Making a waistcoat from a vintage army tent

Sewing is not something I’m doing all the time, it’s a passion that can flail up, burn strong and then go back into dormancy. Really I’m more about the ideas than actually the actual cutting, assembling and sewing. Not to say I don’t enjoy it, there is a huge amount of satisfaction in seeing a project through from idea to completion, hence why I’ll make the occasional waistcoat. Inspiration is a fickle friend though and I’ve found it wise to act while it’s there, or else you’re left with piles of barely started or half-finished projects. Projects that at some point seemed vitally important, but now sit there as a testament to a failed initiative.

Inspiration can come from odd places though, like when I found a vintage Norwegian army tent at a thrift sale. Army tents have been re-purposed before, as in the case of the Monitaly parka, but looking at this fairly sizeable piece of green fabric, with all the buttons and buttonholes, did get me thinking. It’s an odd design to start with, being lozenge-shaped with a hole in the middle. Very much a dual-purpose and clever piece of engineering, as you can wear it as a poncho, use it as a tent, or if you have a number of homies with their own pieces, button it together and make a multi-person tent. And handily the instructions for this are printed on the tent fabric.

A vintage and well-used Norwegian army modular tent. Ready for re-purposing and pacifist duty, Sir!

A vintage and well-used Norwegian army modular tent. Ready for re-purposing and pacifist duty, Sir!

My initial idea was to make a parka, from a Japanese pattern book. I got a fair way down this avenue until I lost interest. Using Google Translate to translate the Japanese text proved somewhat baffling, and trying to work out which pattern pieces belonged to the jacket was far from easy (for efficiency they print several overlapping patterns on a single sheet of paper). So I reeled in that idea and went with my old theme song, the waistcoat. You’ll no doubt be choking on your Cheddar right now, muttering “Hi’s last project was also a waistcoat!” and you’re right. That was made from a pair of vintage army field pants though, so in every arguable respect totally different. You will agree that trousers and tents share few common features, right?

I’m a big fan of Maharishi’s “Pacifist Military Design” theme. Maharishi makes lots of stuff I can’t understand, but repurposing army gear for pacifism rings true to me. Now I could have just made a simple waistcoat that might actually look like an army issued waistcoat, so it needed some extra features to demilitarise it. Hence full lapel and collar, and four functional double-welted pockets. If you’re wondering which pattern I’ve used, it’s one I’ve been working on for my own use, with bits copied from here and there. The advantage of this is that I know how it goes together and I know it’ll pretty much fit. Hence all the various bits have been transferred to old sheets to make the cutting of parts quick and efficient. Those flimsy pieces of paper are a nightmare to mess around with.

What’s the tent fabric like, you ask? Well, probably thinner and lighter than you might think. To my mind similar to heavyweight Ventile and other tightly woven cotton fabrics. Definitely heavier than nylon tents, and by a fair stretch. It’s still pliable though and it has a nice, soft handle. Really, not a terrible fabric to re-purpose. Especially given that’s it’s waterproof. And has no end of funky buttons and ready-made buttonholes.

Sewing it isn’t a walk in the park though, you need both heavy grade needles and a sewing machine with extra oomph. I’d have liked to use one of my vintage Singer 201K’s, but I have to admit that I’ve not yet got any of them to sew really well. A case of adjustment and lubrication, no doubt, as they are built to last forever and are really powerful. The legend that they are made from melted down WW2 fighter planes makes it an even more attractive proposition, what with dealing in pacifist military design and all. At the end of the day though, we need tools to get the job done and I use an Easy Jeans machine by Janome, and the sturdiest needles available. Even then I can sense the struggle of punching through multiple layers of tent fabric.

Here the waistcoat has seen all the major work done. Just final assembly required at this point, i.e. sewing the sides together.

Here the waistcoat has seen all the major work done. Just final assembly required at this point, i.e. sewing the sides together.


The starting point of my design though was to reuse the buttons and buttonholes. Party because that saves the time needed to actually make holes and attach buttons, yet mostly because I’ve never seen a waistcoat anywhere close to doing this. Kind of a double-breasted look with super-utilitarian aluminium buttons riveted together. Actually, those rivets caused problems, as from a sewing perspective it would have been really handy to have been able to remove the buttons while working on it. My efforts to drill out the rivets were met with resounding failure though, so I had to work around them. Cutting out all the pieces was easy though, a pleasant fabric to work with, and surprisingly it took to being steam pressed very well.

To add to design interest I used the tactical origami instructions, aka how to assemble a big ton tent from many small, as the back piece. And used one of the rope loops for tent pegs on the front. And this time I took the plunge and learnt something new, double welted pockets. I’ve been dodging that one for ages, but as is often the case today, Youtube to the rescue and I found an authentic looking guy that taught me how to welt a pocket with very little fuss.. So the waistcoat has four pockets that both look neat and actually work. One minuscule step for most, a massive achievement for me. So add in the full lapel and collar and it could have been a rather smart waistcoat.

After I had made it, I found myself with a fair amount of tent fabric left over, so in keep with the concept, I made a tie to go with it. Another first for me, but not a tricky project. The worst part was hand sewing the rear together. Pressing a needle through four layers of tent fabric took time and left me with sore fingers. The tie turned out pretty neat though, and it’s nice to have a garment with a story. I’ve jokingly mentioned that if you have enough of these ties you could make a tent, but like so many jokes based on obscure references, it didn’t make the room erupt in raucous laughter.

I will hopefully be able to lay my hands on more of these tents, so expect further projects! Then again, I also have a pile of savoury Harris tweed sitting on the shelf, just waiting for the right idea to come along.


  • Fiona 24/01/2018 at 15:11

    Love your blog, your honest and creative approach to sewing is inspiring. Always read with enthusiasm and feel both comforted and educated. Thank you 🙂

    • nick 24/01/2018 at 15:30

      Thank you, Fiona!


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