Making my Own 3 Season Tent – Part 6: More Sewing and Refining

…it was just shit generally.”

This was the verdict on my first attempt at sewing a scaled-down version of the tent.

This weekend, with supplies on their way from North Carolina, I needed to make some progress on the “skills” side of the project. Anyone (?) who has been on the edge of their seat waiting for the next installment, will no doubt recall that my wife said that she’d have a go at making the same scale model – the obvious purpose of which being to further ram home my ineptitude in the needlecraft department.

So this weekend, we’ve been working on this – and I say “we” deliberately. Yes she’s been doing the sewing, and in conjunction with that I’ve been working on refining the approach to accurately scaling up the pattern, and indeed deciding what actual shapes to cut.

Her first attempt, whilst admirably neat, was dogged by repeated instances of attaching one of the panels the wrong way around, with the resulting bundle of cloth hurled across the room. But this did help underline that this game is about more than just sewing – decent planning and preparation are equally important to success.

This small setback then precipitated a discussion which has been brewing for a while, and which I have always known is coming. Indeed, I’d even prepared for it…

What is the best combination of shapes from the perspective of sewing it all together ?

Previously, fearful about the problem of joining together 8 pieces of fabric (or maybe 6 if I leave two of the smaller panels joined on each side) at a point at the top, I’d looked to try to avoid this and “simply” have a single piece of fabric for the top, that then joins with the lower panels a little way further down. In theory, and from a novice sewers perspective, this made some sense. But all it does really is move the problem elsewhere.

Already having doubts about the method, following my own first attempt where I couldn’t tell which seam was which at the top of the tent, I went back to the drawing board and considered alternative cutting out arrangements.

Yes, that is my old school maths set

Cutting out is constrained by the width of the fabric (147cm ish usable), and potentially further constrained by any requirement to align panels in particular ways to minimise bias stretch. In theory, though, if I place no limit on the number of seams, and have no budget constraint, I could buy as much material as needed to ensure things slot together optimally for the properties of the material. Even better, if I used the XL silpoly which is 177cm wide, I’d almost be able to make substantial sections of the tent from a single piece. But this was out of stock at RBTR and the offerings at other stores (mainly Dutchware) were in colours I didn’t fancy.

So the practical constraint is that panels can be any size up to about 140cm of fabric width, leaving the rest for seam allowance and small variations (there will be some!). I set about drawing these possible layouts – the aim being to simplify the sewing in terms of what joins to what and also the quantity of sewing itself. There were 3 main options that emerged, plus a further small variant on one of them:

Option 1: A single top piece

The original cutting plan. This approach resulted in firstly (my attempt) “an utter shambles”, and secondly (my wife’s attempt) the new sport of cloth-tossing. It’s great in terms of a simpler top, but ultimately just complicates the joining of the panels and creates more corners to sew around.

Option 1

Option 2: A top piece integrated with the side panels

This recognised that the fabric width would accommodate the side panels across-wise, meaning the panel could be as tall as I like – or in other words, I didn’t need to divide the panel into upper and lower sections. The shape wasn’t quite that I could have both side panels and the top as a single very long piece of fabric that goes all the way over the tent.

Although this looks like it reduces sewing and seams, it creates just as many corner issues as the first option. Plus it looks weird and may be a bit odd in terms of how forces are handled by the seams.

Option 3: Join it all at the top

Option 3 is the obvious one – stick to triangles – 1 per panel, and worry about the big join later. My wife’s suggestion was that we build the tent as two halves – the halves separated along the tent’s sole line of symmetry. We then “simply” incrementally sew each panel to the one before to create the half tent, repeat for the other side and then join two straight edges together.

Option 3a: Just a top piece for the rear panels

As the main option 3, but splitting the large rear panels horizontally. The only real reason for doing this is to enable the width of the fabric to accommodate the panel’s height. Here though, the first thing I’d sew is the top piece to the lower piece for those two rear panels, converting them into a single piece to all intents and purposes.

The decision as to whether to invoke this variant will be determined really by finding out how easy the fabric is to work with, and what in practice fits. The width of these two rear panels is 137cm before seam allowance, so very close to the upper limit. And if too tight, I will have to rotate and limit the height of the panels instead.

Getting this judgement wrong could exhaust my entire contingency allowance in the amount of fabric I bought, so I need to get it right really.

Back to Sewing

We settled on making a 1:125 scale (each side is 1/5 of the real size) version in polycotton. I cut out the pieces, and yes we did a lot more labelling this time so it was clear which way each piece went. Specifically which was the inside and outside!

My wife wanted to start at the front and work back, in contrast to my previous plan. The advantage of this is probably that it gets the most complex join done first, rather than leave it to the end when it would be constrained by any knock-on effect of mis-alignment from earlier.

The first challenge though was working out how to lay the fabric for the triple join where the side panel, beak and door all meet. This was largely a matter of thinking backwards through the seam method. Extra care was taken here given the bundle of rags lying in the corner of the room.

One decision we struggled with was whether to hem the open edge of the beak first or leave it until the end. In general, we’d expect to join everything together and then do one big hemming exercise for the bottom of the tent. Here with the beak coming to a fine point, it runs out of road to play with. The flip side is that where the two halves of beak join, we’d definitely want to hem that last.

We decided to hem at the end, but on reflection will hem future versions first, but leave the last couple of inches at the top undone so that can be neatened at the end.

Everything went together reasonably well after that for each “half” of the tent. But unifying it into a single tent was then the elephant in the room. My wife suggested that we do this seam differently and incorporate some grosgrain to add strength on the inside. This seemed like a decent idea, but we found that it became very difficult to align the ribbon and the seam edges to get a neat result. It was especially difficult dealing with the tuft of triangle apexes at the very top.

We probably won’t continue with this idea. But the alternative is a felled seam that is slightly off-centre. Whether that will matter when working at full size, we’ll work out along the way. It may be, of course, that the grosgrain seam thing will be easier and more effective at full scale. The larger prototype that I make next will use the flat felled seam – partly because of my (lack of) skill level, and also as a point of comparison.

Some discussion was had about how the top of the tent is reinforced – whether on the inside or outside, and in what manner. we concluded that although outside would neaten (ie hide) the join at the top, it would have to be done very well to look good. And would have to be done in real time on the actual tent. It’s probably better to keep it inside where aesthetics are less of an issue.

What we did find from the small scale model was that the join at the top creates a naturally flattened apex, which probably works fine if pitching with a handle-upwards trekking pole.

We ended up with something that at least fitted together, although Max the Bear thought it was some sort of sinister cloak.

Finally, the bottom was hemmed and we had a small scale prototype. This proved a few things:

  • The basic geometry of the design does work
  • The value of thinking it through up front, and allowing multiple iterations
  • The value of what is turning out to be a lengthy prototyping phase
  • Almost all of the sewing is going to be straight lines, which increases the chance of my success

Of course we haven’t yet looked at adding the reinforcements for the tieouts, but expect to incorporate that into the bottom-hemming process, by adding them before we roll the hems. I may have a go at trying that out when I have my turn next.

Tune in next time for the results of the next attempt, this time with yours truly back to doing the sewing.

2 thoughts on “Making my Own 3 Season Tent – Part 6: More Sewing and Refining

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