On the Making of Your Own Pavilion

The following is an update of an article written by John for the SCA's Tournaments Illuminated quarterly (Issue 96). Although most of the information in it is still valid, it has been superceded by The Pavilion Book, in which every subject is covered in greater detail. Consider this article as a sort of overview, to get you acquainted with some (but scarcely all) of what you'll need to know before tackling a project of this magnitude.

It's been said that "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing" so consider yourself forewarned, and don't try to make a tent entirely with these guidelines. That's what the book is for. I'll leave this article on the website due to popular demand, and because there are must be zillion sites by now that have a link to it from their sites and I wouldn't want to disappoint anybody.

The pavilions we make and use in wars, tourneys, and demonstrations are more than simple shelters. Like their predecessors in medieval times, they identify their tenants through distinctive colors and patterns. And in these current Middle Ages, they also serve the function of concealing mundane tents from public view, thereby masking a little more of the twentieth century we are trying to escape. In their own right, they add to the authenticity and atmosphere of the encampment, imparting much of the magic we thrive on. But like everything else in our Society, what we get out of it depends on what we put into it.

 The first step in designing your pavilion, therefore, is research. Look for depictions of pavilions that pertain to your persona's country and century. I've always found it a little jarring to find a fourteenth century Italian noble occupying a tenth century Viking tent or a yurt, even if these designs are "period." Making a pavilion is such a lot of work that it seems a shame not to expend a little more time to make one to fit your persona.

 Look in your library for period representations of pavilions, or ask your local sciences officers. You're most likely to find good illustrations in books on medieval warfare.

 If your persona is European, eleventh century onward, you are safest with a round pavilion with a center pole or a square or rectangular pavilion with a ridge pole, somewhat in the conventional shape of a roofed house. These types are generally found throughout Europe with a few variations in shape or decoration. Round pavilions originally had rather upright walls and were stabilized with guy ropes, although by the twelfth century some pavilions had sidewalls of such a steep angle that the guy ropes were dispensed with. The disadvantage of this design was that the walls thus became part of the stabilizing structure and thus could not be rolled back, a fact which may explain why this design does not appear very common. Nonetheless, this style appears sporadically throughout Europe by the fifteenth century.

Round and oval (or oblong) pavilions predominate over rectangular styles. When I started making pavilions in many styles, I found out why: these shapes were far more stable in winds than rectangular styles. It's worth noting that when rectangular pavilions are shown in an encampment, they are often located in the center, with the more stable round and oval pavilions forming a windbreak around them.

 Although the lack of attention to scale and perspective in much medieval art make it hard to draw conclusions on their size, it seems safe to say that they were usually from ten to thirty feet in diameter, and were half again as high. (Very few of them, whatever their diameter, were less than twelve feet high.) Much larger ones were made as assembly halls, some resembling small modern circus tents.

 In an interesting variation of the familiar design scheme, the English royal encampment build for the tourney of the Field of the Cloth of Gold, in 1520, was designed as a series of oblong pavilions interconnected with passageways, in the manner of a railroad train, and flanked with smaller round pavilions. Round pavilions similarly interconnected can be found in the famous Hampton Court panorama of that event.

 Pavilion makers made use of whatever materials were available in their area; wool, hemp, and linen were probably the most common, with cotton being used in the Mediterranean, where its cost, while very high, was not prohibitive. Toward the end of the Middle Ages, silk became available, although it must not have made a very good fabric due to its fragility, cost, and poor resistance to sunlight. I have read, but cannot document, that leather was used on pavilions in the north. It's not surprising, since leather has often been used for tentage where textile fibers were scarce. Whatever material was used, it was often dyed, painted, embroidered, or all three. Valences were commonly painted, fringed, or embroidered with designs or inscriptions; less commonly, they were dagged or scalloped.

 One variation on the rectangular pavilion was the French military tent, also known as a wedge tent or bell tent. It was similar to the Viking tent, but the frame was simplified and entirely enclosed, the ends were rounded, and the door was commonly centered on the flat side of the tent. Like the Viking tent, from which it may have been descended, it seems to have been used for military encampments rather than tourneys.

 There are examples of alcoves built into pavilions as extra rooms, and pavilions joined together by passageways. In the late 14th Century, the illustrator of Froissart's Chronicles painted pavilions with small dormer windows in the canopy. There are no illustrations elsewhere of this feature, so this feature is not presumed to have survived the century if, in fact, they ever really existed at all. (I have a hunch that these tents may have been "faux" pavilions using a rigid frame covered with fabric, and never designed for transport.) If you're curious about making one like this, the Spring, 1997 issue of Tournaments Illuminated carries an article by Valerie Lilley, who built one.


