“They (canadiens) name prelart a large and heavy cloth, oil-painted in red,… to keep oneself from the rain” Louis Franquet, 1752
The miliciens during the Seven Years War were issued an oilcloth for shelter at a rate of one per four men. Oilcloths were also the manner in which the cargo in canoes was covered for protection. These cloths were generally made from toile de Beaufort, known to the English as Russian sheeting. Either type of cloth was a hempen fabric. A heavy linen (flax) material was also used during this time period.
"A course linen painted red with oil, with which we cover the [canoe cargo] as further protection against the rain." Louis Franquet, 1752
The fabric described during the mid 18th century was one aune wide (46 ¾ inches) and came in three different weights. The length of the issued cloth ranged from approximately 5 aunes or 6 aunes to 7 ½ aunes . This would mean that the cloth would be 233 inches to 350 inches in length or about 19 feet to 29 feet in total length. This information was derived from The Equipment of the New France Militia, Steve Delisle, pgs. 17 and 43.
It is often assumed that this amount of fabric would be sewn together to form a large tarpaulin in order to shelter the four miliciens. By cutting and sewing this amount of fabric you can make a rectangular piece of cloth that is approximately 7 ½ feet x 9 ½ feet if using 5 aunes of fabric, or 7 ½ feet x 14 ½ feet if using 7 ½ aunes.
Materials to make oilcloth
Hemp fabric - For a lightweight tarp a 12 oz material will work, for a heavier tarp the 14 oz. One good place to get this fabric is Hemp Traders <http://www.hemptraders.com/>. The historical reenacting company Turkey Foot Traders also carries heavy 17 oz hemp. <http://www.turkeyfootllc.com/Hemproducts.html>
Linen canvas- Heavy linen canvas can be bought from the great fabric store Burnley and Trowbridge. <http://www.burnleyandtrowbridge.com/>
Cotton- Many reenactors use cotton painters tarps in lieu of traditional materials. Once painted I suppose it is difficult to tell. Others use Egyptian cotton bedsheets that have a high thread count/tight weave to make a lightweight “scouting” tarp.
Linseed oil- Store bought linseed oil is still very acidic, even the boiled linseed oil. It can be used but in combination with the turpentine it will rot away the fabric over time. To neutralize the acid you can slowly heat the oil (outside and very carefully) and add calcium carbonate (limestone) to the oil. I do not have detailed instruction at this time on this process, but as I understand it you add the powdered limestone to the hot oil and it will smoke for half an hour and then be less acidic . Another traditional manner is to use lead to neutralize the oil. Some instrucions for that can be found here- <http://www.codesmiths.com/shed/workshop/techniques/oilcloth/>
Turpentine - This is added to the oil after boiling inorder to thin down the oil and make it easier to paint onto the cloth. Turpentine will also destroy fabric over time.
Japan drier- This compound helps to accelerate the drying of oil paint. Most recommend no more than 2 tablespoons per pint of oil, otherwise the paint will chip off the surface. Not necessary but will assist in finishing the cloth sooner.
Red ochre- On Ebay you can search for iron oxide/red ochre/ferric oxide and buy 1 lb for under $10.00 and 5 lbs for under $15.00. This is the common color in the Great Lakes fur trade and during the French Regime in North America.
Mix one part boiled linseed oil with one part turpentine.
Add red ochre till you get desired color.
Add 2 TBS of Japan drier per pint (optional).
Paint cloth and let it dry in the open. This can take several days or longer. DO NOT fold up wet fabric coated with linseed oil! It can spontaneously combust! Once dry it is fine.
Paint additional layers as necessary.
An alternative to making your own paint would be to simply buy linseed oil based paint from a hardware store. Often called Barn Red oil paint, the ingredients are linseed oil, red ochre and sometimes a drier. This is as about as close as you come to a commercial alternative to making your own paint. Check the ingredients on the can, some barn paints have latex in them as well.
Painting a cloth with Barn Red oil paint is the best way for the average reenactor to come closest to period oilcloth without the hassle of making your own paint.
One of the most commonly used oilcloths by reenactors is made by Panthers Primitives. <http://www.pantherprimitives.com/> I had one for a year. It works very well, is very sturdy and has lots of ties to make it into various styles of shelters. They sell it as an Oilskin Trail Tarp in the catalog. The color of the tarp is brown. I could not document brown tarps with cotton straps sewed around the edges so I got rid of mine for authenticity’s sake not because it was not a good piece of camping equipment.
The Crazy Crow company came out with a red colored oilcloth several years ago, they call it Spanish Brown oilcloth. <http://www.crazycrow.com/> I have had great success with this cloth in the rain. It is very lightweight, does not become stiff in the cold weather and thus not really true oilcloth. Some people have had bad experiences with this product and tell me that it repels water as well (or worse) then untreated canvas/hemp/linen.