Listed here are various things I've learned the hard way about tentmaking that I have not seen listed other places (i.e. Medieval Pavilion Resources, Baroness Mira's site).
Canvas is not the place to cut corners.
If you are trying to work within a budget and looking for ways to cut costs, do NOT cut costs where the canvas is concerned.
The first tent I made, a Viking A-frame, used canvas painters' tarps from the hardware store. They were cheap and plenty large enough, and I thought them ideal until the first time it rained. The weave of the fabric was not tight enough to hold the water seal, so no matter how much I applied, in a heavy storm the inside of the tent was like a huge humidifier; it misted. The fabric was easy to rip also. Postnote: The canvas did not work because the weave was not tight enough. Use a tightly woven canvas! Water seal is unneccessary. It makes the canvas heavy, weakens the fibers, and can discolor it. Also destroys natural water resistance of the canvas: once you use it, you have to keep using it. Also limits breatheablility of the canvas.
Stitching the canvas:
If you're using a regular home machine, be gentle. Use size 118 needles and lots of them. If a needle gets bent, toss it. Don't try to keep using it and don't try to bend it back. When you come to a seam with multiple layers that is difficult for the foot to go over, WALK the needle over it. Do NOT try to gear it through. If you come to a particularly high mound of layers that will not fit under the foot, you can use a hammer or mallet to flatten the fabric, but beware: this will damage the fabric and cause it to weaken, making it easy to tear. If you must use this method do so sparingly and wisely.
If you are attatching individual dagges, stitch them first to the top of the wall, don't try to piece everything one dagge at a time. It's much easier this way. Also tack the dagges together, otherwise you'll have breezes come along and have some dagges on the roof while others hang nicely down. And if you have colored canvas, the sun will give your tent tan lines if the dagges are not hanging where they should be. A better way to go, as I've come to conclude, is a conjoined strip. (example picture here). Postnote: If you are using Sunforger or other sun-resistant fabric, you should not have a problem with tan lines.
Initially the floor dimensions were 10'x10'.
Having never made a tent before I thought it would be huge. After all, ten feet is a lot! Especially when you're used to a one-bedroom apartment. So I was a bit dissapointed the first time the tent was set up in my parent's backyard. Postnote: The black & tan pavilion was 12' diameter and had much more space because of the tent design; walls were splayed & had much more head room. An A-frame tent really only allows head room in the center. The most recent pavilion, white with blue dormers, is 14' diameter.
Never build a tent that you need help to set up if you're single and expect to travel to events alone.
Bad things happen, like being pregnant and not having anyone help put it up for waterproofing or to take it down after Pennsic. Postnote: Never say never. Someone is usually around to help, but it's a good idea to be self-sufficient. The times that I couldn't find anyone to help were in non-SCA environments.
Don't use a 4x4 for a ridgepole.
The canvas isn't that heavy. At Oatlands Celtic festival, I rushed to take down the tent about an hour before the festival was over when a big storm blew through. The tent collapsed under heavy winds and the ridgepole landed on my shoulder. Ouch. I should have left it up until after the storm was over--it would have saved a lot of pain and it probably wouldn't have collapsed. After Pennsic, the wooden tent frame was sacrificed to the fire gods to make way for tent #2: the geteld.
I finally learned the lesson about canvas weave.
Fortunately converting then tent to a geteld didn't really involve much altering to the pattern, just the frame. Postnote: it was not actually a geteld; it was still an a-frame wedge tent. A geteld actually has a sleeve sewn into peak for the ridge pole.
I wanted a larger tent so I bought 60"wide canvas at WalMart, split the tent in half and stitched in the new strip.
The first rain with the Viking A-frame made me think I just needed to add more waterseal. After proofing I discovered (whilst at Pennsic of course) that the tent was dry in the middle with the new (and tightly woven) canvas but still misted on the ends. Nothing like being in an all-period encampment where you have to hang your big blue tarp on the inside of the tent to keep dry. The black & tan pavilion was made entirely out of WalMart canvas. It doesn't leak.
As for applying the water seal,
the first application was done with a paint brush. The second was done with sponge brushes. On the next, the canvas was spread out on my parent's driveway and a sponge brush was used to splatter it on. This stained the driveway and mom & dad were not happy. Mom got even by accidently putting a tire track on part of the tent. I invested about $10 in a garden sprayer. Wow, could have saved an awful lot of money if I'd done this sooner! The application is way more even, and it doesnt' take as much seal which means it dries more quickly, you can put on more layers thus making the seal more effective. The current pavilion has nearly 3 times the canvas as the original geteld/viking, and uses half the amount of water seal.
Note that when you build a pavilion with untreated canvas that you'll need to apply water seal more than once during the life of the tent. So far it seems that the best time to do this is after exposure to heavy downpours like when you get home from Pennsic or Gulf Wars. Postnote: Again, Water seal is unneccessary and not something I recommend. It makes the canvas heavy, weakens the fibers, and can discolor the tent. Water seal also destroys natural water resistance of the canvas and limits the breatheablility of the canvas.
I hate to throw anything away. Especially when it was hard to come by at the time I purchased it.
The canvas of the geteld was split up and washed: make sure you clean the residue out of the washing machine immediately, while it's still wet. An old towel works best, with a little Formula 409 or other cleaning solution. Don't let it dry or you'll never get it out, it's like glue!
