DIY Historical Tarps

Summer means camping events and the main adversity in summer is heat and sun, which can quickly dehydrate you and cause serious health problems. As any redhead knows, in summer there are two skin colours; death white and lobster red. Besides lots of water, the key to avoiding sunburn, and sunstroke is massive amounts of sun screen, (which always gets forgotten) or shade (which can be in short supply on the field). This means getting out of the sun, and for most people that means a trip to Canadian tire for an oversized luggage sized sun shade, typically costing between $75 and $200. The wind likes to rip these sun shades into unrecyclable garbage, or carry them off to Oz. This sucks if you are in Oz and it lands on you.

Why not just be resourceful and improvise a shelter? A sun shade can be as simple as a suspended linen bed sheet which is a lot cheaper than that tangle of poles and nylon, and it packs a lot easier too. The improvised shelter can also keep the rain off if it is made from a thicker material like canvas, and suspended properly.

These lighter improvised solutions while correct to period are not the sort of thing you can just throw money at and be done with. They require you to have some knowledge, and require you to be able to memorize it, and create your own instruction manual, and adapt from site to site. You need to know a few knots, a little bit of camp craft, and be willing to be flexible. That is what the medieval people did, and last I checked; aren’t we trying to recreate the medieval experience?

Now if you are the kind of person that thinks A&S is for sucka’s and your garb is a 10 year old polyester t-tunic, and some value village cowboy boots, this article probably isn’t for you; however if you like to learn and are interested in history more so than fantasy, keep reading.

Historical Tarps

If you look at the majority of outdoor shelters in history, you will find that most of them were improvised. You may have a purpose built tent if you were the king, or a very important noble, which is why we see them in tournament illustrations and military scenes, but the vast majority of people used a tarp shelter, be they nobles, or merchant class. Soldiers and pilgrims often just had a woolen cloak to curl up in under the eve of a building, or under a tree. Tents became more prolific in later period, but relatively few people had a dedicated tent.


 Illuminations showing tarps are not the mainstay for the same reason there are a lot more Porsche 911’s and celebrities on the covers of modern magazines, than Ford Fiestas, and average Joes, but there are a few examples that exist. Also since a large enough tarp can be rigged so as to be indistinguishable from a tent, it is often difficult to tell what we are looking at sometimes.


 When illuminations are from the later period they are typically much easier to interpret. The field kitchen (above -1570) gives a great idea for a semi-permanent structure involving poles, and some easy engineering, but realistically, it is best avoided. If you need to bring a lumber truck to the SCA event you may as well come up with another plan, unless of course you can carry all that lumber on a trailer or something and do not mind the hassle.


 Other examples (above -1530) are not that useful either unless you can cut poles on site or bring them with you. Most of the artwork examples use poles however most event sites do not appreciate you chopping their down trees.


 Another period illustration (above) shows a simple tarp suspended by whatever was available close to hand, in this case rough cut poles. Some pictures do not show guy lines but they are almost always necessary. In a camp with fires going, a tarp or tent blowing into flame would pretty quickly lead to some chaos. Not to mention that hand loomed fabric is a bit on the expensive side which is why very few people can afford these tents, and tarps in the first place. It is a safe bet for tents, and some tarps, that when guy lines are not shown in illustrations, they are still used. Some configurations however do not need guy lines as the tarp itself is pegged to the ground and under tension. This works in calm weather but in prolonged wind it will eventually work one of the pegs out and collapse the shelter or worse, tear the fabric. I recommend guy lines and lots of them. No one wants to try to rig them after the fact in wind, or inclement weather.


 It must be admitted that simple tarp shelters offer less privacy than the more expensive tent, so if you are likely to have your boobs hanging out, (above) in all likelihood it will draw a bit of a crowd here in the 21st century as it seems to have done in the past. Also interesting is that the tarps seem to have staking loops purposely sewn onto them.

So at this point either you are thinking this could be a possible alternative to a $2500 canvas tent, or this could be a possible alternative to the $100 modern sun shade, or I don’t really like this article, I think I will go play some dumb game on facebook…

Well, if you want to keep reading you can learn to make yourself an extremely versatile tarp for between $50 and $150 depending on your wants and needs. If you are an experienced camper you will have no problem sleeping under a tarp but for now let’s just focus on that sun shade.

