Mistress Arianna of Wynthrope talks period pavilions.
As spring approaches, in many Kingdoms Scadians’ thoughts naturally turn to…. Pennsic!
What, did you think we’d say “love?”
Anyway, as you start your Pennsic planning, many of you may be considering getting a period pavilion. Whether you’re getting your first medieval tent or upgrading to something bigger and grander, we have some advice for you.
What type of tent should I get?
Every type of period pavilion has its pluses and minuses. Do you want a tent for a family, or a couple, or are you single? Do you have a lot of stuff like armor and a wood frame bed, or do you plan to just unroll a sleeping bag or blow up an air mattress? Will you spend a lot of time in your tent, or is it just going to be used for sleeping? How big is your vehicle? Are you strong and able-bodied enough to carry poles and lots of canvas? Do you have plenty of friends to help you set your tent up? How much do aesthetics and time period matter to you?
Here’s an overview of some of the most common types of period pavilions you’ll find in the SCA and their pros and cons.
European Pavilions of the Middle Ages and Renaissance:
- Regent – square tent with a single center pole and typically four corner poles. The canvas is usually one piece for the roof and walls combined. Stability is provided by tension from external ropes on the corner poles. Some have vertical walls while others have slanted walls.
- Pros: Fairly easy to set up, not a lot of poles to transport, and relatively few tent stakes. You can stand upright in most of the interior since the side walls are pretty high. The center pole can be used to hang things like cloaks.
- Cons: Because it’s all one piece, the canvas can be heavy. Since there are only four corner poles and no side poles, the ropes need to be tightened regularly to prevent sagging and potential pooling of water on the roof. May not be big enough for a bed due to the center pole. Slanted wall Regents provide more floor space but less area in which to stand up compared to the footprint. Can be stuffy in hot weather since the door provides the only ventilation.
- Marquee – rectangular, square, or oval tent that typically involves two center poles supporting a central ridge pole plus numerous side poles. Some Marquees have a single center pole like a Regent but multiple side poles. The canvas is usually in multiple pieces: one for the roof and two to four (or more!) for the walls depending on the size of the tent. Walls are usually suspended via hooks from a rope system attached to the roof and supported by the side and corner poles. Stability is provided by tension from external ropes on the poles.
- Pros: Lots of interior space, great for families or merchants. Most of it is tall enough to stand upright in. Flexibility in how you arrange the interior, because it can be divided into multiple “rooms.” The center poles and ridge poles can be used to hang things like cloaks or chandeliers (though we strongly recommend against using flame inside a tent). Walls can be lowered to allow air flow on hot days, or set up to have an enclosed sleeping area plus a covered “front porch.”
- Cons: Lots of poles and canvas to transport. Typically requires multiple people to set up. Take a lot of space due to many external ropes, and the ropes need to be tightened regularly to prevent sagging. Requires a large number of heavy-duty tent stakes.
- Round, or Carousel – similar to a Marquee but round. Instead of side poles, the center pole usually has hub-and-spoke construction with poles radiating outward from a ring attached to the center pole about 6-1/2 to 7 feet up, placed in pockets in the canvas roof where it meets the wall, so the tent’s shape is maintained by the tension of the spoke poles. The canvas may be all one piece for the roof and walls combined, like a Regent, or have a separate roof and walls like a Marquee. Some have external ropes while others rely on staking the walls down to keep the canvas taut. Round pavilions are sometimes called “pavilinos” by Scadians as a result of a typo on a website many years ago. Some round pavilions have side poles instead of the hub-and-spoke, in which case they go up much like a Marquee.
- Pros: Really lovely, these are the archetypal medieval tent many people imagine when you say “pavilion.” Not a lot of wood to transport if using the hub-and-spoke design. The spoke poles can be used to hang clothing or curtains.
- Cons: The canvas can be heavy to carry if it’s all one piece. May not be big enough for a bed due to the center pole. Setting them up can be tricky, especially on sloped or uneven ground where they may sag and create pockets in the roof for water to pool. Those with no external ropes are especially prone to this. If they have ropes, the ropes may extend really far from the tent, taking up a lot of room in your encampment. Requires a large number of heavy-duty tent stakes, especially if it has no ropes.
- Wall – rectangular tent that has low side walls and higher ends, with tall end poles supporting an internal central ridge pole, and multiple shorter side wall poles or a sleeve with side ridge and end poles to hold each side up. The canvas is usually all one piece. Stability is provided by tension from external ropes on the side and end poles. This style has been used from the Romans onward throughout SCA period.
