Of course, when I dragged myself out of bed at 5:30 A.M. on Monday morning (June 22nd), I felt somewhat less enthused about the idea, with no one to blame but myself.
For the purposes of this project, we decided to make a common tent measuring 7' by 7' by 7', the standard set forth by the Continental Army in 1781 (you can find more details in John U. Rees's great article series here and here). We used fabric hand-woven in the weave room here at Colonial Williamsburg. At 42" wide, it matches George Washington's marquee linen width, but probably exceeds that of materials typically used in common tents. Rather than trim the fabric narrower and lose the clean hand-woven selvage typically incorporated in original tent seams, we chose to use the fabric at hand. This meant that instead of sewing two long body seams, as we'd done in our previous three tents, we only had to do one, something that should be kept in mind when considering the data below.
Showing the completed body seam.
Showing the completed back.
We began rolling out the fabric for cutting at 6:45 AM and put the final touches at the tent at 4:46 PM, just in time for a rather torrential but fortuitous downpour. Fortuitous, because it allowed us to prove, once and for all, that a hand-sewn linen tent does indeed shed water quite effectively. Inside our tent, it was certainly misty, but even without any post-weaving washing or stretching, our linen canvas proved remarkably water-resistant. As we've been telling visitors all summer, surface tension and natural fibers work magic in tents.
Our common tents, including (farthest away) our tent-in-a-day, baptized by a rainstorm.
As with any experimental archaeology, our results have imperfections. At various times during the day, we had folks out of the shop working elsewhere and setting up tents outside. Had all hands sewed all day, we would have completed our tent hours earlier. Another problem with our data lies in stitching speed. Although all of us in the shop hold ourselves to high standards, some work faster than others. This is true in any trade. As you'll notice in the figures below, it is possible to come up with an average sewing speed (all the times listed below are given in hours:minutes format for the total person hours in any given step). Given that we seamed and felled 822 inches of seams in 1480 minutes, our speed was just over 33" per hour (this is somewhat misleading; in any given hour, we'd actually be sewing a seam or felling it, and thus doing either of those steps at about 66" per hour). Interestingly, in both cases where I recorded seaming and felling times, they were about the same (Door to body: Seaming: 2:28, felling 2:27; Back to body: Seaming: 2:55, felling 2:42). However, you'll also notice that our speeds varied drastically, from 4:16 on a 15'10" seam to 4:40 on a 7' seam. Thus, our times should be read with care. Regardless of these details, we still felt a jubilant sense of accomplishment at having taken our raw material and, in the space of only ten hours, created a finished common tent. You can read more and see more images from the day on our facebook page.
Seaming and felling two body panels together (15'10" seam): 4:16
Seaming and felling extra strip to door one (7' seam): 2:35
Seaming and felling extra strip to door two (7' seam): 2:37
Hemming edge of door one (7' hem): 1:14
Hemming edge of doors two (7' hem): 1:15
Seaming and felling back pieces together (7' seam): 4:40
Seaming and felling body to back (15' 10" seam): 5:37
Seaming and felling doors to body (15' 10" seam): 4:55
Top corner reinforcements (two small panels felled to body): 0:59
Attaching reinforcing strips to base of body (29'4" feet, two edges felled): 6:01
Grommets (15 pairs and two singles): 4:59
Cutting, inserting, and knotting rope loops: 0:20
Attaching two pairs of hooks and eyes: 0:05
Grand Total Person Hours in Our Common Tent: 39:55
At work on the tent-in-a-day.
Besides proving that we could do it, what good does this sort of project do? First of all, it gives us raw data to answer all sorts of historical questions we have. How long did it take to make tents? How many people sewed tents in Williamsburg, given the output of tents from tailors' shops? How long did it take to sew Washington's tent, if we extrapolate from our times? How many people might have worked on that tent? We now have solid data, the first step in making educated conclusions.
At work on the common tent.
Our common tent the day after completion.
Update: For those interested, our tent weighs 13.5 pounds, just a bit more than the twelve pounds stated in a 1778 letter (John U. Rees cites it here in his discussion of tent transportation). Regarding construction, had we made a more typical three-panel tent out of narrower linen, we would have sewn another 15' 10" seam and two shorter seams to piece the back. This would have added at least seven work hours to the final tally.