# Indestructible silk: good armor?

I've been playing with different conceptualizations and types of armor for historical settings, especially armor with magic enchantments or made from weird materials. I was stuck thinking about lightweight protection and remembered that mithril shirt from the Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings.

To those who haven't seen or read it, the mithril shirt is described as being stronger than steel but as supple as linen. This latter property confused me when the wearer got stabbed with the force of a battering ram, since the shirt would be fine, but the person wearing it should be suffering massive blunt force trauma and internal bleeding. Heck, with that degree of flexibility, you could even justify the shirt being forced inside the person wearing it.

With that in mind, would a silk shirt or coat that is (for all intents and purposes) indestructible, be useful as martial protection, or would it just be over-designed pajamas? For the purposes of this thought experiment, imagine the wearer of this shirt being struck by an arrow, a knife, a spear, and an ax.

• If you're talking about the fight in Moria, Frodo was apparently hit so hard that the others thought he'd been killed, and some of the rings were driven through a leather shirt into his shoulder. I also don't remember it being described as particularly supple. It was very light (as well as extremely strong). The lightness is not an advantage when being hit, but makes it possible for a hobbit to go on a quest while being very heavily armored. – David Thornley Aug 23 '18 at 17:23
• If you think about it, if all you wore was said silk, you'd still get a hole from a knife, it just wouldn't be as precise or as deep. The flexibility of the cloth would wrap around the knife and happily puncture the body. However, this stuff would make great hot air balloon material. And great gloves. – JBH Aug 24 '18 at 0:24
• "Indestructible" as in "absolutely impenetrable, after all the needle work is done and the enchantments are made"? Sure, just wear it instead of a chain mail, on top of that thick padding you wear under the chain mail. – Headcrab Aug 24 '18 at 0:50
• I always figured that the mithril behaved like a non-newtonian fluid: supple when handled with light touches and slow motions, hard as kevlar when exposed to sudden and/or hard stabs. – glaux Aug 24 '18 at 8:36
• A better use for the material might be to make a big and strong, yet lightweight and translucent shield with it. That would give near perfect protection agains arrows, without limiting mobility much. – leftaroundabout Aug 24 '18 at 13:30

Silk armor was used for this purpose by several real historical armies. It's not going to STOP the blow the way I think you're imagining, but it does a few very useful things. It cushions the blow quite a bit, and against piercing weapons the silk will bind up around the point. So, to your point, it DOES get forced into the person wearing it, but that's actually one of the key benefits.

In the case of arrows it makes them much easier to remove without causing further damage, AND by keeping a layer of material that has its own antibacterial properties between your innards and whatever you got stabbed with, it dramatically reduces the chances of infection.

So, if you want armor that will completely protect the wearer from getting slashed or stabbed, silk isn't going to do that. You need something very rigid and strong like plate armor for that.

BUT, if you want very lightweight, comfortable armor that doesn't slow you down, and makes it much more likely that you're going to SURVIVE being slashed or stabbed, silk will do that all day long and twice on Thors-day.

EDIT: I feel like I need to address a misconception I'm seeing in a number of responses, and emphasize the counterargument others have raised. If your indestructible silk has the same flexibility as real silk does, and you're wearing it loose, it will not prevent sharp force trauma. I have personal experience with this. It was denim in my case, not silk, but a sharp steel edge opened up a gash four inches across in my leg all the way down to the bone without actually cutting through the denim. You'd need to have padding underneath to prevent the silk from just forming an edge around the blade. Otherwise you still get wounded, it's just a very clean wound.

EDIT the Second: I didn't REALLY address indestructible silk versus the normal kind very well, so I'll elaborate a bit. Assuming that indestructible silk (like mithril) is rare and expensive, and if you have some you want to use it as effectively as possible, there are a couple ways you'd do it.

If you're a wealthy urban noble and you're worried about assassins and duels, then you can use it all by itself under more normal clothing, with all the pros and cons I noted above. You would ESPECIALLY want to make sure you've got matching GLOVES, because being able to protect your hands and arms from getting sliced during a rapier duel or knife fight is a HUGE advantage. The general wisdom in knife fighting is just accept that your arms and hands are going to get cut all to hell, and to keep your opponent from hitting anything vital until you can beat him, and hope you don't die of blood loss first. Rapiers are sharp, but don't have a lot of mass behind them so against a weapon like that, the silk will often cause what would be a deep stab into a glancing poke.

