The making of my Alachigh.
I hope this page will be a good resource for any budding felted tent makers, it lays out the problems and pitfalls awaiting the unwary. I would strongly suggest a smaller version, for both cost and time and energy and make it a group project where at all possible. Use the best quality fleece you can afford and have a picker, a large carder and a felting machine available if at all possible.
This alachigh took a year in the making, a year of learning and blood sweat & tears, literally. You know how it is, you see something and think hmmm that's nice, I bet it took some making. Then some time later you show a photo to a friend and they say, "you could make one of those" and the seed is planted.
That is roughly how this project started, I had helped my friend Martien Van Zuilen erect her yurt in 1999 and then helped with her Alachigh in 2001 both times in Tasmania and had been very taken with them, however had no plans to make my own.
Having taught a felting workshop at a local school, I became friendly with Tricia the art teacher and it was her suggestion that got me going. It took me a while to forget the pain of creation and realise that I had built something which I could be proud of and start to enjoy.
I knew from the experience of helping Martien and a series of photo's taken during the erection of her Alachigh what was needed to construct my Alachigh. I have to admit though that the practical feltmaking skills were on a scale I had not attempted before. I knew I would need a lot of wool, how much I wasn't sure. I knew I wouldn't be able to make the felt panels on my kitchen table, or indeed anywhere else in my house. I also was aware that the frame would have to be made by someone else if it was to be made well and stand up to some rigorous treatment being erected and dismantled regularly for display purposes.
I made some enquiries and found a local traditional boatyard willing to make the centre roundel and spokes, after discussions with Peter it was decided that the easiest way to get good and strong uniform bends was to laminate thin strips of British Columbian Pine. The roundel would be laminated from mahogany. I told Peter the length of the 24 spokes and the kind of bend I wanted on them and left him to it.
Meanwhile I started collecting fleece and managed to get permission from my local trout fishery where I am a member, to use one of their empty barns for making the felt.
I knew that I would need to make a pattern for the felt pieces so that once stitched together it would fit the shape of the curved spokes. I decided to make 24 panels plus two for over laps for the main body of the tent, then the same number again for the roof panel.
Doesn't this all sound so easy!
I started work in July 2001 and teased out raw mixed breed fleece by hand and piled it in rough layers on a reed mat, the panel measured approx 3.5 ft wide by 14ft long. With a taper to around 1ft at the top. Then I wet it and soaped it with wash up liquid, covered it with plastic and started flattening the fleece with my hands, kneeling on a piece of foam rubber. After about 2 hours and raging back ache I felt it was probably about time to roll the fleece in the mat and start rolling it. That was when I discovered just how heavy the whole thing was going to be. I could hardly move it let alone roll it and realised that I certainly couldn't lift it to take it outside as I had intended.
At that point I went and bought some bubble pack and started rubbing the felt with the bubbles face down, this started to work and I carried on like that for the next 4 or 5 hours. I had begun to realise what I had let myself in for! 2 days work later I thought the felt was firm enough to be able to fold it up and take home to rinse the soap out and see what I had. Not a lot as it turned out.
Much of the felt was not, there were holes scattered all over it and some parts had hardly felted at all. Design fault.
Quick re-think:- wool needs to be better quality, better prepared and made in smaller panels.
Out came my drum carder, I spent about 4 days drum carding blends of Merino, black welsh mountain and jacobs wools together, then I laid the batts out in layers again, but this time in panels around 6ft long. Then I started the felting process again, this worked better, though after 2 days I was still not too happy with the result for the amount of labour.
After a few months of less than satisfactory hard labour I contacted Wingham wool and asked if I could go up and hire their felting table for 3 days. I loaded the car up with 16 huge batts of layered wool and set off, I was almost there when the car started making a dreadful noise and I realised I had a flat tyre.
