If you have canvas tents or are thinking of getting some, you need to know something about canvas care as well as looking after tents in general. Some site owners avoid tents because of the maintenance – one should remember that they are tents after all and you can’t just put them up and not think about them when the Weather Gods are playing or let them sit unheated through the winter. If you want something with lower maintenance, best go for something more solid like a hut but personally, I think the romance, beauty and simplicity of nomadic tents, such as tipis and yurts, is well worth the effort.
So canvas…first I would advise you NOT go for cheap canvas however tempting it seems. A lot of the imported Mongolian yurts are made from a heavy canvas which is made for the dry climate of Mongolia but doesn’t adapt well to damp European climates and the canvas will quickly leak. Our main work is making yurt covers, and have re-covered many a Mongolian yurt barely in its infancy.
The usual canvas used in the UK is 12oz FWR (flame, water and rot-proofed) poly/cotton, Before 2007 it was cotton that was more popular, but the rot-proofing agent used in the proofing was banned, so a new one was used which was actually water-soluble! It meant that there was a batch of bad canvas around that time and we heard horror stories of canvas rotting after a year. Although a new rot-proofing agent was developed, the industry had moved into poly/cotton as it is more rot-resistant and stronger, with 50% polyester content it’s really a game changer.
It’s hard to say how long canvas lasts as it depends on many factors, so we don’t offer any guarantee on its life, but if looked after, one can expect 5-7 years for a tent left up all year. One consideration in pitching your tents is the choice of location. If pitched under trees, the canvas gets dirty from falling leaves and the run-off from tree sap and this can contribute to it perishing. Trees to be extra careful of are pine and willow. Also, obviously, if pitched in the shade the canvas doesn’t dry out so quickly and generally in the UK, the damp is more damaging than UV (although this summer has challenged that trend!) In hotter climates, such as Southern Europe the UV exposure continent, damages the cotton element of the canvas so it is worth thinking about alternatives to poly/cotton (see below about acrylic canvas).
Next …general maintenance… we recommend reproofing the canvas once a year which can greatly increase its longevity. Before reproofing one should clean the canvas with a soft brush and warm water, no soap, no scrubbing, no pressure washing, but as long as you reproof the canvas well it should be OK. Remember that any cleaning will remove some of the proofing. (Obviously, white canvas shows the dirt and mould more than other colours, so many of our customers, when replacing yurt covers are choosing to replace white covers with darker colours, such as sand).
Reproofing is usually done with a paint-on solution when the tent goes up for the season – various products are available, but mostly only contain waterproofing and rotproofing agents. Recently the FWR proofing solution used by the manufacturers themselves has become available. (We can supply this at manufacturers cost). We have heard stories of tent covers being sent to professional cleaners, who have little experience of canvas and come back unproofed and sometimes perished although there are now companies who can clean and reproof for you.
Another consideration in canvas care is if the tents are left standing through the winter, they should be heated at least every few days, usually with a wood-burning stove (or open fire in a tipi) and, if the tents are not being used, they should be taken down when the canvas is bone dry and packed somewhere dry and rodent free. The summer before last we had a mice invasion on our site in Italy and we were surprised to discover that the mice chose to eat through the proofed canvas of the yurts rather than the wool blankets and mattresses inside. No accounting for taste. (Troubleshooting rodents and creepy-crawlies is for another chapter).
There is a common perception that cottons are more ‘natural’ than synthetic fabrics, but people forget that they are proofed with chemicals. Our customers are choosing to go for acrylic fabrics as an alternative to poly/cotton as, although much more expensive, it is a better investment longterm, it greatly outlasts the poly/cotton as it doesn’t rot and it’s also stronger. The acrylic proofing isn’t in a coating but in the thread itself, thus doesn’t need reproofing the same way. It is a woven fabric so looks almost identical to the poly/cotton, yet feels nicer to touch and stays clean and new looking for much longer.
We are Spirits Intent, expert makers of nomadic tents and specialists in the canvas side of things, call on us if you need any advice on canvas or need new covers for your structures.