This is my experience in turning a bedsheet into a tarp tent for camping. I already have a pretty good camping kit, but it is composed of equipment that I have purchased. So I decided that my second kit would be made of equipment that I made. The tarp-tent is the first piece in this new kit.
- Flat bed sheet, king size (108″x102″), 60% cotton/40% polyester, qty 2
- Pillow case, regular size(? x ?), 60% cotton/40% polyester, qty 2
- Pickling Lime
- Lantern wicks, 3/4″ x 5-1/2″, qty 20
- Iron on patches, one package
- Thread, coat weight
- Coffee, generic
- Liquid fabric dye, green and dark brown
- Boiled Linseed Oil (BLO)
Tools and Equipment
- Needles (thimble would have been nice)
- 5 gallon bucket
- 1 gallon milk carton
- Coffee maker
- Washing Machine and dryer
The idea for this project came from a blog post by Survival Sherpa and a video by William Collins from youtube. Unfortunately, while I could find 400 count 100% cotton sheet sets, I couldn’t find individual flat sheets (and didn’t feel like going to another store for them). The best quality that came as individual sheets was a cotton/poly blend in 250 count. Necessity being the mother of invention, I decided to experiment to see if they would work. The polyester should make the material stronger and more durable, but only the cotton would shrink.
I bought two sheets and a set of pillow cases for several reasons. One sheet would work as tent while the other would work as either a ground cloth or hammock. The pillow cases would make good stuff bags for clothing and miscellaneous gear. And the bags that the sheets and pillow cases came in would make small stuff sacks.
While work on this project, I also re-purposed some bags that frozen tamales came in to make more stuff sacks. However, since I got them part way thru this project, they did not go thru the whole process. In addition, I am uncertain as to what their exact composition is. But experimentation is how we learn.
Step 1 – Prewash/Preshrink
Before anything else, I washed the sheets and pillow cases in hot water and ran thru the dryer on high. This serves two purposes. First, it removes any sizing or starch that the manufacturer might have put in the fabric. Removing this ensures better dye penetration later. Secondly, washing and drying on hot causes the material to shrink. If this was raw material I would expect it to have shrunk quite a bit, but since these have been finished into sheets, they are probably already preshrunk. However, it doesn’t hurt to try and reducing the pore size improves the water resistance.
Step 2 – Sewing
The next step was to add the tie-offs. I decided to use lantern wicks instead of grommets simply because of ease and expense. To reinforce the tarp where the tie-offs would go, I affixed 2″ by 3″ pieces of iron on patches to where the tie-offs where going to go. The tie-offs were folded in half and the ends sewn on by hand. In order to maximize utility, I put the tie-offs around the edges at the corners, one-quarter, halfway, and three-quarter points. I briefly debated putting an addition set of ties in the “field” of the tarp where these points would intersect. But laziness and a lack of a thimble ultimately prevailed. NOTE: the tie-offs were only applied to the sheet that was being made into a tarp. No modification of the other sheet or the pillow cases was made at this step.
Step 3 – Alum/Lime Wash
While the bedding was in the washer and dryer, I combined 4 tablespoons alum, 4 tablespoons lime, and 1 gallon of water (I think, I lost my notes for this step). This was left over night to allow as much as the alum/lime to dissolve as possible. The next day the bedding was put into the five gallon bucket with the alum/lime water and hot water was added to cover. I can’t remember exactly how long it was left to soak, but I suspect it was overnight. Finally the entire contents of the bucket was run thru the clothes washer with hot water but no soap. This was left damp for the next step.
This step actually serves two purposes. In the first, the alum (and probably lime) is acting as a mordant for the dye. Different source provide different reasons as to why this works, but I suspect that it is partially related to the second purpose of this step. That is to increase the waterproofing by further causing the fibers to swell up and close the pores in the fabric. This idea came from Nessmuck in “Camping and Woodcraft”. On a heavier weight fabric like canvas I suspect that it would be sufficient for waterproofing, but in this case it is just an additional benefit of the mordant.
Step 4 – Dyeing
I decided to use coffee as a natural brown dye. So while the bedding was in the alum/lime water, I brewed up an entire can of triple strong coffee. This coffee and the used coffee grounds were poured into several empty milk cartons and left to brew overnight. Once the bedding was out of the washer in the previous step, it went back into the bucket with coffee dye and was left overnight. The next day, the contents of the bucket went back into the washer with no soap, but this time on cold water. I was really nervous about the color at this point, but decide to finish the process with a trip thru the dryer on high to help set the dye.
The color was nowhere near as dark as I wanted. And a quick search on the internet showed why. The dye had been cold when it was added to the material and it should have been hot. In fact, I probably should have boiled the fabric in the coffee dye for best results. As luck would have it, i was able to find a bottle dark brown Rit dye and green Rit dye that my wife had bought for another project and never used. I am not going into how that dyeing was done as the Rit website does a better job than I ever could. Suffice it to say, I followed ALL of the directions EXACTLY.
Since the background color wasn’t too bad and I had the two different colors of dye, I decide to tie-dye the fabric to make hippie-flague. I figure the pseudo random pattern will help it to blend into the environment more. If you choose to do something similar, I again refer to the Rit website.
Step 5 – The Long Wait
Unfortunately, spring in Kansas is one of the few times that it rains on a frequent basis. So I waited for a window of three forecasted days without rain. And waited. And waited. And realized that it only rains in a drought when you really need it to be clear.
Step 6 – Waterproofing and Drying
Once the weather was clear, I combined 1 quart of BLO with 1 quart of turpentine in the five gallon bucket. And quickly realized that wasn’t as much as I thought when I put the first bedsheet in. The only way to get complete coverage was by wringing the bed sheet over and over again. This went up on the clothesline. But the pillow cases and other bedsheet would have to wait. In addition i was worried that the excessive wringing might adversely affect the quality of waterproofing. On the off-chance I would need to treat the first sheet again, I decide to wait until this first sheet was dry before doing the other items.
I also discovered that it will rain even when the weather man says it won’t. Hypothetically speaking, if you were to put the tarp in the bathroom to keep it from getting wet, the fumes might be REALLY overpowering. In such a situation, after the tarp is removed a lit candle might be useful to ensure domestic tranquility. Hypothetically speaking, of course.
Success! While I have not had a chance to put the tarp in use, I did devise a simple test to verify the quality of the waterproofing. This consisted in seeing if a small pouch would hold water. In addition, since I hadn’t treated the other bedsheet, I was able to compare the results to see the difference.
- Further research in the Boy Scout Handbook of 1915 indicates that the lime should probably have been quicklime. I will need to do research as to what the equivalent amount of pickling lime is.
- Further practice is needed with natural dyes. The lesson of boiling the material in dye was already learned. Being able to have a lot more variety of colors would also be nice.
- I need to take better notes and photos. In addition, I need to take a LOT more photos. What seemed like overkill at the time was woefully inadequate.
- The current waterproofing is ok for tents and equipment, but is too heavy for most clothing. I think the alum/lime soak would be the most that most clothing would receive. If further protection was required, I would use 1 part BLO and 2 parts turpentine.
- 1 quart of BLO and 1 quart turpentine was barely enough to waterproof a king sized sheet. I would have been better off buying larger containers of both. I wanted some waterproofing leftover to mix with beeswax to make a heavy-duty waterproofing. That will now have to wait for another day.