Making a period tarp – So now either you are thinking, I should have gone to play games on facebook long ago, or this is a simple sort of project, and maybe I should give it a try. Well if you are still reading let’s assume you are here for the long haul and may give this a try at some point.

Depending on how robust you need your tarp to be, and what you intend to use it for, you have some options on what to make it from. All have their ups and downs so it is up to you to decide how best to proceed. For a simple sun shade a linen sheet will do but for a hurricane proof tarp you may want to look at a heavy duty canvas tarp. For a middle of the road solution that can comfortably be carried on a hike, a painters tarp is a good weight of fabric for your tarp.

DIY Tarp -Making the Period tarp can be accomplished reasonably inexpensively, although it does take time. I needed mine to be able to shed rain fairly reliably So I went the middle path and bought a 9X12 cotton canvas painters tarp. It is a tight weave so paint does not leak through and it was under $50. To buy the same amount of 8oz canvas would be considerably more money, and while making your tarp out of many panels is technically more historically accurate, it is also considerably more time consuming and difficult.

Step one – Is to pick up your canvas painters tarp. They are not perfect and typically meant to be a disposable item. For this reason you will first want to hem the whole thing. While it is hemmed straight out of the package it is hemmed by the lowest bidder and at great speed. You will need the hems to be very strong or the tarp will fail.

My sewing machine is an old school Singer 414G made in Germany after the war. I think it is made from melted down Panzer Tanks because I can sew sheet metal with it. I have used it for half a lifetime now making canvas camping stuff. It will do 9 layers of canvas easily so long as the needle will take it. If you have a modern plastic princess machine be conservative about the layers you can get through without collateral machine damage, fires, and frustration. You may need to deviate from my design a bit.


Step two – More attachment points are better. That is my motto. I had some heavy canvas kicking around so made 4 corner loops, 4 top loops, and 12 side loops. All of them were sewn onto a 4×4 canvas square. A second equal sized square was added to make things extra tough. The loops along the edge are easy but the ones in the center of the canvas are a bit tricky. I recommend sewing them down with authority as they need to take a lot of strain in heavy wind. I like to sew a ‘W’ at stress points. W=Strong.



The pattern I use on tarps is definitely not shown in any medieval illustrations. All the black dots are an attachment point at the edge or on the top of the tarp. The reason I do this is because I do not want to cut down extra poles, and I do not have a wagon to stretch my tarp over. I need a bit of versatility, and the ability to rig it many ways. It is doubtful medieval people used top attachment points or if they did they likely used the pebble (see below) method, but more likely they used more poles; cut on site or transported.

A Note about Attachment points – There are really only two types of attachment points for tarps. Grommets are not historically period however some people use them and sew eyelets over them to hide them. I do not like them as they fail too often unless reinforced with leather. That leaves reinforced loops and the pebble method. Both are period, both work very well but I do prefer the loops. First they are almost always what you see in the illuminations and paintings, and second it makes the shelter less prone to leaking in the rain.

Pebble method – One of the oldest and easiest ways to make an attachment point to a tarp shelter cloth is with a pebble. You can use a marble or a bead if you do not like looking for pebbles. You simply roll it up in the corner or anywhere else on the fabric and tie a slip knot around it. You could also sew it in place with a heavy cord if it was to be permanent. This is also the best field repair idea I have seen for damaged tents and tarps.


Stake loop – By far the most common way of making a tarp or a tent is by using stake loops. There are a few ways to do it and all have their ups and downs. Some use a length of canvas folded to make a tight 4 layer thick loop and then run a short length of rope through this. Others that do not have heavy duty sewing machines buy lamp wicks and sew those onto the main canvas as stake loops. Other use leather. It does not matter how you solve this problem so long as you reinforce the area the stake loop is sewn onto very well.


Pegs – The most important part of any shelter is the pegs. It does not work well without them although in some cases rocks are your only option. The vast majority of pegs in history are hardwood although you could blacksmith them up with minimal skills and tools.

Rebar – Just forget about those tent pegs that look like bent coat hanger that come with modern tents. Just forget them… You can get rebar pegs with welded rings at Princess Auto, (below) and they will put up with any wind. There are not period but will hold down anything, and do it on budget. Plus they are in the ground and no one sees them. They are a bit heavy to carry so I do not recommend hiking with them but for the price they will not fail short of a hurricane.