Guess where the spare wheel was? You guessed it, under a heavy steel plate under all of my carefully laid out very heavy fleece! And to cap it all I was on a slip road in the middle of Rotherham with a wind blowing. I struggled to get the wheel out holding the plate up with my head only to discover that it was a temporary wheel and I would only be able to use it long enough to find a garage who could repair or replace my flat. After a call to my home Saab garage to find out where all of the bits for the jack were hidden, as I could only find the jack and no handle I eventually got the car jacked up and the wheel nuts off. I had just removed the wheel when a nice young man offered to help, so I let him. The next problem was to find a garage that could supply the size of tyre I needed as the damaged one was past repair, I had run over some glass it turned out.
Eventually I got fixed up and headed out to Wingham. I checked in to my hotel first and then went to see Ruth, found out how to use the table and got started. I knew that the table only took 4' x 3' panels but had hoped that part way through I could move the felt and join in the next section, this proved not possible. The weight of the wet felt hanging down was not allowing the join to be made well enough to felt properly.
Having completed only a few panels I went back to my hotel to have some food, a think and revise my plans.
I decided that I would have to change my entire plans for the felt making and would even change the overall colour of the tent.
The next day I carried on felting the smaller panels of felt on the table until they were holding together well enough to wash and hang out to dry, I would use these small felts to make the top narrow sections of the panels.
Whilst at Wingham I purchased a large quantity of mill end carded Cheviot wool, some white Merino and some mixed carded grey wool. This would form the main part of the body of the tent. I had decided that I would prefer a white tent with a decorative border.
I carded the merino and cheviot together and laid it out on top of a thinner layer of the grey carded wool and started the felting process again. Gradually the pile of finished felt was growing, but I still had to harden off the coloured felts, for this I enlisted the help of our trusty 1953 Landrover and made a rolling harness from some pieces of mdf. I then attached these to the ends of a long pole which was rolled inside the reed mat with the felt sandwiched between and all tied up with some strong rope. I then took the whole lot to a nearby trading estate one Sunday, wet the whole lot and spent the afternoon trundling up and down the road dragging the roll behind. In fact I did this on quite a few Sundays, sometimes with the long suffering help of my partner Simon and sometimes on my own.
By Christmas when we went to Yorkshire to see my family I had 5 full panels ready to stitch up. I was using hand spun yarn and a curved upholstery needle, the stitching to my surprise was quite easy though very bulky. I decided to use a chain stitch as it is quite a strong stitch that is less inclined to pucker than others.
After Christmas I set to in earnest and spent some part of every day either carding or feltmaking and found that I could make a half sized panel in a day. By February I had enough panels stitched together to make a test erection, the frame had long since been completed and stored away. So when there was a fine day I loaded what I had into the car and took it all to the fishery where I managed to persuade some of the regulars to give me a hand. I had, in between felting, made some long braids out of strips of upholstery fabric to be used to lace the spokes together for stability so I was hoping I had made them long enough to do the job. They were, at last something had gone according to plan! I had also made enough hand felted rope to attach to the top of each of the three sections of felt. These were flung over the top of the tent and used to haul the felts up to the centre roundel and then tied down on the opposite side to pegs hammered into the ground. All went well until it became obvious that the felts were not going to reach round even without an overlap, I calculated I would need another 6 as well as the roof felts which I had not even started yet. And also I had a whole heap of black felt and madder coloured felt to make for the decorative border.
I really went for it after that and ordered more cheviot wool and white and coloured merino for the decoration. This was becoming a very very expensive project. Not only that but the physical effort was beginning to take its toll, I was much fitter generally than when I had started but I was finding the strain on the heels of my hands and my knees was really giving me trouble. So I changed technique and after laying out the fleece I sprayed the whole lot and rolled it in bamboo screen and rolled it under my feet. This gave me hip ache but at least my hands and knees weren't so sore.
At long last I had completed the main panels and most of the roof section, the black and madder felts too were finished and so I started cutting out the decorative bits. This was a motif taken from a design on old Persian carpets which I then appliquéd using chain stitch and hand spun teal coloured merino, onto the black felt. This 62ft long panel has 24 motifs on it and is attached to the base felt after the tent is erected.