- Pros: Easy to set up, and most of the wood poles are short and therefore easy to transport. They are fairly forgiving of sloped terrain. The ropes on the side poles don’t extend very far out from the tent, making them compact. Lots of room to stand up inside since the slope of the roof is fairly shallow. Flexibility of furniture arrangement because there are no internal poles except at the entrances. Most have front and back entrances, so on hot days opening both doors can provide air flow. Great for a family.
- Cons: The canvas can be heavy since it’s all one piece. There’s a limit to how long the tent can be and still remain stable since the tension on the side poles from the ropes are what keeps it up and too long a ridge pole could sag in the center.
- French Double Bell Wedge – an elongated oval tent supported by two center poles and an internal ridge pole. The tent is all one piece of canvas in an “A-frame” shape with rounded ends. Stability is provided by staking the canvas to the ground. Some have a canopy over the front door that can be raised up on poles, providing a “front porch.”
- Pros: These are the other archetypal medieval pavilion, with an attractive appearance. Very few poles and a relatively small amount of canvas so they are easy to transport. Since there are no external ropes, the footprint is small compared to other types of tents. Very stable in bad weather. Good for a single person or couple. Sheds water well due to steeply slanted sides.
- Cons: The canvas can be heavy since it’s all one piece. Requires at least two people to set up since one person must hold the center poles upright until the walls have been staked down enough to provide the necessary tension. Requires a large number of heavy-duty tent stakes. Smaller ones may not have room for a bed due to the center poles. Inside you don’t get a lot of vertical space in which to stand up because of the steep slant of the walls, so the usable space vs. footprint is small. If it has a canopy, the canopy is only useful for sun; if left up in the rain it will allow water into the tent. Can be stuffy in hot weather since the door provides the only ventilation, though some have entrances on both sides.
Early Period Northern European/Norse Styles:
- Viking – A-frame tent with wide wood boards forming a triangle at each end as well as an internal ridge pole and side poles going through canvas sleeves connecting the two end triangles at the ground level. The end poles are exterior to the canvas and referred to as “barge boards.” No stakes or external ropes are required, though internal ropes running diagonally from the center top at each end to the bottom outer corner on the other end are recommended to prevent racking. Sheds water well due to the steeply slanted walls.
- Pros: Not much canvas to transport. Very stable no matter the weather or terrain due to the wood frame. Easy to reposition if it’s set up in the wrong place – one person on each corner can easily lift it and walk it to a new location. Fairly easy to set up, though it typically requires at least two people, preferably big, strong, tall ones because of the weight of the ridge pole and barge boards (end pieces). Good for a single person or couple. Opening the back and front entrances can increase air flow on hot days. Carving the ends of the barge boards into animal heads makes them look really cool. Sheds water well due to steeply slanted sides.
- Cons: LOTS of very heavy and long wood to transport. Not a lot of vertical space in which to stand up because of the steep slant of the walls, so the usable space vs. footprint is small.
Geteld, aka Norman or Saxon Wedge – a cross between a Viking tent and a French Double Bell Wedge, this is an A-frame with two end poles and a central ridge pole that runs through a sleeve, all internal to the canvas. Tension is maintained by staking the walls down. They can have flat ends like a Viking tent or a belled oval on one or both ends. A variant is the Bell-Backed Wedge, which has a bell at the back end and a flat front that can be used as an entrance.
- Pros: Not much wood or canvas to transport. One of the least expensive tents you can make or buy for its size. Easy to set up, though it typically requires at least two people, one to hold the uprights while the other stakes the walls down. Very stable in bad weather. Good for a single person or couple. Opening both entrances can increase air flow on hot days. Less expensive than some designs due to smaller amount of wood and canvas for its footprint. Sheds water well due to the steeply slanted walls.
- Cons: Not a lot of vertical space in which to stand up because of the steep slant of the walls, so the usable space vs. footprint is small. Requires a fair number of heavy-duty tent stakes.
Other Types of Tents:
- Yurt – a Mongol-style round tent with wood lattice sides and a hub-and-spoke roof support. The roof canvas is one piece and the walls are usually in one or two pieces, hung from the lattice wall frame with S-hooks. The door is usually a complete frame and wood door structure. Some people stake the roof canvas down at four corners, others run a rope around the outside of the canvas to secure the roof to the walls.The circular shape is maintained using strapping, called belly bands, which can be made of ropes or nylon straps, and is usually hidden inside the canvas walls..
