’s/general craft store or a dedicated bead store. Rio Grande or Fire Mountain Gems are online candy stores- um, I mean, sources.
- Round nose pliers. Quality is also very important here. My first pair of round nose pliers was cheap and basic, and also not actually round. That gets incredibly frustrating. These are Swanstroms, which are about the opposite of cheap and basic, but I love them, and they’ve been worth it to me. Unless you’re going to do a very great deal of wire work, I’d suggest an in-between brand. Fine tips and a long taper will make things easier, but be careful- those pointy little jaws can draw blood.
- Flat nose pliers. Wide, flat jaws, tapering from thick to thin towards the tips. You want these to be as thin as possible at the tips. These are Beadalon brand- they have nice thin tips and a good feel.
- 1 or 2 pairs of chain nose pliers. These are my general manipulating tools. They have narrow jaws, thin at the tips. The red pair has much thinner tips than the yellow pair, and that helps to get into tight places. There’s less to go wrong with these in terms of manufacturing quality, so cheap is usually just fine. You may be able to get away with using your flat nose pliers as a substitute for the second pair of chain nose.
- The last 2 sets of pliers are bail-making, a.k.a. looping, pliers. Unlike the tapering round-nose, these round-jawed pliers have either jaws that are the same diameter all along the length (the black-handle Beadalons) or stepped for six different diameters (like the pink-handled Bead Landing ones). The Beadalon is vastly higher quality than the Bead Landing, yet similar in price point. There were half a dozen Bead Landing looping pliers on the rack. All were warped or malformed in some way. I picked the least bad, and it’s usable, but not my top choice. You probably need one or the other- I got both because I’m attempting to copy period originals. I’d suggest using the originals as a general guide, and adjusting size and proportion to fit your project and your tools. Using the looping pliers will make it much easier to keep your eyes or lacing rings uniform.
You also need a way to anneal your wire. Annealing is the process of heating (here, brass, specifically) the wire to a dull red, then quenching it quickly in water. This makes brass much softer and easier to work. Your hands will thank you. There are options for getting the wire up to temperature. You could use a propane grill or camp stove, or a small butane torch (mine came from Harbor Freight, but I’m told these are also sold as crème brulee torches). Use pliers or hemostats to pick up the wire to put it in the water, and to pick it up out of the water after. Hemostats are good since they are long, steel, and don’t have foam or padded handles that could possibly melt (the handles on mine haven’t heated up, but still…).
If you’re using a torch, you need a fireproof backstop. My first try saw me fill a ceramic cooking dish with clay cat litter and heating my pre-cut pieces on that. That worked well enough, but it was hard to pick them up and get them into the water quickly. It also didn’t burn away all of the anti-tarnish lacquer that a lot of brass wire is coated with- only the lacquer on the upper side burned away- so the pieces ended up partly patinated, partly shiny. Second try- a large ceramic floor tile was certainly fireproof, but also sucked the heat away from the wire and made it hard to get them up to the dull red heat. Third try- holding the wire in the flame of the torch using a small pair of hemostats. That let me turn the wire in the flame and burn away all the lacquer except for the little tip that was gripped by the hemostats. Small as the hemostats are, they’re enough of a heat sink to stop the patina. Fourth try will be heating the whole coil of wire on the grill. (“Medium well, please.”)
- Two last tools: An anvil (doesn’t have to be large- the one in my pictures is a jewelry anvil, about 2 pounds, also available at craft stores). Nor does it have to be a true anvil- a chunk of railroad rail or other smooth, flat, solid, massive enough not to bounce around, piece of steel that you can hammer on is all you need.
- A smooth-faced hammer. The main thing here is that it not have ridges, slots, chips, dings, or other irregularities in the face that will show up on your work. Lighter is probably going to be easier- 4 to 8 oz is what I’d suggest. A small head is also easier than a larger one. Avoid domed heads. This one has a flat face on one side and a ball peen on the back.
Yeah, that’s it. It needs to be real brass. Be careful with craft store wire- a lot of it is colored copper or aluminum, both of which are far too soft for this purpose. Real brass will fight back when you try to bend it. It will also be the same color all the way through when you look at the cut end. The gauge of wire will be determined by what your intended use is. Most of the extants in my collection are roughly in the 18-20 gauge range. The smaller hooks and horseshoe eyes are 18 gauge, while the twisted eyes (lacing rings?) are a mix of 18-20 gauge. There are larger hooks and eyes that are much heavier, but for general clothing use, 18 gauge should be okay.
I have ordered some bronze wire, to compare aesthetic and working properties, but it has yet to arrive. Brass is usually much easier to find.
