Hanwei Gambeson and Arming Cap Set
A hands-on review by Mark Mattimore
The relationship between clothing and armour is as old as warfare itself. Fabric has long been used for its protective properties in practically all cultures and dates back to ancient civilizations. Even today advanced fabrics such as Kevlar and Dyneema protect modern soldiers against injury. During the Middle Ages the use of fabric for armouring purposes reached great heights. With the widespread use of mail armour, specially designed padded garments were developed to be worn underneath. This provided not only an extra layer of protection, but also padding for the mail itself. This garment, known as a gambeson but also referred to as an aketon, was a quintessential piece of military kit in the Middle Ages. Over many centuries the gambeson evolved to meet the changing nature of armour and was often combined with later plate defenses. The gambeson continued to be used as armour itself and thicker versions, sometimes referred to as jacks, were often worn over the top of a mail shirt.
Most reproduction gambesons, jacks, and doublets are designed to serve a particular purpose. Some are meant to be worn under a mail hauberk. Others are heavily quilted and are intend to act as armour themselves. The reviewed garment, however, serves no clear purpose save casual historical reenactment.
CAS Iberia / Hanwei s a Chinese manufacturer of reproduction historical weapons and clothing. It has a reputation for producing a large catalog of merchandise that reflects many historic periods and styles. This particular item was purchased from Chivalry Sports, a retailer of low- to mid-price clothing, weapons, armour and accessories targeted primarily to the Renaissance fair crowd. The gambeson comes with a matching arming cap made of the same shell and fill materials. This garment is not sold as fitting into a specific time period. Rather, like much low-end reenactment clothing, it is meant to fill a generic “medieval” purpose. This was more than acceptable to me as I purchased it for no reason in particular other than just wanting to have a semi-historic piece of arming clothes that I could possibly use for light training without having to worry about if it got beaten up.
Measurements and Specifications:
Replica created by CAS Iberia / Hanwei of China.
Upon donning this gambeson it quickly became apparent that it would be unsuitable for any training other than solo drills. The padding is quite minimal and would provide little to no protection from blows by a waster or other weapon simulator. The overall structure is far too thin to absorb a blow from anything stronger than a boffer. Thus its use as armour is limited at best, non-existent at worst. It would be appropriate, however, for simple drills or light-touch partner work if one simply wanted to get the look and feel of a period garment.
When donned under plate armour it not only has the same problems as with mail, but it is very difficult to lift up the arms. A breast plate holds the torso portion in place, and there isn't enough material to allow the armpits to expand. Also, the synthetic materials retain heat more than natural fibers, making this a very hot garment. As far as a foundation for full plate, this gambeson is of very little use.
As a reenactment garment it does possess a roughly period appearance. The synthetic materials, machine stitching and modern ties make it unsuitable for any kind of living history interpretation of course. It's really best suited for casual reenactment, SCA events and Ren faires. If all that you require is a look that's roughly historic and the details don't matter, this gambeson may be just what is sought.
Fit and Finish
The gambeson has an open neck and slit cuffs that can be tied together by laces that resemble modern shoelaces. These laces are threaded through a series of eyelets that possess metal grommets. This reinforcement adds to the durability of the tie system but looks out of place on a supposedly medieval garment. Both the metal eyelets and "shoelace" ties represent additional non-historic feature of this gambeson.
The body and arms of the gambeson posses a quilted stitching pattern that is reminiscent of many period garments. The overall construction is well done and the stitching is even and secure. It is also clearly done by a machine. Once again, if you are looking for historical accuracy this feature definitely detracts.
The cut is straight, without a discernible waist or flair at the bottom. The gambeson possesses a high collar and is slit in the front and rear in the style of garments meant for mounted combat. This gambeson is actually quite comfortable to wear. It possesses generous armholes that make movement easy and unencumbered. As such, it is a garment that could be worn for long periods of time while training or performing reenactment.
I would not consider this CAS Iberia / Hanwei gambeson and arming cap set a piece of high-quality historic clothing. However, one must remember that it's not meant to be that. Given its limitations, it is not suitable for the purpose behind most people's choice to buy a gambeson; namely as cloth armour or as padding under mail armour. As a garment for casual, semi-historic reenactment it is acceptable simply because of its vaguely historic look.
The best thing that can be said about this piece is that it is a good value for the money. With most high-quality gambesons costing around $200 to $300 US and up, this set is a real bargain at $80 US (depending on the retailer). For this price it is a garment that you can treat badly and not worry about repairing. It can simply be replaced.
About the Author
Mark Mattimore is a writer living in Cincinnati. An obsessive reader and true lover of history, he has an abiding interest in medieval arms and armour in addition to being a student of the western mystery tradition. Professionally, he works as a copywriter with specialties in word-of-mouth marketing and brand identity development.
Photographer: Chad Arnow