Now, if we're thinking about battlefield armor where you're expecting to get hit, and hit HARD, all day long, then you'd want the silk to be part of a gambeson or suchlike, with the silk layered over nice thick padding everywhere except the joints. If it were me, I might want a tough layer of leather over the top of that in certain places for things like fire, because silk doesn't really prevent heat transfer all that well.

All that would only slow you down about as much as a really heavy wool coat would (I used to have a Surplus Swedish Army Greatcoat I was very fond of), but would allow you to at least survive just about any human-scale armed strike I can think of, and would shrug off entirely anything that wasn't a direct hit.

• I was looking for an answer to provide the actual historical use of silk armor, and it was even used in bullet resistant vests for a while, but you seem to have forgotten part of OP's premise in your second to last paragraph. This was compared to magic armor or to mithril armor, and it was described as indestructible silk. So slashes are what you want your enemy to do. Slash all day long, all you're going to do is bruise the wearer. It is not going to cut in this fictitious case. – Loduwijk Aug 23 '18 at 19:47
• Also I noticed that you were one of few (only?) people who specifically responded to OP's point about getting the silk dragged into you. Agree that did happen, and in later bullet-proof vests it was also useful for getting the bullet out if it didn't rip through. You might want to draw more attention to that part of your answer. – Loduwijk Aug 23 '18 at 19:50
• @Aaron you'd think so, but no. A sharp edge can cut through skin and muscle without cutting through the fabric on top. I have vivid personal experience with this phenomena. I edited my post to include the details, but a loose silk shirt, even if indestructible, wouldn't necessarily keep you from getting cut or stabbed. It would just keep the wound really, really clean. – Morris The Cat Aug 24 '18 at 17:25
• Wow, this explained the pros and cons to me very well, and I had no idea regrading antibacterial benefits. That's actually super helpful to me. Having this silk as a under-layer or over-layer with more rigid armor seems to be the best means of turning this into practical armor, even if it turned out more wound-reduction than damage prevention. Plus silk and steel is a fantastic visual pairing. Reinforcement for Gambasion is also an excellent idea. Thank you all for your sage advice-s and Morris, sorry to hear about the leg. That's one a heck of a citation. – Pinion Minion Aug 24 '18 at 20:40
• @Pinion Minion It's cool, it was 35 years ago so nowadays It's just a good story. Glad I could help. Note that MOST of what I said doesn't even require 'indestructible' silk, Just the regular stuff will do. I added another edit to my answer to directly address what I think armor using 'indestructible' silk would be like. – Morris The Cat Aug 25 '18 at 18:14

Its going to be extremely practical, with advantages and downsides compared to solid armors. Although it depends on how flexible exactly it is how good/bad it might be, less flexibility can help divide the forces across a larger bodily surface area. There are solutions for this.

Against arrows its going to be useful, it wont be pleasant getting hit but it'll not be lethal until you get hit by dozens to hundreds as you are slowly pummeled to death. Gives you time to get out of the way or have a few words with whoever is doing it, preferably with a sharp object.

Against knives it's useful. The opponent wont be able to cut you directly and it'll basically be a punch. However, if the material is too flexible the edge of the knife will still concentrate this punch force and make for a more dangerous punch. Ultra flexible and the material might just envelop the knife's edge and be almost as sharp as the knife, cutting you anyway indirectly!. Dont make it too flexible!

A spear is similar to a knife but on a stick and easier to put more force behind the jab.

An axe is similar to knife as well, but with more weight and a different trajectory behind it.

If you have access to this the weight and freedom of movement are its key advantages, and being able to wear this on a long march and still have energy to fight is going to be useful. Any flexibility issues can be solved by using leather armors beneath to spread (and cushion) the forces of a blow to your armor. Potentially even something like a thick layer of something light and cushioning, like wool, could work as well.

Edit because of popular comment: this fabrics most important purpose would be as a top layer over padded material. Getting stabbed or similar while only wearing a thin silken indestructible vest is still going to be worse than a normal punch. Similar to plate armors this wont do much against maces, flails and other blunt force objects where only more and more padding will provide protection.