- Pros: Lots of interior space with no central support poles so plenty of room to stand up and arrange furniture. Great for families. Very stable in bad weather. Tend to be cooler inside on hot days than other tents due to the high roof and vent hole options. Clothing and other objects can be hung from the lattice walls or roof poles.
- Cons: LOTS of wood to transport, especially with a full wood door and frame, although the lattice typically telescopes down to smaller flat pieces. Can be tricky to set up, requiring multiple people since one person must keep the central ring hub up until all of the spoke poles are in and the lattice must be adjusted to a circular shape as the roof poles are added. May not handle uneven terrain well. The lattice pieces are usually lightweight and prone to breakage, so you’ll need spares.
- Carport (aka Trojan Horse) – technically these aren’t period pavilions, but they offer the opportunity to look period while being more stable and easier to set up than most pavilions. Carport tents usually resemble a Regent or Marquee, but instead of wood poles, they use an internal framework of metal or PVC pipes to hold up the canvas. As a result, they don’t need ropes, though the roof and walls need to be attached to the pipes with ties. The canvas may be one piece for the roof and walls combined, or multiple pieces like a Marquee with the walls able to slide along the pipes on rings like a shower curtain, improving ventilation on hot days. You can save money by buying the roof from a retailer and making your own walls.
- Pros: Lots of interior space with no central support poles. Great for families. Very stable in bad weather. Fairly forgiving of uneven terrain.
- Cons: LOTS of pipes to transport, and the metal ones can be heavy. If you use PVC instead of metal, it needs to be big enough to not buckle in high winds. Can be time-consuming to set up. Not actually period, though if done well they can look convincing from the exterior.
- Fly / Canopy – these aren’t tents for sleeping in, but rather shelters you can place beside your main tent to provide shade and rain protection, especially at your tent entrance. Typically they consist of a roof with no walls. They come in numerous configurations, from a simple lean-to style to a full roof like you’d find on a Marquee or Regent. Sometimes stand-alone communal flies have a wall on one side to provide additional shade or privacy. Flies can be used to connect two tents, providing a sheltered “breezeway” between them. Stability is provided by ropes staking the poles to the ground.
- Pros: Usually don’t require a lot of canvas or poles.
- Cons: Not as stable as a tent, can turn into a sail in high winds. Usually require a fair number of ropes and stakes to maintain tension.
Should I buy a pavilion or make it myself?
I have built numerous pavilions. Making a tent is not for the faint of heart, but it can save you a lot of money. Most recently, I built the Geteld shown above for my son for about $450 including canvas, poles, and stakes. The same tent purchased from a retailer would have been about $800-1000.
That said, if you are not confident of your abilities, it may not be worth the risk. If your geometry and sewing skills aren’t up to the task, you could make some very expensive mistakes. There aren’t a lot of patterns available for making tents, and the ones you’ll find online are often vague and may not meet your requirements for size and width of canvas. You need lots of room to layout the canvas and cut it as well as sew it. You’ll also need a very heavy duty sewing machine. If you try to sew canvas tents on a regular sewing machine intended for making clothing, it might work, but it could cause major damage to your machine. Ask me how I know this….
And, of course, for most pavilions you also need the tools and skill to do some fairly simple woodworking like cutting and sanding poles, drilling holes for metal spikes, etc.
Building a Tent
If you are still undeterred, here are some basic things to know before building your own tent:
- Buy good quality canvas. Do not skimp here, or your tent will not last and will not provide the shelter you need. 10 oz Sunforger canvas, boat shrunk, waterproof, fire resistant, and mold resistant is the top of the line. It’s well worth it. I’ve gotten 18 years or more out of my Sunforger tents. It’s also lighter weight than regular canvas, so it’s not as heavy to carry. This canvas usually has to be ordered online; you won’t find it at JoAnn Fabrics. That said, some vendors offer “factory seconds” that have cosmetic defects but are still structurally sound, which can save you $2-3 per yard. Since even a relatively small tent like the geteld takes 25-35 yards, the difference can be significant.
- Make sure to buy at least a few yards more canvas than you think you need, to provide leeway for mistakes. Remember to factor in a sod cloth (a strip of canvas at the bottom of the walls that goes under the ground cloth to prevent water from entering the tent) when calculating your yardage.
- Remember “measure twice, cut once?” That goes quadruple for tents, because cutting wrong could cost you hundreds of dollars. If you haven’t made a tent before, I recommend making a doll-sized version in cheap fabric to verify that you have the shapes right, especially for complex designs like a Marquee, Regent, or Bell Wedge. Don’t forget about seam allowances.