Before you settle on a pavilion design, talk with a few people who have made their own. Most will be more than willing to bend your ear about them, including what they would have done differently the second time around. If there is a design you're particularly attracted to, ask to help them set it up and take it down. See how many people, and what effort it takes -- it may not suit your own particular tourneying style.

 Once you have researched the various types of pavilions and have decided what suits your persona and your shelter requirements, the next step is to design it in detail. If a round "arming" pavilion or Viking tent is your cup of mead, read the articles on these styles in the Known World Handbook. There are also descriptions of pavilions in the Compleat Anachronist booklet Pavilions of the Known World, in back issues of the Elf Hill Times, and in other local publications; plans are available from Medieval Miscellany. (The very best book I have seen on the subject is Building a Medieval-Style Pavilion, written by Christine Robertson and privately published in Australia.) Otherwise, you'll have design work to do. Here are some tips to get you started on the right track.

 First, plan on sloped sidewalls for stability in winds. Plan to cant the wall inward at least one foot for a seven-foot sidewall. More is better, although beyond a certain point, you are trading off interior space. Your canopy (roof) should have a pitch of no flatter than 1:4; that is, it should be at least one foot high for every four feet across. Again, more is better, particularly if your design calls for a minimum of framing to support the canopy; rain will cause the roof to sag and collect puddles in a tent without enough roof slope. If you expect to get snowed on, a pitch of 1:2 is probably the least you can get away with. Also, the higher the roof pitch, the less critical your waterproofing becomes. (You'll notice that period pavilions were tall, with pitches of around 1:1. Besides allowing a higher roof pitch, this design feature made it easier to keep the interior cool.)

 Your next step will be to build a model of your design, in a convenient scale (say, 1:10 or 1:12). Graph paper is handy for this. The purpose of this step is twofold: Your are going to determine the kind of panel layout you'll need for the width of the fabric you intend to use, and you will see how the design is going to fit together, thus avoiding unpleasant surprises when you begin work on the real thing. Remember to allow for seams and hems.

 The next step is to measure your model carefully, estimate how much material you'll need, and design the individual panels. You can also design the frame at this pint, although I recommend that you hold off actually building it until the fabric parts are finished. That's because it's easier to make the final adjustment on the frame than on the fabric parts.

 Incidentally, I use the term "fabric parts" in the plural, although you may wish to sew everything together. I like to make at least the walls and canopy separate, because with the relatively non-porous material I use, having a gap between the two pieces facilitates air circulation and keeps the interior cooler. It also makes the tent easier to store and carry.

 If the fabric is going to contribute to the structural strength of the pavilion, make sure that those parts of the fabric that actually take the load are up to the strain. This is done in three ways: using reinforcement at stress points, "roping" seams (either by running lengths of rope through the pocket formed by the seem, or by sewing webbing over the seam itself), and using a heavier canvas for those load-bearing panels. With really large tents, all three methods may be used.

 When laying out your panels, match selvage cuts together and bias cuts together. Mixing them up will cause uneven stretching and bagginess.

 If you are using a natural material, wash it first to pre-shrink it. This step may be skipped if you are using synthetic materials, but you may wish to test-wash swatches of natural/synthetic blends to see if shrinking occurs.

 While we're on the subject of materials, you must decide at this point whether you're going to paint it. Generally speaking, once a material is weatherproofed, it doesn't take paint well. So painting must take place before the weatherproofing. Also, as a rule, synthetic fabrics do not accept paint, although some silk-screen enamels work with some fabric. Awning fabrics with an acrylic finish will accept artist's acrylic paints. Synthetics also do not weatherproof well, and usually must be purchased already treated for that.

 One very important thin to test is flammability. Some synthetics burn with blinding speed, spitting molten plastic and noxious fumes. Natural materials burn somewhat more slowly and are therefore safer. The best material is stuff that is treated to inhibit flammability, but it is expensive, hard to find, and hard to paint on (except for the aforementioned acrylic-finished fabrics.) It usually cannot be weather-proofed, unless it is treated for that at the same time it is fire-treated. Most commercial tents (and all tents sold in California) are made with material that is made weatherproof and flame-retardant in one operation; the treatment lasts for the life of the fabric. Please remember that no fabric is truly fireproof ... all will burn, but fire-retardent material cannot support its own combustion and will extinguish itself when removed from the fire's source of heat. And that's something, anyway.

 Your cloth should ideally be six-ounce or more (that's the weight of a piece one yard square), although weights of as low as 3.5 can be used if you are careful with reinforcements. If you use a material lighter than six ounces, reinforce the hems with ribbon or webbing, and your tent till last twice as long.

