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CHOOSING THE RIGHT TIPI - Choosing the Right Fabric
[Choosing the Right Style]   [Choosing the Right Size]   [Choosing the Right Fabric]

Choice of fabric is one of the most important choices you will make as you set specifications for your own personal lodge. The number one pick of fabric experts is marine treated, pre-shrunk army duck (a type of canvas).

The minimum recommended weight (gauge) for a tipi cover is 10.38 oz. (commonly referred to as 10 oz.) per square yard (10.10 oz. before being shrunk). With proper reinforcing and good workmanship, this quality fabric can provide you with a tipi cover that will last for years.

However, for a year-round dwelling or for rough use, you may prefer the 12.99 oz. (commonly referred to as 13 oz.) material (12.63 oz. before being shrunk) or our new 15oz acrylic coated cotton-poly duck. Our new 15oz acrylic fabric carries a 5-year manufactures limited warranty and is the preferred fabric for tipis that are left up all the time. In cold weather, these heavier fabrics provide slightly better insulation. Also, if the tipi is left up for a long period of time, heavier fabrics will wear longer where the fabric rubs against the poles. Intermittent, short term encampments provide a variety of contact points between the poles and the cover and reduce the effects of wear in any one place. More and more of our customers are choosing the heavier fabrics, , especially for tipis larger than 13.5 feet.

Since the majority of tipi purchasers are not acquainted with fabrics and can't tell the difference between good and bad fabric, we feel compelled to explain the characteristics of different fabrics that might be used in a tipi cover.

First, it is important to understand that we do not typically recommend vinyl's or synthetic materials for most tipi applications. With these fabrics, condensation is frequently a problem and some synthetics are extremely flammable. Also, even a fine-woven synthetic lacks the ability of cotton to expand, when wet, and plug off the openings between threads.

A few manufactures are now selling 18oz and 20oz wax or paraffin treated canvas for their covers. Wax coated cotton is very prone to fire (can you say candle?) and is not recommended for any shelter. In addition, covers made from fabrics heaver than 13oz are very heavy. An 18 foot tipi cover made from 20oz material is too heavy for most people to setup (over 80lbs with the lift pole). A 20 foot or larger tipi made from 20oz material is unmanageable! In addition, none of these wax treated canvases breath and are just as prone to condensation as a vinyl cover would be and can be very uncomfortable in hot weather.

There are some blends of cotton and polyester and some woven synthetics developed for boat covers that can be used for tipis. But they are more expensive, cannot be painted, and lack the organic feel of marine treated army duck. ("Duck" is a common term applied to a broad range of heavy, plain or flat woven fabrics made primarily for uses other than clothing. The name derives from a trade mark of a duck stenciled on heavyweight sail cloth which was imported to America from England and Scotland prior to the middle of the 19th Century. Also from the Dutch word, "Doek", meaning heavy, cotton cloth.) ['Quoted from Swirles Handbook of Basic Fabrics'.]

We feel that cotton duck is the ideal material for a tipi. Cotton fabric is porous, permitting it to breathe, thus minimizing condensation when different temperatures exist inside and out. When cotton threads get wet they swell. The fabric becomes tighter and stronger. If the openings between threads (interstices) are not too large, the swollen threads will close them off and prevent dripping or leaking. However, if the interstices are too large, the threads can't expand enough to block off the openings.

One disadvantage of pure cotton is its tendency to mildew in wet climates. Our new 15oz acrylic coated (Starfire) tipi fabric may be the answer for the customer faced with constant exposure to wet weather. In addition to being virtually impervious to mildew if properly cared for, this fabric comes with a comprehensive 5-year manufactures limited warranty.

Before army duck became widely available, most tents were made with single fill duck (ounce duck) which has rough threads and large openings. Hence, the oft mentioned expression, "Don't touch the tent when it is wet because it will leak". This is true with loosely woven canvas - when it is wet, the interstices are not closed off and only the surface tension of the water prevents dripping. If you touch it, the surface tension is broken and you have a drip (and if others are watching, you feel like one).

It is easy to detect canvas that is too loosely woven. Just hold it up to a bright light and look at the light through the fabric. If you can readily see the openings between the threads with the naked eye, do not use the material.

The threads in single fill ducks are not plied (strands twisted together). They are, therefore, "sized" to make them hold together through the weaving process. Sizing is a starch like substance which washes out of the fabric and increase the size of the openings between threads. If you detect sizing in a proposed fabric (it has a slightly stiff or hard feel), you would do well to avoid its use in a tipi. Some mineral treated army ducks may have a slightly stiff appearance because they are tightly woven but they do not contain sizing and are obviously suitable for tipis. The differences between army duck and single fill (ounce) duck are illustrated below:

The exceptionally tight weave of our army duck lends itself to a wide range of paining options. We can apply a leather-like antique wash to this fabric that enhances the beauty of any tipi considerably, giving it that aged look of a well used buffalo-hide tipi. In addition, unlimited custom paint schemes are available by calling us or viewing some of our paint sketches at http://www.reesetipis.com/paint/index.htm

