Project 3 – Clouds and Pillars

Assigned reading: “Room Six: Territories” (pages 146-7; Place, Dean and Millar)

Following this short reading on Mette Tronvoll’s Project Mongolia– exploring the lives of nomads who live in mobile textile homes called gers— we were asked to investigate “gers” and other such textile-based shelters/homes including wigwams, tipis and tents.


Source (for facts and images cited below): [accessed 17 April 2018]

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As indicated in Tronvoll’s art project, gers are mobile homes lived in by Mongolian nomads. Gers are round, white tents made by the nomads themselves and comprised of branches, wool and wooden planks (for the door). Branches are found in the local environment, and are replaced as nomads relocate (approx. twice a year); thick felt siding, made by the nomads, is sourced from their own herd of sheep. Journalist Kevin Kelly writes about what’s inside the ger (“a small wood-burning stove, beds with futons, a dresser or two, some tiny stools […] The walls are hung with embroidered felt blankets. The floor these days is linoleum”) and what’s missing (“No refrigerator, no running water, no toilet, no air-conditioning, no wine cooler, no microwave, no radiant floor heating, no Amazon Alexa.”). Nomads (although their living conditions are also informed by poverty) adhere to the belief that the environment provides for their basic needs; they possess very little and fulfill any additional needs on an on-demand basis. Some additional, more modern possessions, for nomadic families that can afford them, include a single solar panel (providing light past dusk); a cheap motorcycle; and mobile phones or walkie-talkies. Gers are designed to be packed up and moved in a few hours; in the past, the refuse left behind abandoned nomadic camps was biodegradable, but this is no longer the case.

Wigwams (also called a wickiup or a wetu)

Sources (for facts and images cited below):;; [all accessed 17 April 2018].

To speak of wickiups or wetus (the preferred terms) in general terms is complicated; North America covers huge territory and Aboriginal peoples (or First Nations, as they’re called in Canada) need further be divided into the many hundred of tribes or “nations” they formed. Naturally, their shelter needs and ways of living depended on the environment around them; for nomads, these needs changed with the seasons and temporary, quick-building dwellings were fashioned; for agricultural tribes, longer-lasting homes were more practical.

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Wigwams, as pictured above, were small, semi-permanent dome-, cone- or rectangle-shaped huts with arched roofs. These were erected with flexible wooden frames and typically covered with materials available locally: these included “grass, brush, bark, rushes, mats, reeds, hides, and cloth” (

Tipis (also called teepees, tepees) 

Screenshot 2018-04-17 15.21.45
Source: [accessed 17 April 2018]
Source: [accessed 19 April 2018]

Tipis differ from wigwams in that their construction is designed to suit the needs of very nomadic, far-traveling tribes, not limited to but including those of the Great Plains. Although quick and relatively easy to assemble and disassemble, tipis provided warmth, comfort, shelter from heat and wet; and their shape (symbolizing sacred space) was spiritually significant. What differentiates tipis from other tents is the “opening at the top and the smoke flaps, which allow the dweller to cook and heat themselves with an open fire while providing a source of fresh air to fire and dwellers” (

Tipi construction involved the binding together of up to 20 sapling poles, a skin or hide covering using as many as 28 buffalo hides, the addition of an optional interior lining (made of more skins or canvas) and a door made of the same.

I do think it’s worth noting that– while traditional tipis are still used, though not commonly– by folks who reject contemporary ways of living and wishing to live “close to the land”, by Native Americans or First Nations living traditionally and/or participating in specific ceremonies, and by historical re-enactment societies, many absolutely inauthentic variations of tipis have been appropriated into mainstream culture, most recently as a stylish private and fun space for young children. Etsy, for example, has many aesthetic versions, with just as vast a price range, for sale.

Tents (and their evolution through history)

Sources:;; [accessed 19 April 2018]

“Tents” form a broad category, and general research on the subject turns up all sorts of information, covering the earliest of tents (from evidence suggesting they go back as far as 40,000 BC, made up of mammoth hides, to more “recent” references in the Bible), to versions of tents covered previously in this post (gers, wigwams, and tipis). It seems like early tents were made of hides and waterproofed with fats and oils (which eventually went rancid and apparently didn’t smell very good). In the same way that gers and tipis were practical dwellings for folks needing to move around regularly and set up camp quickly and fairly easily– with materials that could easily be acquired locally and/or be collapsed and packed around– tents were useful shelters for mobile armies. They also came to be used as a regal or ceremonial way of transporting sultans and/or other nobles, providing shade, portability and the possibility of being beautifully crafted/lavishly decorated. Tents were later used by traveling circuses to protect spectators, animals and performers from the elements; much smaller versions, often made of hemp canvas, continued to be used for military purposes through the American Revolution and the Civil War.

Following the Industrial Revolution, tents came to fulfill a more recreational purpose, allowing people folks who typically enjoyed all the comforts and convenience of the modern world (largely, if not totally, disconnected from the natural world) to go out into and explore nature, all the while ensuring the necessary safety that dry shelter and a closed-off sleeping space provide. As camping increased in popularity, advances in related technologies afforded tents to suit a range of specific outdoor needs, desires, budgets and comfort levels. The concept of “glamping” (glamorous camping!) is proof of how far tents (tent trailers and their relatives) and the whole culture of “dwelling outdoors” (if only very temporarily) has come in recent years.

Source: [accessed 18 April 2018]
Reflecting on course themes of time and place, with reference to textile-based homes:

When I think about the (light) research I’ve done on textile-based homes, dwellings and shelters above, what I find interesting is how far we’ve come from the way we originally met basic human needs by looking to what was locally available in the natural environment. It seems like such an obvious way to live more harmoniously with Mother Earth, and yet there is so much undoing of what we know and have grown accustomed to in order to bring such changes (back) about (at least here in the Western World; Project Mongolia, described in Places, and the article I read about gers made clear that some folks–although their numbers are in decline– still live more or less that way).

At the same time as acknowledging how far we’ve come, contemporary tents– though lighter, more compact, easier to set up, and to some extent weather-proof– aren’t really so different from the very earliest versions. The structure and design principles remain the same; and its a model that works for the same purposes.

What’s fascinating is this deep instinct/desire to get closer to/ more deeply or more directly immerse oneself in wilder environments than the ones we now occupy. The comforts afforded us by our homes and by grocery stores and by everything available in just one click make life easier, for sure, but not more satisfying.

Finally, thinking about the sewing of skins, the weaving of grass or reeds, and the way these once-essential (or still-essential) survival skills (one’s shelter and ability to protect offspring may depend on it) opened onto a vast world of practical, spiritual and purely artistic expression through textiles– and also the way these more “primitive” shelters give history and origins to more contemporary expressions mixing textile and architectural arts, which Project 3 explores next.


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