- Use heavy-duty everything. Size 18 sewing machine needles, heavy duty pins (or you can use binder clips in place of pins). For tent stake loops, I make a strap out of a strip of canvas folded on itself, or you can use nylon strapping. If you need grommets, use large heavy duty camping ones from the hardware or sporting goods store, not the small ones intended for garments from fabric stores. Get long (18″) heavy duty metal tent stakes, not the short, cheap, plastic ones, or your tent will fall down in heavy rain as small stakes pull out of saturated ground.
- Check local stores but also look online for things like hardware (s-hooks for Marquees and Yurts, for instance). Online may be cheaper per item but if you need a lot of them, shipping can jack up the price when many small objects become one heavy package. On the other hand, if you need 50 s-hooks, you may run out all of your local hardware stores and be in limbo until they restock, so allow plenty of time.
- Use cotton-wrapped polyester thread. Polyester alone will cut through the threads of the canvas, and cotton alone isn’t strong enough. Also, the cotton wrapping swells when it gets wet, filling the needle holes and helping prevent leakage during rainstorms.
- Use flat-felled seams to connect canvas panels, for both strength and water resistance. If you don’t know how to sew a flat-felled seam, here’s a video tutorial.
- Apply seam sealer to the seams once the tent is done to help prevent water from seeping through the needle holes.
- Get help with sewing it. As you go along, adding more and more canvas, it becomes heavier and heavier and thus harder to control as it goes through the sewing machine. Set up a table on the outflow side of the sewing machine to help support the weight, and if possible, a table behind you to support the incoming canvas, which will flow over your shoulder. At least one other person to help support and guide the canvas is also helpful.
- Anywhere that tent poles under tension come in contact with canvas, reinforce the spot with either multiple layers of canvas or a piece of medium-weight leather.
- If your walls are supported internally by ropes, use polyester rather than cotton so they don’t stretch.
- Walls that are suspended from ropes should have S-hooks or swivel clip-hooks to make it easy to put them up and take them down. You don’t want to have to string D-rings on a rope.
- For tents that need external guy ropes, if you want a period rope, get manila/hemp or sisal. Use thick rope, at least 3/8″, with 1/2″ preferable on taller/larger tents. Anything smaller may snap. There is also an artificial rope called “Unmanila” that looks like manila but has 6 times the break strength, won’t mildew and rot if packed damp, and outlasts manila or sisal by years. Don’t get nylon rope, as it stretches.
Build wood sliders for any external guy ropes. If you use slip knots, you’ll have trouble tightening them when it rains and the rope swells.
- Splice the loops in your guy ropes instead of tying knots. If you don’t know how to splice rope, here’s a great video tutorial.
- Plan to finish the tent well ahead of Pennsic. You want opportunities to set it up in daylight and test it out over a weekend, where any major issues won’t threaten your fun for an entire week (or two!).
- If your tent has poles that go through grommets, get some gaskets to place on top of the pole spikes to prevent water from dripping through the grommets and down the poles during rain. You can also create decorative finials using small furniture legs purchased from a woodcrafting store to help hide the tops of the tent pole spikes and aid in keeping water out.
- Finish all wood pieces with polyurethane to prevent water damage, or use pressure-treated lumber. Make sure they are sanded smooth first so they don’t snag your canvas.
All of this said, your best bet is to do a lot of research, and if possible, get guidance and assistance from someone who has previously built a period pavilion. One great resource is the website of Mistress Mira Sherlock of the Kingdom of AnTir, which has links to over 100 articles and websites on building or buying tents.
Buying a New Tent
While you will pay more to buy a tent than to build one, you’ll know up front that you’re getting what you want and it will be professionally made. Reputable companies offer guarantees and provide accessories like tent stakes, poles, ropes, rope sliders, and other related items.
Mistress Mira Sherlock’s website also lists tent suppliers. I have personally dealt with Panther Primitives and highly recommend them, and have friends who have also been happy with Tentsmiths.
Some considerations when purchasing a new tent:
- Start by deciding on the style and size you want. If you have trouble figuring out what size you need, use a measuring tape to lay out the size you’re considering on your living room floor or front yard and then eyeball it. Make sure to measure any large items you want to put in the tent and verify that they will fit around any center poles. You will be very unhappy if you set up your brand new tent and discover that it’s 3″ too narrow for your nice rope bed. However, keep in mind that your allotment at Pennsic is 250 square feet per person, some of which needs to be used by your camp for common areas, campfires, and walkways, not to mention any exterior guy ropes.