Recently we introduced a new 15oz acrylic-coated flame-resistant cotton-poly fabric in a duck weave to our product line. The acrylic coating on the fabric does not wash off and is very resistant to mold, mildew and ultra-violet damage if properly cared for. It comes with a 5-year manufactures warranty and is great for some tipi applications. The flame retardant acrylic finish on this fabric is considered a "durable" finish and will not wash out. In addition, it is not susceptible to any secondary chemical reactions with environmental pollutants that can degrade the flame retardant finish or the structure of the fabric in any way. This fabric does not breathe - a tipi made from this fabric will maintain a higher interior temperature than a tipi made from cotton army duck and condensation will form in some climates. The average strength of this fabric is very close to our 13oz army duck. The added weight is in the acrylic coating and is not, on its own, an indication of the fabrics strength. The 15oz overall weight is still low enough that the overall tipi weight is still manageable. This is an exceptional fabric for some tipi uses but as with any fabric that does not breathe, forethought should be used before purchasing a tipi from this fabric (or any non-breathable fabric) to ensure it will meet you comfort needs. This said, we recommend this fabric for tipis that will be left up all the time and see a limited amount of interior living. Our acrylic coated tipi fabric is a very pleasant canvas color. Additional colors are available at a slight additional charge. Painting this fabric requires additional prep so additional charges will apply.

When we first started making tipis, we presumed that marine treated army ducks had an overall shrinkage of about 2% as alleged by the manufacturers. After years of making tipis and telling people that they could expect shrinkage of about 2% overall, we were astonished, to find that even this quality fabric can shrink as much as 3% down the bolt (the long way of the fabric) and that it stretches - as much as 2.5% across the bolt. This means that a new tipi, with a radius measurement of 19.5 feet could become six to seven inches shorter down the front and four to five inches longer down the back. This shrinking and stretching is not as pronounced in the heavier fabrics.

We became aware of this shrink/stretch phenomenon when we made a (not for sale) tipi from some sulfur treated drill that we had on hand. This fabric had shrinkage of about 12 inches down each side of the front (which was about what we expected (for that fabric) but stretched a whopping 11 inches down the back (5.6%). This made the tipi look like a Brand X design - like an up-side-down ice cream cone without the ice cream.

Since learning these normal characteristics of fabrics, we have developed a proprietary method to eliminate this problem in Reese Tipis. By modifying our patterns to adjust for this shrinking and the stretching, we can maintained the proper authentic Indian tipi shape.


Woven fabrics are not considered to be "waterproof" unless they are coated with an impervious material such as plastic or rubber. A "fireproof" material is one that will not burn. The fabrics we are considering are not "waterproof" and will burn if exposed directly to an open flame. Therefore we will use the terms "water-repellant" and "flame-resistant" to describe treatments available for fabrics.

Loosely woven fabrics (because of their large pores) can only be made water-repellant by using additive type (petroleum base) treatments. They are external (on the surface of the threads) and add to the weight of the finished goods. They rub off and have a tendency to collect dirt. They have a wax-like feel. They are normally used for tarps and are not considered desirable for tipis.

Tightly woven fabrics can be treated in a hot mineral bath which penetrates to the core of each thread and lasts the life of the fabric. This treatment also pre-shrinks the fabric which makes it possible to hold down the shrinkage to a minimum (not more than 3% down the bolt). Untreated or surface treated fabrics may shrink as much as 10%. This would shrink a 19.5 foot tipi about 23 inches down the front, reducing its actual size to 17 feet 7 inches. If you must use this type of fabric, you may want to wet it down good and let it shrink before you cut it and sew it together. If you do this, the fabric will be wrinkled unless you have it stretched out with some tension on it while it dries.

Marine treatments are done in a hot mineral bath with the addition of inhibitors against mold, mildew, and salt water deterioration. Marine treated fabrics are frequently identified with printing at intervals along one edge of the fabric with the words "Boat Shrunk" or "Marine Treated" or with trademark" such as"Vivatex®" or "Permasol®" or "Sunforger®". These treatments applied to an army weave duck will create a superb material for making a tipi. Because marine treated army duck is readily available from canvas supply houses today, it is no longer cost effective to treat your own fabric.

Some states require flame resistant treatment in fabrics used in tents and tipis which are made commercially. Unfortunately, flame resistant treatments have a tendency to soften the fabric and reduce its strength. They also accelerate deterioration when exposed to ultraviolet light - often reducing the life of a tipi by as much as 40%. They also add to the weight of the fabric and make it harder to keep clean. Marine treated army duck is available with the flame resistant treatment included. If you intend to make your own tipi the law may not apply to you. Be sure to check with your local officials (State Fire Marshall's office, etc.).

If local laws permit you to use non-flame-resistant resistant fabric, be certain to use only tightly woven fabrics. The absence of openings between threads, and thus available oxygen, reduces the fire hazard.

We conducted informal tests, comparing non-flame-resistant marine treated army duck to a single fill duck with an additive type flame resistant treatment. We found that the untreated Army Duck resisted combustion better than the treated loosely woven single fill duck. Naturally, when comparing products of the same quality, the flame resistant fabric resisted burning better than the untreated fabric.

If you plan on building a fire in your tipi, we often recommend a flame resistant liner with at least a 7 foot cut height to protect the cover from sparks. This combination retains the full fabric strength in the untreated cover where it is needed and adds density and height to the liner for better insulation which is greatly appreciated on cold winter days. If you intend to do extensive winter camping, we recommend that the tipi and liner be made with marine treated Army Duck with flame resistant additives (especially if you're using a wood or coal stove).

In summary, it is less expensive (in the long run) to use quality fabric in a lodge even if the initial cost is greater. We also gain the added benefits of better protection from the elements, greater safety, less shrinkage and longer tipi life.

[Choosing the Right Style] [Choosing the Right Size] [Choosing the Right Fabric]

© 2001 - Frank Reese - All Rights Reserved.