What’s That Smell?

So last time, I started to write about fencing. Today, I’m going to expand upon that with the first of several discussions about equipment. This time, I’m going to cover the protective equipment. Your characters in a fantasy story may wear various types of armor, depending upon what weapons they are likely to face, their socioeconomic status, or their own strengths and training. However, if they’re doing anything related to modern sport fencing, I hope I can provide some useful information about the equipment – its idiosyncrasies, odor, and wear and tear.

While injuries can be incurred in fencing, most of the time they involve the joints and muscles. Minor scrapes and bruises are also very common. Stab wounds are not so common. But this is because there are strict rules about the gear that is worn and the durability of the weapons. While it is rare, sometimes fencers do get stabbed. I know several fencers that have had a blade go through their hands or into their arms. The most well-known death of a fencer in modern times was that of foilist Vladimir Smirnov in the 1982 World Championships. As a result, stronger safety rules for equipment were enforced.

This is one of my lamés. I had a blade go through the shoulder. The lame material is not intended to stop a blade, but this type is particularly thin and breathable. The red arrows are where the blade went in and out. I sewed the holes up so they are a bit tough to see. The green arrow is where the thin fabric is ripping at a point of stress.

The basic pieces of a fencing uniform are the jacket, plastron (underarm protector), chest protector (for women), knickers, mask, glove (one), shoes, and socks that overlap with the knickers. For electric scoring, there may also be a lamé, overglove, an electric mask, body cord, or mask cord. What nearly all of this equipment has in common is that it is made of fabric that will absorb sweat. I believe that most fencers do not wash their equipment after every practice. The wash instructions on my jacket specify that it should not go into the dryer. That just makes it extra annoying to have ready for the next practice. The conductive material on the electric mask, lamé, and overglove must maintain a minimum level of conductivity. At most tournaments, there is a “weapons check” area. The conductive pieces are examined to make sure that they will conduct enough electricity to register a touch. This fabric is a mesh of metal wires which can break with rough handling (like washing). Cleaning is restricted to a soak in water or a water-ammonia mixture. There are some masks that have removable padding which can be washed. But still – there is an odor of sweat that can be especially ripe when the equipment is bundled into a bag, thrown into the trunk of a car, and left there in warm weather. I keep my sweaty equipment in a separate bag. It gets hung up to dry and air out between practices. It does get washed once when the other laundry in the house gets washed. Also, if you leave your sweaty fencing whites in the same compartment of the same bag that contains the weapons, the blades will rust and the rust will leave long red-brown stains or splotches on the whites. It can look like blood. But if you’re a fencer, you’ll know that it’s just rust.

As far as the different weapons go, they all use different electric scoring equipment. The underlying whites are the same (jacket, plastron, +/- chest protector, knickers, shoes and socks). Epee is the simplest – no additional layers of equipment are added. Epee fencers only use a body cord that runs beneath the jacket. Foil fencers have a body cord and a lamé that covers the torso. Either a plain mask with no added conductive material OR an electric mask with a partially conductive bib are used in foil. Which mask rules are valid will depend on whether you are fencing domestically, internationally, or in a qualifying event for international competition.

My current sabre glove/overglove combination. The marks on the back of the hand are from weapons check.

Sabre fencers use a body cord, a lamé that covers the torso from the waist up (including both arms), an overglove, a fully conductive mask, and a mask cord. The purpose of the overglove makes more sense when you look at the order that the pieces are worn. The lamé is worn over the basic fencing whites and the glove is pulled on over the forearm of the lamé. By doing this, the glove blocks the conductive target area of the forearm. The overglove is a thin piece of lamé material that is pulled on over the glove. I prefer to use a glove that has the overglove built in.

Stamps on the back of my lamé.

The electric scoring equipment is marked with a tag or stamp after the weapons check. Many fencers will have a collection of stamps on the lower back of the lamé, the back of the hand on the overglove, and the side of the mask. At tournaments, the masks also must pass a punch test to evaluate the integrity of the metal mesh. If you ever doubt your mask’s strength, whether or not it passes the punch test, replace it. The attachment points for the bib at the sides of the mask can also weaken. If there is any chance that a blade can slide through this area, do not use that mask.

Stamps on the side of an older electric sabre mask. This is where much of the wear and tear happens on a mask.