To finish off the edge of the roof section I felted over 200 ft of rope and made a four rope plait, which was stitched to the bottom edge.
The Alachigh had been booked to make its "Grand Erection" at a prestigious art exhibition in May and the local paper had been contacted. In April I got a phone call asking if the paper could take a photo for an article, so I agreed that if the weather was fine I would put it up in it's slightly unfinished state as I wanted to make sure I had done enough of everything anyway.
I soon discovered that there were another three panels needed for the roof section and about six more black panels. But other than that it went up and together really well.
End in sight!!!!!?
The Grand Erection.
On the afternoon of 12th May I loaded all of the components of the tent into the car and set off for Artspace 2002. I was going to meet my friend Annette and her mum at the show and my daughter Rebecca was going to help too.
First of all I screwed the centre spike into the ground and attached a piece of rope 10 ft long to it, this was the radius of the tent, I then drew a circle on the ground with a squeezy bottle full of flour. Next, as I was the tallest, I held up the centre ring and the others pushed the ends of the spokes into the holes in the ring, working at opposite sides until there were enough spokes to hold the whole thing up. The next step was to lace the bands around the spokes and peg down the ends, this holds the spokes in position. Once tightened and adjusted for equal distance we dug small depressions in the ground for the spokes to rest in and even up the structure to take account of the slight slope. Once happy with this I then tied the centre ring down to the centre spike. This is done really tightly so that the downward pressure pushes the spokes outward against the bands.
Next we placed the back panel on the frame and tied off the ropes followed by the side panels which overlapped the back one at each side.
The next part was the roof section, as this is in one section it is very heavy and the edge plait weights the whole thing down, it took us a while to get it in position but looked just right when it was up.
Next came the decorative panel which had not been finished or fitted before, I pinned it on initially and then went round sewing buttons onto the main body of the felt so that I could fasten the panel round. It looked good, but I wasn't convinced the button attachment was going to be a great idea at the end of the day.
To finish off I then threw two more bands across the top to hold this section down and anchored them to big pegs at front and back.
At last it was finished, and it looked lovely sitting in the middle of a green field with a glorious view of the valley behind it.
I had decided to leave it up at the show for at least a week to give it a good trial and see how it would cope with the vagaries of the British weather. On the Monday it had a true baptism of rain. It rained solidly all night and the wind blew, I didn't get much sleep, and was convinced the whole thing would be a mess of broken wood and sodden wool in the middle of the field. I got to the site about an hour after the rain had finally stopped and was so pleased to see that my Alachigh had braved the weather and was still where I had left it. The only thing that had happened was that the prevailing wind had pushed one side of it slightly wonky. This was easily rectified by straightening the spokes inside and adjusting the ropes and the centre spike, basically it was trying to find more level ground. The felt itself though it had undoubtedly been thoroughly soaked had virtually dried out, only the bottom where it rested on the grass was still damp. I was so pleased, I should have known the nomads could design something to withstand a bit of wind.
The Alachigh stayed up until the 23rd of May and survived some appallingly wet and windy weather, The weather forecast for the following few days was even worse so I decided to take it down and save myself the daily trips to check it.
All in all I would say the making of this Alachigh has been a great learning experience, not necessarily one I want to repeat, but the comments of the visitors who have been to see it were worth the problems. I still have to make a waterproof cover for it as I don't want to have to carry wet felt around in the car if I can avoid it, and I will make a few extra panels for repairs as they are needed.
The Alachigh has been to a few more exhibitions since it's first outing, the game fair in 2004 was very good as it was a boiling hot weekend and my tent was the coolest place on the whole site, all of the plastic tents were too hot to bear with all of the people milling through them, but the Alachigh stayed at a constant cool temperature all day, and then as the evening came on, it maintained it's comfort level until well into the night.
I have made a canvas cover for it as well now so that it can stay outside in the wetter climate of Scotland.