Yurt Building for Everyone

by Claudia Olmstead

What is a yurt? Home, tent, circular, dome-shaped are descriptive words that fit but don't give the whole picture. The yurt is a moveable, collapsible structure yet in use with some peoples of Central Asia; it's use became widespread when the yurt-dwelling Mongolian conquerors with their horses overtook the plains of the great Central Asian steppes. A yurt was made of collapsible walls of willow poles, with a door and domed roof and covered with felt made from animal wool. Dried grass, animal hair and leather ties were used for lashing parts together. Amazingly sturdy, a good yurt could last from 50 to 60 years. It was often part of a wife's dowry. In the winter, extra felt was added to the outside for warmth. In the summer, felt sides could be rolled up to admit air. They could be taken apart or put back together in under an hour. Yurts are thought by some to be a derivation of the tipi, tipis being more suited to hunting nomads and yurts to pastoral nomads who would need more room for their supplies and for tending baby animals. The word "yurt" has Turkic roots and means 'dwelling'. (note: Click on thumbnail images to enlarge.) 

To make one simplified, small version of a yurt, assemble the following supplies (available at most craft supply stores):

 

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  • 6 round dowels, 1/8" diameter by 36"
  • 1 length of balsa wood, 1/16" by 1/2" by 36"
  • 1 roll of thin twine or waxed thread, 5 ply (waxed thread is easiest to work with)
  • 14 drinking straws
  • one half of a two-part 10" diameter wooden embroidery hoop
  • one yard of felt fabric

Tools needed to make your yurt are:

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  • scissors
  • exact-o knife
  • ruler (L-shaped works extra well for measuring felt)
  • felt marker
  • large needle for sewing with waxed thread or twine
  • awl for poking holes (hole punch can be used for fabric part)

To prepare the roof-making materials, you need to:

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  • Cut the 14 straws into 7"lengths.
  • Cut a circle of felt that is 18" in diameter (a large lamp shade can serve as a pattern). Cut a hole in the center of this circle about quarter or half-dollar size. Cut one straight slit that goes from the outer edge to the inner circle, as pictured.

To prepare the wall-making materials, do the following:

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  • 1. Cut dowels into 26 lengths of 7", use exact-o. Cutting partway through and then snapping pieces apart with your hands works well.
  • 2. Cut a rectangular strip of felt 5 3/4" by 29 1/2" for outside covering.
  • 3. Have hoop ready to function as tension ring after door frame has been attached to expandable wall.
  • 4. You will need numerous lengths of 5" twine or waxed thread for lashing wall poles; these can be precut.

To prepare the door-making materials, you need to:

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  • 1. Cut from the balsa two pieces for the top and bottom that are 3 3/4" long. Cut two pieces for the sides that are 6 1/4" long.
  • 2. Bore holes with the awl (or use a drill with a small bit) into each corner as pictured.
  • 3. Cut felt into a rectangle for the door covering, 4" by 7 1/4".

You are now ready to assemble the expandable wall.

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  • 1. Put the 26 dowel pieces into 13 X-shapes; lash at the center by going around two or three times and double-knotting. Tie tightly!
  • 2. Lash all the X's together into one long expandable section. IMPORTANT: You must overlap systematically; all pieces that slant the same way must be consistently placed on top and the pieces slanting the other way should be on the bottom. Make sure you have pieces placed consistently before you lash them together. Lash together at the tops and at the bottoms, about 1/2" from the edges. LASH TIGHTLY, same way that you lashed the X's above in the first step.

You are ready to assemble the door frame:

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Using twine or waxed thread, tie door frame corners together by connecting through small holes with twine or waxed thread. Trim extra thread.

 

The next step is to assemble the bottom part of the yurt.

