Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Making Washington's Tent, Week II: Chambers and Common Tents

Our second week sewing in the tent shop at Colonial Williamsburg flew by as we worked on two different tents and talked with hundreds of visitors. Some even mentioned following us via the webcam from as far away as Los Angeles and St. Louis.

The tent shop, Colonial Williamsburg's Secretary's Office, bustling with activity.

We finished the ceiling and gable ends of the inner chamber (here's the original chamber; "gable end" refers to this part). Next week, we'll continue installing the "valance," a skirt of fabric (think curtain valances) extending below the ceiling portion and protecting the top of the walls.

Michael Ramsey sewing the inner chamber.

Several weeks ago, when our crew visited the original tent in the collection of the Museum of the American Revolution, we began sewing a "common tent" to practice the various stitches and construction techniques of the larger marquee on a smaller scale. At the moment, we're waiting for our English linen to arrive before we begin the marquee, the larger oval tent that will surround the inner chamber, so we returned to our unfinished common tent this week.

Neal Hurst and Michael Ramsey preparing to cut linen canvas for the common tent's "sod cloth," a protective flap around its base.

We're making this common tent from a heavy hemp canvas, one of the many materials used for tents in the 1770s. It's a pretty simple wedge shape: three long panels seamed together to form the sides, two flap doors on the front, and a "bell" or slightly rounded section on the back. You can read all about common and other tents in John Rees's article here. Hemp canvas offers a lot more resistance to our needles than the inner chamber's linen ticking, but we pushed through, and our common tent is now complete except for grommets. These are the worked holes through which rope pin (stake) loops will pass along the base, plus two larger ones for the iron pins holding the uprights to the ridge pole at the top of the tent.

Nicole Rudolph at work on the common tent.

As you can imagine, far more men slept under this sort of tent during the Revolution than ever saw the underside of a marquee. A common tent housed a "mess" of soldiers, a small group who shared food, tentage, and camp duties. The typical American mess usually comprised six soldiers, although in the British Army the number ranged from four to eight. You can read about American mess rationing here and about the British mess system here. This 1748 French illustration gives an idea of the cramped nature of common tent sleeping. Luckily for General Washington, rank had its privileges in the eighteenth century, including extra space and privacy. We'll be learning just how much space later this summer, when we erect the completed marquee and inner chamber here at Colonial Williamsburg.

Michael Ramsey, Brendan Menz, and Neal Hurst sewing in the tent shop.

As always, don't forget to check our facebook page for regular updates, and visit us in person or virtually.

Celebrating the completion of the inner chamber's ceiling.

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