If you have some craft wire (cheap, soft) of the same gauge you’re planning to use, it can make your template/prototype phase much easier. I didn’t think to do that. Nor had I annealed all the brass wire- so it was fighting back. It made my hands hurt. What was that saying about “Wisdom is learning from other people’s mistakes”?
Make a template for each style hook or eye you’re planning to make. One of the things I’ve learned by studying this collection is that there is a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Your hooks and eyes may not be the exact same size or proportions as mine. As far as I can tell, that’s very period. My template lengths can be a starting point, but absolutely “season to taste”, as it were. So, take your craft wire, work through the steps (skipping the hammering) and see what it looks like. Once you have something pleasing, unbend it as close to straight again as you can, and you can use that as your template to cut all the other lengths of wire. Cutting the pieces all the same length helps more than anything else to make them look like they match.
When you cut your lengths of wire, pay attention to which way you hold your flush cutters. Flush cutters leave a flat end on one side of the cut, and a “pinch” or pointy end on the other. Make sure to trim off the pinchy end so that it won’t snag you or your clothes.
For hooks, I actually make two templates. A full-length one, to measure the length to cut, and a half-length one, to locate the sharp bend at the very tip of the hook. You can do this by measuring or by just making a second full-length template and folding it in half.
Step 1: Use your flat nose pliers and your half-length template to put a sharp, 90 degree (or so, doesn’t have to be exact) bend right in the middle of the wire. If you roll the loops (step 2) before doing this, it’s hard to find the exact middle- and if you bend it all the way to 180 (as we’ll do in step 3), it’s harder to roll the loops.
Step 2: Rolling the loops (the small loops to sew it on to the fabric). With your round nose
pliers (or one of the small jaws of your looping pliers, if that size works for you), grab the wire right at the tip. If you grab it not right at the tip, you’ll wind up with more of a teardrop shape, rather than truly round. Roll the wire around the plier jaw, outside of the bend. Think rocks piled at the mountain’s base, rather than inside the mountain. Or the hydraulic of a low-head dam. Whatever imagery makes the most sense to you. Do the same to the other end. You can mark the tip of the round nose pliers with Sharpie so that you roll the loop in the same place each time
Step 3. With your fingers, squish the 90 degree bend in the middle to bring the ends closer together, and slip one loop on each jaw of your round nose pliers. Close your pliers, so the loops touch. You should have a vaguely ovoid form with a slight point on the end. Now, take it off the round nose pliers, and grab the loops with your flat-nose pliers (so they stay together and flat) and start compressing that ovoid flat. I haven’t found any real trick to this, other than trying to hold your mouth just right so that it doesn’t torque sideways. The goal is to get the wire doubled back on itself. At this point, it should look a bit naughty. Use your chain nose pliers to align and adjust the loops so they’re even and co-planar.
Step 4. Take it to your anvil and hammer. The tip gets hammered with vigor, the loops and lower part of the shank more lightly. You’ll probably have to squish the shank back closed, and you’ll discover just how enthusiastically the brass has work-hardened with the hammering. If you don’t hammer it, it’s not going to be nearly as strong.
Decide how far you want the bend of the hook
to be from the tip. Grab the hook at that
point with the end of your flat jaw pliers, then scooch it 2x the thickness of the wire back towards the tip of the hook. Grab the exposed shank of the hook with your chain nose pliers, and roll the hook around the tip of the flat nose. This is why the flat nose need to have a really nice thin tip. Squish the hook until the top and bottom of the hook are parallel.
… or, “eyes” as some people call them. I call them horseshoe eyes to differentiate between them, the twisted eyes (which may be lacing rings), and the (modern, as far as I know) straight eyes.
Horseshoe eyes are super simple. Use your round nose pliers to make loops on both ends of your piece of wire. With your looping pliers, grab it roughly in the middle, and push the ends around the plier jaws with your fingers until they look even. Tweak the alignment of the loops with your chain nose pliers until they’re flat and co-planar. Hammer moderately.
Twisted eyes/lacing rings
Take your looping pliers and grab the piece of wire roughly in the middle. Push the ends around the jaws with your fingers until they cross and the ends stick out evenly. Left over right seems to be the standard in my collection of extants.
Grab the ends at the cross with your chain nose or flat nose pliers (if you use the flat nose and grab the cross directly, there is less contorting involved than the way I show in the pictures), and give it a half twist.
Use your chain nose pliers to curl the ends back up towards the loop. I was surprised that the chain nose gave a more accurate look than the round nose.
Hammer the twist firmly, and the rest of the loop more lightly. Adjust the ends as needed.
…my gown needs *how many* of these?
But seriously, by number 3 or so you’ll be getting into a rhythm, and it goes faster than you’d think. It’s one of those fiddly, subtle details that can help make an outfit feel “real”.