The WalMart strip was made into a sleeve for the air mattress, so as to prevent splinters & such from penetrating. Postnote: The air matress-cover turned out to be more trouble than it was worth--but only because of the air mattress. I use a futon now--it doesn't freeze me in winter, and it doesn't lose air when I sleep on it.
The rest was used to make a miniature middle-eastern style four-sided tent into which my bright yellow earth pimple (dome tent) could hide.
When the earth pimple first came into my possesion, it was not waterproof. I learned that water seal on nylon is a once & for life thing: you never have to re-treat it. This is good.
I am currently undergoing a project in which the miniature tent has been dismantled and washed. Perhaps shrinking the fabric in the wash (always prewash your fabric no matter what you're making) would help hold the water seal. We'll find out. Postnote: it didn't make a difference, although washing out the old did make it cleaner. That was about it. Water seal works great on nylon. Keep it away from canvas.
Colored canvas: tiebacks and drawbacks
The black & tan pavilion (picture here) is based on a combination of patterns, the Dormered Armoring Pavilion pattern from Froissart's Chronicles and the Single Pole Pavilion pattern by Master Dafydd ap Gwystl. I love this design--the way it handles, goes up & down, etc.
It's made with khaki and black canvas. Problems arose when it was set up in the back yard for about a week. Now one side is black and tan and the other side is brown and tan. I am thankful that the black has not run onto the khaki, it seems fairly colorfast but not sun-resistant. The fabric was purchased from Wal Mart & prewashed this time.
Windows are cool. They let you see out, they provide ventilation, and they look cool. Doesn't mean they're period though. Postnote: Actually they are, I have seen a couple of examples of extant middle eastern tents with silk mesh windows that have roll-down covers.
Black & tan pavilion: First stake at the windows (which observe-no pun intended- the 10' rule), I did not allow enough overlap of the window cover (hung from the top, to be rolled up or snapped & tied down). I got wet.
Next time, stitched a strip of canvas around the window 6" wide. Solved that problem. Then I got creative, which is not always a good thing.
I wanted to open & shut the windows from the inside, so I stitched strips of black broadcloth to the inside of the window covers, into which could slide removeable dowel rods. I then stitched parallel cords and voilla--Roman windows. This was nice for a short while. I didn't feel comfortable with the strain put on the canvas, pulling the cords through the grommets to open the window from the inside. It wasn't quite as easy as planned to let the windows down. Then it rained.
Seven o'clock in the morning I awoke to driving rain and high winds. I did NOT want to go outside to snap the windows shut. The dowels gave the window covers rigidity and they became like a sail. They blew and blew (I really should have gone out to secure them) and guess what happens to wet canvas that gets pulled on?
Once home, the dowels came out, the strips & cords came off and the window covers were readjusted to accomodate the stretching they'd endured. I stitched them down on the sides, split & overlapped the center, added velcro & ties, and I haven't gotten wet yet.
The nylon pavilion that I made as a shower tent/sun shade also has windows, but those zip from the inside. Instead of the flexible vinyl screen used in the canvas tent (that I now have to repair every time I put up the tent), I used No-seeum netting, used in mundane tents. It preserves the integrity of the structure and still allows for ventilation. I haven't had any problems with the new netting, and it's infinitely easier to zip up the window from the inside!
The original purpose for having the window cover on the outside was to comply with a 10-foot rule. I have decided to forego this in the next tent, since the clover pattern seems to work well with the windows in the nylon tent. I think it adds to the design, an alternative to trim & painting, etc. Go here for pictures of the nylon tent.
The accident at Gulf Wars, 2000
At Gulf Wars this past year I had a bit of an accident with the black & tan pavilion. I made the mistake of camping with a non-SCA, less-than-tolerable partner. (I can't stand people who think they know everything when you know they don't!) He decided that the walls of the tent were not taught enough, so decided to hoist up the center pole a bit. The ring stitched into the peak of the tent separated, the fabric ripped, and the tent slid right down about a foot, caught on a pair of large eye bolts used for pulling cords which would open and shut the dormer windows (which never worked, figure that out later).
To prevent this from happening again, I have redesigned the top of the center pole and repaired the apex of the canvas (fortunately I had thought to double-layer that part and stitched in a new, welded ring. So far since, it's been fine.
The inverted cone on the pole insures that should the fabric rip, there's an obstacle that can evenly distribute the weight. Consider that at the top of that pole sits the weight of the entire tent. That's a lot of weight. Use a welded ring.
4/3/2003 A few years have gone by since this article was written, and I'm currently building a new pavilion. This time I have invested in Sunforger canvas, pretreated at the factory. I have purchased it from Hamilton Dry Goods, a very nice company to do business with. The sunforger is a little more difficult to sew through, but as with the untreated canvas it simply requires patience and a lot of needles (they dull quickly). I am also making smaller windows using the noseeum netting, with window covers that zip shut from the inside.
Hopefully you'll read all of this before you make your first tent. Make a point also of reading the tips on building various pavilion types listed with Medieval Pavilion Resources, as well as articles written by others who have experimented and lived to tell and write about it. It will save you a lot of headaches, time and money. Good luck!
Postnotes added 5/15/07