- Comparison shop, but make sure to keep quality and reputation in mind as well as price. Ask your friends with period pavilions who they bought them from and what their experience was.
- Order early, because tents take a while to make. Even in less busy seasons it can take up to a month to receive your tent, and if you wait until mid-spring, you may end up on a long backlog list that prevents you from getting your tent in time for Pennsic. Ideally, you want to set your new tent up well before Pennsic so you can do a test run and learn both how to set it up and take it down, and also what arrangement of your gear works best.
- Have a conversation with the merchant before placing your final order, asking questions about anything you’re not sure of. They can advise you on whether the tent you want will meet your needs, and you can also double-check that you’ll be getting what you think you’re getting.
- Remember that you’ll need a ground cloth, ropes, and stakes for most tents. A lot of merchants offer these as “set up packages.” Yes, you can use a tarp in place of a ground cloth, but it’s noisy and uncomfortable and kind of ugly unless you cover it with rugs, which will jack up the cost of your tent further. Indoor/outdoor carpets alone can work as ground cloths. Some people use cotton painter’s cloths as ground cloths, and even paint them in decorative patterns with acrylic paint to enhance their waterproofing as well as appearance.
- Even if you’re buying the tent, it’s worth making your own poles. Poles are cheap and easy to make but expensive to purchase and ship.
- Consider picking up other accessories like shelves that can be affixed to the side poles on a Marquee or Regent, a tent-stake puller, and a canvas bag to store your ropes and/or stakes.
Buying a Used Tent
You will often find people selling period pavilions, whether because they are upgrading, downsizing, or just not interested in camping any more. As with all purchases of used equipment, be cautious.
- Inspect the tent while it’s set up, which will allow you to get a better view of the canvas and poles. Ask the current owner to explain or demonstrate how to erect the tent.
- Check the canvas for holes, patches, or discoloration. Make sure the sod cloth isn’t rotted (though if it is, it can be fairly easily replaced). Feel the canvas – if it seems brittle, then the tent is probably old and on its last legs. Be especially alert for pinholes in the roof, which can be hard to see but make a huge difference in how dry you stay in a storm.
- Inspect the poles for wear and make sure they are large enough for the weight of the canvas. Verify that none are warped or dried out and gray with age. If one pole is warped, you can tape it to other straight poles and it will eventually straighten out.
- Ask if the ground cloth, ropes, and stakes come with the tent. If so, check their condition, especially looking for rot in the ground cloth and ropes. If they don’t come with the tent, you’ll need to factor in the cost of buying those items separately.
- Educate yourself on the cost of the same tent purchased new. I can’t tell you what is a reasonable price for any given tent since it depends on type, size, age, and condition, but it should certainly be well below the price of the same tent new.
- If possible, buy from people you know or get references. Most Scadians are pretty honest, but it pays to be sure.
Caring for period pavilions
Congratulations on your new pavilion! Now, you want to take good care of it, right? It’s probably one of the biggest investments you’ve made, on a par with a high-end laptop computer or big screen TV. Here are some ways to ensure that your new tent lasts a long time.
- Do not pack canvas away wet. If you are forced to take your tent down in the rain at the end of an event, set it up in your yard or lay the canvas out on a driveway or dry grass on the next sunny day so it dries completely. Wet canvas quickly becomes moldy canvas.
- After taking your tent down, use a broom to sweep off grass, dirt, or dried mud.These can also cause mold or discoloration if left on the canvas too long.
- If your tent gets dirty, do not use any kind of soap to clean it. Doing so will destroy its waterproofing, mildew resistance, etc. Use plain water and a stiff bristle brush to get the worst of the dirt off, but you may need to be resigned to stains.
- Store the tent off the floor, and do not wrap it in plastic, which will retain moisture. Some people like to store their tents in rubber totes; I don’t recommend this for the same reason. Placing the folded canvas on an open shelf in a dry area is the best way to prevent mildew and mold.
- Do not store ropes in plastic, which can cause rot. Instead, store them in a canvas or other cloth bag, or just coil them and place them in an open bin.
- If possible, store tent poles lying on their sides. Standing them upright is likely to lead to warping.
Thanks to THLord Sheriff Viktor von Murdoch, Dame Aoife Finn, and Master Brion Donul Gilbert for advice on pavilions for this article. Also thanks to all of the kind gentles who provided photos of their beautiful pavilions.