Fencing equipment also contains a lot of velcro. However, the velcro wears out before the rest of the material, except for on my gloves. There is a small patch of velcro on the neck of the jacket and lamé, and on the waist of the knickers. I have also had zippers consistently break on the lamés and jackets. Sometimes the D-rings on the jackets and lamés rip off. Straps on the chest protectors, plastrons, or knickers lose their elasticity over the course of many years. My original chest protector had the longest lifespan of all my equipment, lasting about twelve years before I gave in and replaced it. The metal hooks (like a bra closure) rusted and all fell off. Sometimes children or men wear a flat chest protector (more common in epee).

This is the velcro at the collar on my jacket. It no longer sticks at all.

Additional wear points are the fingers and palm of the glove. I have worn holes in countless gloves. They can be temporarily repaired with duct tape, but you’re probably better off just buying a new one. Socks are socks. The toes and heels wear out. I’ve seen foil and epee fencers get holes in the shin portion of the socks from taking hits there. How your shoes wear is probably more of an individual thing based on whether you drag your hind foot when you lunge, the frequency of training, the surface of the gym or strips, and the shoes themselves.

This is the bottom edge of my lame. The tab has broken off of the zipper, so I have to pull it up with my fingertips. This has happened to me on three separate pieces of equipment of different brands.

You may have noticed that there is only one glove. The non-weapon hand is unprotected. It is supposed to remain by the hip or back, out of the typical area where attacks land. Most new fencers will instinctively bring this hand up when they are hit and it will get struck frequently. Even when it is held properly out of the way, it can be hit by a particularly fierce or wild attack.

I’m sure there are plenty of things that I haven’t covered here. Just remember, it’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye. Leave me any questions in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer them. Next time – weapons (with a necessary emphasis on sabre, since that’s what I know best).

8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Terri P
    May 28, 2012 @ 20:55:24

    Ah yes…the smell. The first thing we did was buy my daughter her own mask ahem…just for that reason.


  2. Holly I.
    May 28, 2012 @ 21:16:21

    This is a fun series. Could the reason I don’t see fencers as h/h in romances be that sportif “air” about them?

    I remember my brother’s jacket had buttons. Velcro has been one of those technology wrong turns.


  3. Phil Pursglove
    May 29, 2012 @ 10:54:37

    Two small points, and they’re both ‘two nations divided by a common language’ things.

    What’s called ‘dry’ fencing in the USA is called ‘steam’ fencing in the UK.
    Knickers in the US are called breeches in the UK – knickers are, well, ladies underwear (I suspect I’m not the only UK fencer that’s endlessly amused by this)


  4. S. A. Bolich
    May 29, 2012 @ 14:05:05

    Fun series, Clare, and very helpful. It’s been so long since I fenced I’ve forgotten all but the feel of the blade in my hand. I do remember the sweaty part, though… 🙂


  5. T.W. Fendley
    May 30, 2012 @ 08:38:13

    Having never fenced nor been in the presence of fencing, this was quite an eye-opener (and apparently, other senses would be involved in actuality). Interesting post!


  6. J. Kathleen Cheney
    May 30, 2012 @ 11:40:16

    We didn’t have enough saber masks at our salon, which meant we often shared. Nothing like putting on someone else’s sweaty mask. ::shudders::

    I broke my foot while fencing, rolling over my back foot (a ‘dancer’s fracture’). After that I spent $170 on assymetrical fencing shoes.


  7. Cindy Lynn Speer
    May 30, 2012 @ 12:38:42

    This is so much fun to read…I’m an SCA rapier fighter, so we have different rules sets. I like seeing how other fencers do things. 🙂 We also have a lot of loaner gear which I wash every week, but we also have leather gloves…and those can get purfumey. 🙁


    • Clare
      Jun 01, 2012 @ 12:00:51

      Ah, yes. Most clubs have some equipment for new fencers to use. This is usually limited to masks, jackets, gloves, and some weapons. But, because of the gross/sweat issues, these are the items that most fencers purchase for themselves first. Depending on the club and which weapon is used, sometimes practice or a lesson is done with only a jacket, mask, glove, and chest protector.

      Also, some other factors on the smell – the fencing season runs from September through the beginning of July. The gyms may or may not be air conditioned. If you’re on a college campus, there are often shower facilities nearby. Most of the private clubs that I have seen do not have showers. So my first priority when I get home is always a shower.

      Interesting to hear about the terminology elsewhere. That could lead to some humorous situations in a story!

      I have injured my back (left) ankle as well. Two surgeries later, it’s functional. But I need to use prescription orthotics to prevent pain from other issues in that foot. I’ll write more about injuries in an upcoming post.

      Thanks for all the comments, everyone!


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