 Avoid Nylon. Sure, it's pretty and colorful. But it's not very good material for large tents. First, it's very UV-transparent; you can get a sunburn from sitting in a nylon tent. (You'll notice that the better commercial Nylon tents use something else, like Dacron, for the roof of their tents.) Second, it's not very temperature-stable. It expands, and gets slack, when it's cold and contracts, and gets tight, when it's hot. Third, unless it's treated for fire-retardance, it burns like a torch. Burn a little sample of it and ask yourself if that's what you want dripping on you if the tent catches fire.

 One question I am inevitably asked in my lectures is "Where can I get fabric?" The answer varies so much from one part of the country to the other that I can give you only a few guidelines. First, look around for fabric discounters that buy "odd lots" from mills. These are either first-quality overruns or second-quality cloths with color of finish flaws. The one I use most is ITEX in Colorado (Phone 800-525-7058 or fax 303-338-1221). One drawback is that they sell only full rolls (usually, but not always, 80 yards or more), so you might want to join forces with another person and combine your orders. Their stock changes from month to month, so call them for a current list. Also, ask at your local awning shops or boat-cover makers if they have any excess cloth (left over from completed or cancelled jobs) that they'll sell you at cost.

 When buying material, buy at least 10% more than you need for the pavilion, to give you room for miscuts, etc. You can use the excess for storage bags, later repairs, etc. if you get lucky enough not to need it for the actual pavilion.

 Your finished cover should fit snugly on its frame, without sagging. Loose fabric will flutter and luff in winds, degrading the cloth by breaking down the weatherproofing and imparting shock loads to the fibers.


What follows is a list of principles, in no particular order, which apply to most pavilion projects, whatever their design sources.

First, I recommend that you use flat fell seams to seam the panels together. These are made by overlapping the edges, with the "outsides" of the panel (or the "right" side, for you sewpeople) against each other. The lower edge protrudes from the upper panel about 1/2" to 1". Then sew a line of stitching that same distance (or a little more) from the edge of the upper pane. The protursion is then folded to the stitch line, the panels folded back with the sewn edge folded so that the protrusion ends up inside the seam, and another line of stitching sewn to hold the flap down. This results in a strong, weathertight seam with all the cut edges concealed.

 Try to avoid seaming horizontally. If you can't avoid it (for instance, when attaching a valence to a canopy, arrange it so that the outside fold is lapped downward. When assembling the seam, put the lower panel on the bottom, wrong side down, and put the upper panel on top, wrong side up. It's the lower panel that provides the seam's protrusion. If you did it right, there will be only a single stitch line showing on the outside.

 Use thread that matches your fabric, both in weight and material. Different materials have different hardnesses; mismatching them will eventually result in either the thread sawing through the fabric or vice versa.

 Contrary to what you may have read elsewhere, synthetic fabrics will ravel, even when cut or sealed with a hot knife. This includes awning fabrics such as Holiday, Ultrafab, Pyrotone, Fyre-Coat, and Sunbrella, as well as most ripstop nylons. It does take a little longer, but it will eventually happen.

 At any point of strain, such as attachment points to the frame, lace-ups, stake anchorages, and the like, use plenty of reinforcements. These can be made of leather, webbing, heavier material, or many layers of material. For areas like the center-pole hole, I often use a combination of reinforcements.

 Anywhere you put a hole in the fabric, the hole must be reinforced with leather, a sewn ring, or a grommet. For load-bearing holes, I prefer "spur" grommets; these have teeth which help to hold the grommet in place and spread the load. Your local awning shop or sailmaker can set these for you.

 Use a strong sewing machine (an industrial model if possible, or an old metal-gear straight-stitch machine) with a strong needle. Use a waxed or lubricated thread if possible. Take it slow, hand-cranking the machine when going through thick stuff. If the thread resists going through the needle's eye or through many thicknesses of fabric and protests by looping on the underside, here's an old sailmaker's trick: take the top thread spool and spray it well with a silicon spray lubricant, let it sit, and spray it again. Then put it in a baggie and let it sit overnight. Repeat as necessary. (Or immerse the thread overnight in a coffee can with liquid silicon lubricant.) This trick works wonders with any tough sewing job, like capes or leatherwork.

 You'll probably have to do some hand stitching as well, with a thick needle and sewing palm.

 The hardest part of sewing the long seams is supporting the work. Try making extensions to your sewing table with saw horses and 4' x 8' plywood sheets. A smooth finish on the sheets helps immensely in sliding the material along; so does the use of an anti-static spray.

 Keep an extra supply of sewing machine needles on hand. I would guess that ninety percent of the problems you encounter while sewing heavy material can be solved by changing the needle, since old needles not only get dull and bend, but lose their temper through the heat generated by the sewing. When that happens, they flex erratically, and the hook either misses the top thread loop (resulting in broken thread and missed stitches) or the needle crashes into the hook and throat plate (resulting in shattered needles, machine repairs, or both.)

