Going Native

Staying with friends, you might not expect to be led into the garden for the night, let alone into what at first might seem like a setting for a Wild West show. There might be no raindancing but the accommodation at first suggests all the dread associations many have with camping: long, damp and sleepless nights on hard ground. Until, that is, you step inside.

Here is a 300 sq ft space that can comfortably sleep six. There is hard-wood flooring, rugs and bespoke furniture. A double insulating layer of canvas keeps it cosy but without humidity, and a wood stove, or even an open fire, adds to the atmosphere. Smoke drifts through a hole at the pinnacle of the structure, where a flap prevents bad weather getting in.

“Genghis Khan may have conquered half of the world with yurts – a different type of nomadic structure – but, probably thanks to western films, it’s the Native American tipi that has captured the imagination,” says Tara Weightman, director of tipi manufacturer Hearthworks. “People have been keen to explore different camping experiences but we spend so much time in high-tech environments now that the tipi has the romance of simple living about it, without the discomforts of most traditional tents. That said, I know people who work at lap-tops and web-cams in them, too.”

Certainly the tipi seems to be enjoying a 21st-century revival. Confused Direction, a progressive German architectural and design company, has just launched a more technical take on the tipi, with folding lattice-work support. Schools are buying them as mobile classrooms and couples for wedding celebrations; homeowners live in them while renovations are carried out; businesses are turning to specialist Wolf Glen Tipis to have them made for promotional purposes; while rental for the music festival circuit is a booming market too – with credibility enhanced by the news that bands such as Radiohead have stayed in them and Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters has one erected permanently at home.

Tipis cost around £2,000 for a standard size, take perhaps 1.5 hours to assemble and, structured around poles of a fixed length, have particular transportation needs. But if they lack the modern tent’s convenience they work well as an imaginative alternative to the playroom, summer house or conservatory.

“Interest in tipis has moved on massively over the past few years,” says Greg Bramford, owner of The Tipi Company, who calculates that the number of UK manufacturers has quadrupled in the past four years. “Camping is big again, Native American cultures are studied in school and I think people are intuitively appreciating all kinds of ethnic tents as a way of rebuilding some kind of contact with nature.”

“That may sound a bit new-agey but I’ve seen so many city slickers hypnotised by tipi living.”

“Whether or not tipis make people feel like they’re living off the land again, they do have a calming aura that makes them great for just sitting in after a long day at work,” adds Jesse Salcedo, an Apache by descent who runs an eponymous hemp tipi manufacturing operation out of San Francisco, selling many to Hollywood big-shots as well as buyers further afield in Japan and Australia. “My people are desert people and warriors and I’m a Vietnam vet myself but being around tipis reminds me of more peaceful times.”

Environmental awareness has also added to the appeal of the tipi – the name is derived from the Lakota language: ti “to dwell” and pi “used for”. The original shelter was made entirely from natural and recyclable products: the shell comprised 12 or more buffalo or deer hides sewn together – which, after they had run their typical two year life-span, would be converted into clothes using sinew from the animal carcasses and needles fashioned from the bones. The hides underwent a process of curing and tanning, including use of the tannic acid found in buffalo brains that made them flexible and soft, and were then smoked over fires of conifer branches, the resin from which waterproofed them.

The pine or cedar poles used to hold the structure up were carried with the tribe as it followed the herd. Little has changed since, with the exception of the general adoption of canvas – even among Native Americans.

“But while there is a simplicity of materials, that belies just how brilliant the tipi design is,” says Mark Sutton, director of manufacturers Asher Tipis. “It may be very old but it’s structurally complex. Not only is it aesthetically pleasing but, properly put up, a tipi maximises covered space for the minimum components used while also being able to withstand the harshest weather.”

Indeed, the reason the tipi’s form has survived for so many centuries is the high degree to which its design has been fine-tuned over generations of trial and error by nomadic tribes such as the Sioux, Blackfoot, Crow and Cheyenne. A lifting pole is used to unfurl the shell over a basic tripod. The shell’s seam is then pinned together and the door flap attached. The bottom edges of the round base can be rolled up for ventilation or kept tight to the ground using pegs or stones. The cone shape is slightly lopsided, with the more gentle slope of the front facing the rising sun and the steeper back better able to deflect harsh winds and provide storage space.

The structure was as much a spiritual haven as it was an eco-building: the base is round not simply because it channels wind around the structure but because Native Americans considered the circle to be the most abundant form in nature.

“That also means that it is instantly a very inclusive space. There are no corners to hide in,” suggests Alan Wenham, owner of tipi manufacturer Albion Canvas, suggesting perhaps why they have become popular corporate tools on team building and bonding events. “So as well as confounding expectations of levels of comfort and room to move, a tipi makes for a great party place. As well as the success of the design, I think a tipi’s sense of welcome goes a long way to explaining its current appeal. It’s a great combination of atmosphere and engineering.”

A combination alluring enough, perhaps, to make a tipi a more permanent home. The right climate helps, of course, but Harry Janicki, manager of Nomadic Tipi Makers – one of the largest US tipi companies, whose products come complete with hand-painted artwork and had a starring role in Kevin Costner’s film Dances with Wolves – lived in a tipi for five years during his 20s.

“I loved the outdoors but I couldn’t have done that in a normal tent. It would have been too claustrophobic. But a tipi, as well as all that space, offers that pioneer experience of the primitive, as well as the experience of history – you’re in an artefact,” he explains.

“Few people want to go so far as to accept the challenge of living full-time in a tipi now, preferring just to have one as a quiet place to go outside of home. I still have one in my garden. It’s hard to explain until you’ve tried one but they’re hugely rewarding.”

Hearthworks, tel: +44 (0)1749 899521, www.hearthworks.co.uk

Wolf Glen Tipis, tel: +44(0)1896 850390, www.wolfglentipis.co.uk

The Tipi Company, tel: +44(0)1362 680074, www.tipihire.com

Asher Tipis, tel: +44(0)7966 375287, www.ashertipis.com

Albion Canvas, tel: +44 (0)1362 649101, www.albioncanvas.co.uk

Salcedo Custom Tipi, +1 650 369 0383, www.salcedocustomtipi.com

Nomadic Tipi Makers, +1 541 389 3980, www.tipi.com

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