Wood – Wooden pegs made from hardwood are split from stick of cordwood radially and carved to shape. This is a funny way of saying that the back of the peg should come from the part of the tree that had the bark on it. After carving the pegs, they need to be hardened on a fire. This involves roasting them like a marshmallow being careful they do not burst into flame, and then sanding them lightly. Wood pegs will last a long time if made right.


Iron – It’s good to be the king… you get to have iron tent pegs, and they last forever. Even a person that has never seen a forge can make these. You pick up a length of ½ inch burglar bar at the metal store, and heat it orange/yellow and make the bend in a vice or tap it over your anvil or a railroad track. To make the tip you heat it and draw it out with a hammer on all sides to a point. You could also grind it and do the bend cold. You can heat with a campfire or a propane torch if you do not have a forge. If you heat them orange and rub them with cow horn they also become rustproof.


Poles – Poles are easily improvised too and could be a walking stick, that rattan polearm that no one knows how to use, a found stick, a purposely cut pole, or a dedicated store bought pole.


Walking sticks – This shelter is rigged with a walking stick. The sides are guy lined out to the pegs and a tension supports the tarp. A hardwood one inch dowels will work for a pilgrims staff if you do not have access or knowledge of what hardwood to use, and the aforementioned rattan polearm that no one uses that always seems to be laying around can be stolen and pressed into service.


Trees – Trees make the best poles if you have access to them. This means a site that has them first off, second no one has already set up in that spot, and third they are spaced far enough apart for you to rig your sun shelter. In general you are not going to have all three at the same time but it does happen. Still be prepared for a backup plan even for sites you know well. It is advisable to be very flexible as sometimes trees get cut down by the land owner, or blow over due to high winds and insects boring through them.

Water Proofing UV treating, and fire retarding

Well now you have a sun shade, now it is time to protect it. If you only plan to use it for shelter against the sun you can likely get away with a spray on UV treatment like 303 Aerospace or Armorall UV. Both are available at Canadian Tire but I prefer 303 Aerospace as it is nontoxic and I have used it on all my gear for a long time. It is expensive but then so is your gear.


If you intend to use your canvas tarp at a site where there are campfires you will want to make it flame retardant. To do this you need to go to the grocery store or hardware store and get a box of Borax from the laundry isle. Believe it or not Borax is period dating back to the silk road and it has dozens of uses. One of them being if you dissolve a few cups of borax crystals in very hot water and soak your tarp in it, then hang it to dry, it becomes flame retardant. Really! Go look it up. This is the difference between a black dot and a burning tarp in some cases.


For water proofing if you need it there are a number of ways to do it. Do a google search on waterproofing canvas and you will get a multitude of options most of which are pretty costly or dangerous. If it involves wax, linseed oil, or Thompson’s waterseal you are creating a torch. Google Hartford circus fire 1944 if you disbelieve. Back then, wax was dissolved in white gas and brushed onto canvas to treat it.

My recommendation is to use Alum. Typically you can buy it in the pickling spice isle at the grocery store. Basically you wash your tarp in a bucket, big tote, etc. in laundry soap (Borax) and hang it to dry. Then dissolve the Alum in hot water and soak your tarp in that and hang it to dry. This has been the old school waterproofing trick for outdoor folks but it has been largely forgotten in an age of dependable modern fabrics.


You should do some research however. I cannot tell you how much of any particular product you are going to need. I do not know how big your tarp is and I do not know what it is made from. A good rule of thumb is to half fill the container your tarp fits into with hot water and dissolve your borax or alum in that until it will not dissolve any more.

Rigging your tarp – There are any number of ways to rig your tarp. The main thing is that the fabric is tight all the way around and is not loose and flapping in the wind. If it does this you are headed for structural failure of your shelter. While there are any number of ways to create sun shades and tents, here are a few photos of the Foresters tent rigged with a 9X12 tarp both with poles and a walking stick. Rigged with a walking stick the tarp can roll up and be tied around the stick or carried on the back.



This type of tarp is perfect for the medieval hike or pilgrimage, and scores highly at the SCA day event where you want to get out of the sun for a picnic, or to watch the field events. It is not the high end, royal persona equipment by any means, but for anyone that is a lesser noble or below it is absolutely perfect. Add to this it rolls up and packs smaller than any modern tent of its size (about the size of a blanket) and can be set up with a half a dozen pegs and a walking stick into dozens of configurations. How can you go wrong?