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  • 1. Lash the upper and lower corners of the door frame to the ends of the expandable wall. Using 5" twine or thread pieces, lash through the door frame corners and around the bottom and top of the two open ends. Tie as high and as low as possible. Now you have a circular wall.
  • 2. Put the hoop (the "tension ring") on your work surface. Expand wall so that it fits up against the inside of the hoop. Attach by tying twine or waxed thread pieces, again in 5" lengths, around the lashed dowel junctions and hoop as in the picture. Adjust as you go so that dowel junctions are evenly spaced around hoop. Tie tightly! Hoop remains on the outside of dowel junctions.
  • 3. Turn rightside up and you have the bottom part assembled.

Next, the roof is assembled.

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  • 1. Using the large needle with the waxed thread or the twine, go through the tops of all 14 straws (about 1/4" from edge of straw) and join them in a circle. Tie the thread so that the circle is semi- tight. The space in this inner middle circle should be about the size of a quarter.
  • 2. Using the needle and more thread, sew through the bottom of each straw about 1/2" above edge; leave a length about 5" dangling from each straw's end. This is how you will tie the roof poles onto the tension ring.

Here is an alternate version to the yurt roof.

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Dowel pieces are inserted into drilled holes in a small embroidery hoop (holes must be drilled at an angle so that dowel pieces extend downward) and later tied on to the tension ring. Here, holes have been drilled into the dowel ends so that they can tie on easily.

 

The next step is to attach the roof frame to the yurt body.

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Put the roof frame on top of the yurt, adjusting straws so that they are evenly distributed around the tension ring. Putting a straw end between two dowel junctions works well. Tie string on the end of each straw to the tension ring.

 

This is an alternate version of the yurt frame, with the roof made of dowels and a smaller embroidery hoop.

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Finally, the yurt frame is ready to be covered.

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  • 1. Begin by putting holes at regular intervals along one long side of the felt rectangle. Put 5" ties of twine or waxed thread through the holes. Starting beside the door frame, secure each tie around the tension ring (10" embroidery hoop) so that the felt is now attached going from one side of the door frame around to the other side.
  • 2. Take the felt for the door. Double over the top edge so that the top of the door frame is covered. Sew through both thicknesses with the needle and twine/waxed thread so that the top of the felt door is secure.

The covering for the roof needs to be placed on top.

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  • 1. Fit the cover on snugly, overlapping edges of the straight slit that you cut.
  • 2. Sew through the overlap so that it isn't loose.
  • 3. If this yurt were to be outside in wind and weather, you would lash the roof covering down to the sides.

Your basic small yurt is completed.

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Endless modifications are possible. Fabric design and wooden doors are among the details that you might see on actual yurts. Yurts can be made much more simply (but without the understanding of the expansion and lashing process).

 

Here is a variation on a yurt made with things that you would find in any elementary classroom.

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Here is another quickie variation of the yurt, made out of a paper honey-comb expandable pot cover, a brass ring and some wire lengths.

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This mini-yurt is quickly formed from a cupcake paper and a plastic cup-holder.

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Some Resources on Yurt Building

  • Boer, Friedrich. Igloos, Yurts and Totem Poles: Life and Customs of Thirteen Peoples Around the Globe. (Translated from the German by Florence McHugh). New York: Pantheon (c1957).
  • Charney, Len. Build a Yurt, the Low Cost Mongolian Round House. New York: Collier Books, 1974.
  • Cox, Chuck. The Portable Yurt: A Timeless Home from the Plains of Mongolia Adapted for the Modern Nomad. New Hampshire: Frog Pond, 1974.
  • Faegre, Torvald. Tents: Architecture of the Nomads. New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1979.
  • National Geographic
    • January 1936, "With the Nomads of Central Asia", by Edward Murray.
    • March 1962, "Journey to Outer Mongolia", by William O. Douglas.
    • April 1972, "Winter Caravan to the Roof of the World", by Sabrina and Roldand Michaud.
    • May 1993, "Mongolian Nomads", by Cynthia Beall and Melvyn Goldstein.
    • Star, Blue Evening. Tipis & Yurts: Authentic Designs for Circular Shelters. Asheville, N.C.: Lark Books, 1995.



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