• On the flexibility issue - is it always flexible, or does it stiffen under high-impact, like ookbleck? – Chronocidal Aug 23 '18 at 17:59
• @Chronocidal that depends on the OP, I suspect that since he refers to the Mythril armor that there will be no non-newtonian fluids used and that it's always flexible. – Demigan Aug 23 '18 at 18:27
• Its worth emphasizing the last part. The application where this would really shine is over a layer of padding that would help spread the force from knives/swords/etc. Its worth noting that, even over reasonable padding, this would provide minimal protection from weapons like maces and warhammers that were never meant to penetrate the skin anyway. – TimothyAWiseman Aug 23 '18 at 19:36
• To the metion of oobleck (and other non-Newtonian fluids) In John Ringo's "There Will Be Dragons" (Fantastic but extremely campy, like most John Ringo) there is futuristic chain link armor that is supple until it is struck. When it is struck, the links temporarily fuse together, acting like rigid plate. – Adonalsium Aug 23 '18 at 20:28
• @UKMonkey Armour's first and foremost attribute is preventing penetration of sharp objects like swords, knives, Spears and axes. Scimitars for example were build not for forcing the blade in but having as much of the cutting blade pass by the armor, cutting the leather and person. An indestructible linen "skin" would be incredibly useful. After that skin you have to think about distributing the force, such as a light leather armor instead of steel which was primarily used for how well the material resisted cutting. – Demigan Aug 24 '18 at 10:19

When we talk about bulletproof vests, we have to keep in mind that, compared to being pierced by a projectile, anything which gives less damage is to be preferred.

Bulletproof vests work by:

• spreading the impact on a larger surface, thus giving, for the same force, a lower pressure
• spreading the momentum over a longer time, which following the relationship $m \times \delta v = F \times \delta t$, results again in a lower force

But still the inflicted damage is non zero. Blunt traumas can be a consequence, broken ribs too.

So, to answer your question, yes, it would be useful to lower the damage consequent to an attack, but it won't completely avoid any damage.

• Most cases where wearing a vest has saved someone's life have involved car accidents, not shootings. – ivanivan Aug 23 '18 at 20:04
• Also most Vests DO have plates (ceramic or so) in them to distribute the impact energy – Hobbamok Aug 24 '18 at 9:29
• @ivanivan - wut? – Mazura Aug 25 '18 at 0:41

This actually might work in a very limited way, but it needs rigidity added.

You could have this silk armor as a base layer, then add a chest plate, shoulder pads, helmet, and braces and have competent armor as all your vitals are now protected. All your laceration prone spots are protected by the silk. Add leggings if horse combat is required.

The rest of your body is largely bone and muscle, and can take a blunt force hit fairly easily comparatively speaking. The trade off for speed and flexibility might be worth the extra vulnerability.

• +1 for layering armor – BKlassen Aug 23 '18 at 19:37

It could work but not by itself.

It needs to be over some kind of ridged structure to keep it stretched tight.

The reason it won't work by itself is that it will deform and allow kinetic energy to be transferred to the body behind it.

Yes, you won't get cut but that doesn't help you if the blow from the axe shoves the silk shirt through your sternum and heart. The only good thing is that you can pull it out of the body, wash it off and then give it to someone else.

Also, silk is flammable. Does being indestructible stop that or does it leave the wearer in a burning shirt that they can't get off?

If your 'indestructible' silk armour is as thin and flexible as pyjamas then its biggest flaw is as you've already noted: it does little to protect against blunt force trauma. It's still really useful and practical for keeping out the point ends of axes and arrows but it does nothing to stop the wearer from being clubbed to death.

This silk armour would be much more effective when worn over a gambeson or thick furs. They'd provide exactly what your super silk lacks, padding to cushion against blunt force. When paired I think the combination would prove superior to plate mail, as it'd provide as much protection(actually more since plate does little against a mace or warhammer) while being much lighter, inhibiting mobility a lot less and also insulating against cold.

TL;DR: Frodo should've worn a gambeson as well

The reduction to blunt force damage will be related to the softness and thickness of the material. In the case of thin silk armor, probably not very much. This could be increased by wearing the armor loosely, making for a sort of air-barrier.

However, if the armor was tightly fitted to the person's skin, then the force required to pierce someone by forcing the silk into them will be the same as the force required to compress their entire body; it would be a significant help against arrows and knives.

• I was just thinking that. Ideally, you want a sort of silk corset armor. – Sneftel Aug 24 '18 at 8:09

Silk was generally worn the the undergarment for reasons noted above. It's worth noting though that Kevlar an carbon filament armour is usually part of a composite involving resin to provide stiffness.