 And did I mention to wear safety glasses when you're sewing heavy stuff?

For stake loops, I recommend grommet-and-rope construction rather than sewn webbing loops. Take a short piece of rope, form a loop by tying the ends together, and slip the loop through a suitably sized grommet in the hem. If the rope gets damaged, it can be easily replaced, in the field if necessary.


There are a variety of preferences in frames. Some people want lightness and convenience, others go for truly period "reconstructions" in wood, and most of us fall somewhere in between. Given this diversity, I can do no more than give you a few general principles and hints:

 Be conservative and over-engineer! Allow for strong winds, rain, snow, or somebody blundering into a pole. Test the finished product by grabbing a pole and shaking like hell ... the structure should be solid.

 You can design poles with breakdowns, but make sure that the spliced areas are at least as strong as the rest of the pole. A good rule of thumb for a sleeve length is six times the diameter of the pole you're using.

 For lightweight (but definitely non-period) structures, consult your local hang gliding or ultralight shop for bent aircraft aluminum spars. These can be bought for their price in scrap and straightened, spliced, reinforced where necessary, painted (or covered with "wood-grain" vinyl -- use at least two layers), and otherwise modified for your use. Otherwise, look for pipeyards and for your local scrap pipe emporia.

 If you're using wood, it's sometimes cheaper (and for pieces longer than eight feet, usually necessary) to rip 2"x4" stock lengthwise for 2"x2"s. Round stock is usually more expensive, and a diameter of at least 1 5/8" is usually required for a strength equivalent to a 2"x 2."

 When using pipe and welded corner fittings, be sure that the fittings aren't so tight that even the slightest distortion of the end will cause the fitting to seize up. Many people make this mistake. They're the ones you see beating at the joints of their pavilion frame when setting up or striking camp. They know who they are.

 I recommend plastic tubing (PVC or plastic conduit) only for areas that define shape, not for members that take a load. In other words, if the pavilion won't stand if the member is removed, the member should not be plastic.

 As for tent pegs, few are better than a 3/8" diameter, twelve-inch nail (also called a "wire spike") with a large, thick 3/8" washer. (To keep the two pieces together, slip on a small section (one inch or so) of 3/8" i.d. vinyl tubing or the like.) The finished assembly is usually cheaper than any pegs you can buy, and will last forever. These pegs to get rusty, though, so store them in their own bag to avoid rust stains on your pavilion. By all means shun the aluminum and plastic varieties of tent peg; they will certainly fail you sooner or later. For the safety of your fellow campers, drive the pegs flush into the ground and flag your guy ropes with yellow or white fabric.

 Numbering or color-coding parts makes field assembly quicker and more accurate. The same goes for ropes and other small pieces. A better system, however, is to keep the ropes permanently connected to some part of the pavilion. That way, you don't need to figure out which rope goes where. I roll up my guy ropes into a loose bundle, like a lasso, and tie the bundle with a loose overhand knot to keep it organized. Ideally, you will have all the miscellaneous pieces sorted by type and stored in bags, so you can locate everything by sunset, including your hammer.

 Above all, practice setting up your pavilion before the tourney, in daylight and fair weather. Get good enough at it to be proficient when conditions become more adverse.


The gods reserve a special place for those wise souls who decide to modify existing tents rather than sew their own. But to avoid something really silly-looking, it helps to do your research and see how your tent can be disguised. Here's a short list of thins that I've seen done very effectively:

 Move the frame inside (you'll have to shorten some frame members and revise the sequence of set-up).

 Add a peak banner and valence, and disguise the original door and windows if necessary by hanging material in front of them.

 Dye it some color other than green or gray, and/or paint it. It's wise to check with the manufacturer if the treatment might compromise the ability of the fabric to retard burning or repel water.


Pavilions were often painted, most commonly along the seam lines (possibly to water-proof the seam). If you go this route, do the painting (or silk-screening) before waterproofing. Experiment on a sample piece to make sure the waterproofing doesn't destroy your design.

Once the fabric begins to age, it loses a lot of its water repellence. Most cotton ducks can be re-waterproofed using compounds avail commercially, but the only way I know of revitalizing synthetics is to spray on a product called "Camp Dry" (made by Kiwi and sold through Kmarts, among other places). It's a silicone-based repellent that works somewhat like "Scotch-guard" and should last about a year's worth of average tourneying.


I wish you well in the construction of your pavilion. May your seams be straight, your material weathertight, you frame sturdy, and your sewing machine hardy! Take your time and use the best material you can afford, and your tent will serve you well and last for years. The result will be both a serviceable shelter and an object of art that transports us all to the times we love.

 If you have any comments or questions about the foregoing, please use our Contact page.

See the Catalog

back to home page