I sewed a tent

Posted by on April 1st, 2023  •  1 Comment  •  Full Article

Our Bibler tent got destroyed in our aborted Joshua Tree trip in February. I was outside watching it flexing in the 85 mph wind. As I watched, it blew off it’s stakes though I grabbed it before it could launch skyward. The holding ground in Josh is generally terrible. It’s unconsolidated coarse sand, usually sitting on top of rock slabs. I knew it was bad so I’d anchored to boulders, but they weren’t big enough.

Sue came over and helped hold it as I found bigger boulders. As soon as it was somewhat stable our friend Dianne, who was visiting, popped her hood and asked me to take a quick look at her engine. Sue said she was fine holding the tent for a couple minutes. I looked at Dianne’s car briefly. Meanwhile, Sue got bored and walked away from the Bibler. A violent gust picked it up and threw it skyward 20 feet and across into the next campsite where a waiting gotcha bush grabbed it securely, poking 10 new holes all over the tent.

I suppose it could be patched if I had the patience. But it leaks in heavy rain, both top and bottom. It’s really only good in wind, and I bought it used and abused 10 years ago from blind Paul.

I’ve had a tent project on my radar for over ten years. The shredded Bibler finally gave me a reason to sew one. I’ve been reading about Cuban Fiber – Dyneema tents, but word on the street is that they start to delaminate with excessive abrasion. And it happens far to quickly given the $1000 price tag.

We already have a light tarp tent for backpacking, so what is needed is a bulletproof car camping tent. Weight is not important. What is important is that it be hurricane proof. It’s got to be so strong that even if it does blow off it’s stakes that gotcha bush is the thing getting destroyed, not the tent.

The strongest fabric I’ve ever encountered is 40 Ounce PVC Vinyl Coated Polyester @ $26.95/ linear yard x 60″ wide. It’s the same fabric used on climbing haul bags. I have one that is 20 years old, and it would still work except I cannibalized the shoulder straps for another bag. So I bought 7 yards of that from Seattle Fabric and some budget aluminum 9.5mm poles on Amazon. Another good thing about the vinyl polyester is that you can glue it with HH-66 vinyl cement. I used that on the roof seam, though I backed it up with two rows of stitching. The HH-66 can also be used as seam sealant.

I got real fancy with radius times Pi, thinking that I could use half the circumference of a circle to create a tent with 4 inches of headroom. Turns out that poles don’t bend in a perfect arc and Pi (3.14) x R is useless. I sewed the roof to the floor 3 times before I got it right. The first two times, I had to rip out stitches or simply cut fabric off the floor or the roof. By the third time I had accurately figured out how to measure and cut a pole to match a roof arc.

The final height is this: I can sit in it just fine but my head is touching the top of the tent. Any higher and it’s a sail. Any lower and it’s uncomfortable to put on jackets and stuff. I wanted a minimalist hurricane proof shelter.

Note to self: Don’t cut all the poles at once, just do one and test inside the end of the tent. Anyway, I finally got the correct dimensions of the tent and all the poles cut and assembled. I erected the shell out in the yard and thought about how to make doors.

test run

Note that before I sewed the floor to the roof I had to sew on all the tie outs, pole guides and anchor point hardware. That was a learning curve all on it’s own. I didn’t start with the ring pins. I started with leather grommets…they bombed…don’t ask. Basically anything that had to be attached to the floor or the roof had to be done before connecting floor and roof. This fabric is so thick, bulky and heavy that it won’t fit in my machine once the top and bottom are sewn together.

The Doors

I agonized over the doors. Should they be Goretex, ripstop, vinyl, ultra waterproof nylon from JoAnns Fabric, or ultra strong coated cordura from Sailrite? In the end, I went with what I had on hand: cordura. I’ve made several backpacks from that fabric and know it to be uber strong. Plus, the coating is completely waterproof when it’s new. I would have gone up to Seattle Fabrics and wandered the aisles, but they are still closed (mail order only) from Covid.

To get the pattern for the door, I held cardboard up to the tent and traced. I made notes on the cardboard to add 1.5 inches of hem all the way around. And to insert a zipper 2 inches in from the seam, stopping 3 inches from the ground to get the bathtub floor effect.

door pattern
door pattern

Despite watching some youboob tutorials on curving zippers, I still got massive bubbles in my doors. I took some tucks to compensate, and may take more later if it flaps badly. I didn’t really trust the plastic zipper pulls despite their smooth action, so one door has plastic zippers and one has metal. I put windows in so it isn’t pitch dark inside. Even hung over dirtbags need to know when the sun comes up. The clear vinyl is left over from a rope bag project. It’s flexible, uber thick and has survived 5 years in my rope bag. As usual I can’t sew anything without bubbles (pooching). The windows are no exception.

Sewing the doors on was extremely hard. Imagine, if you will, that you are a taxidermist and you are sewing on the head of an elephant. Never mind my pooching problem, or that I suck at measuring circumferences on round things. I just had to make it work. Sue helped me wrestle the 40 pounds of stiff fabric around on the ping pong table. My machine was just off the end of the table…so I sort of had a workable sewing space.

When I got the first door on and a couple poles in I was totally shocked. It could have gone soooo much worse.

first door in
first door in

Oh, I forgot to mention: I just received my first binder attachment and it is the bomb! Hemming unfinished edges by hand has always been a monstrous headache involving arduous folding or binding tape and long sessions of frustration. Followed by a terrible looking finished product. My new Binder Attachment from Sailrite is simply flawless. You insert the one inch binder fabric and sew normally. A perfectly finished edge flows out of the machine. It’s rainbows and unicorns as far as you can see.

I also bought the Sailrite servo motor. My 13 year old Juki came with the standard clutch motor, which worked fine. But for 10 years now I’ve been hearing about these new servo motors. They are dead quiet until they need to move, and then they are capable of starting very slowly, a stitch at a time if need be. My old clutch motor was like a runaway horse. I had control…but it required constant vigilance. In the end I just wanted something easier, and the servo is great. Installation was about two hours max, including some tinkering with the pedal height.

binder attachment
binder attachment and round bound edge

I considered sewing in mosquito netting…but…did I mention I suck at zippers on circles? Instead I attached velcro strips to a door sized piece of netting, and the door. So that’s ready to go. The beauty of this design is that it is based on the legendary Early Winters Omnipotent. We had one with us when we did our winter ascent of the Gib route on Rainier. We cached it on top of Gibraltar Rock as an emergency shelter in case the weather socked in. On the summit the winds were so high we couldn’t even stand erect. As we raced down to the buried tent, we prayed we’d get there before the rising clouds shut off visibility. We hadn’t wanded the summit push, though we did wand Muir to Gibraltar. Winter climbing is so dangerous. They say Rainier in winter is as severe as the Himalaya’s.

Anyway, the zippers are protected by the scalloped tie out end pieces. I guessed at the arcs and have pooching, but who cares. I could either take in tucks, or use 3 stakes on each end…can’t decide.

It’s a window!
end view
end view
man of leisure
man of leisure

It got through a night of rain dry as a bone, except for a teaspoon of water that leaked in through an unfinished corner. The fabric is too bulky to sew through the corners. I’m going to have to sew them by hand. It’s only a quarter inch gap so should be easy.