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Patterned Reed Screens of the Kirghiz
in the State Historical Museum, Frunze

by Stella Mateeva and Jon Thompson

Kirghiz Encampment

Screens made with the stems of reeds or canes are an integral part of the round felt tent of the northern nomads. The Kirghiz and Kazakh decorate their screens with coloured wool to form elaborate and striking patterns.(1) Screens are also used in the black tent of the near eastern nomads. Most are undecorated, though screens patterned with woolen wrapping are made by some Kurdish groups and the closely associated Gurani. The Furuzkuhi of Afghanistan decorate their screens by painting them.
The word used by the Kirghiz themselves, chii, refers both to the screen itself and the plant from which it is made. It is pronounced with a long vowel (cheek rather than chick).(2) Similar terms are used by nomads speaking both Turkic and Indo-European languages.(3) In translation chii is often rendered "mat," a word all too often reserved for an inferior and diminutive floor covering; furthermore "mat" conveys nothing of the form or function of the different types of chii.

The shiny-chii, raw material for the Kirghiz screens growing in the Chayek Valley, 1989.

For English usage "reed screen" is convenient and current, though "cane screen" might be better, since cane is a more inclusive term. In practice screens are made from wooden wands, the stems of various grasses and even sunflower stalks. In fact any plant stem may be used if it has the necessary length and strength. A true reed, Phragmites, is used by the Turkmen for their screens whereas the Kirghiz and Kazakh use a grass known as the "shiny chii" (Lasiagrostis splendens = Stipa alpestris = Muehlenbergia alpestris) which grows in steppes and semi-deserts from the south Urals through the lower Volga and south Siberia to central Asia, including southern Turkmenia and north Afghanistan but excluding the Kara Kum and Kopet Dagh.

The Russian traveller and explorer of southern Kirghizia, A.P. Fedchenko, writing in 1875 described its properties and uses:

"Since they [the stems] are thin, strong and to a great extent free of knots, they are very suitable for making screens. chii screens are much used by the Kirghiz. The sides of the kibitka are invariably made from chii, woven to protect the kibitka from dust and the fire from strong draughts, while letting in fresh air and some light."(4)

Three types of screen are made by the Kirghiz for their tents: the wall screen (chyrmagan kanat chii),(5) the kitchen screen (ashkana chii), and the door screen (eshlk chii). Some other everyday objects used in the tent may also be worked in the same technique. These include containers for china bowls (chini kap), and small hanging shelves (tekche).

Wall screen, State Historical Museum

Screen Making
Stems of the shiny chii (in fact a grass but loosely termed a reed in this description) are gathered in late summer, dried for a week or two, trimmed to approximate length, and the outer layer removed. Screens are made exclusively by women. First, the wool to be used for wrapping is fluffed up, either with a bow, or more often by agitating it with wands. It is then dyed in the appropriate quantities and colours. Reeds are neatly laid out on a flat surface side by side, an arrangement which allows the maker to envisage what the completed screen will look like. Care is taken to alternate the reeds so that the differing thickness between the top and the bottom of the stems is evened out.

Kitchen screen from the Osh region, 170x240 cm.

The reeds are marked with the outlines of the intended pattern, and then wrapped with wool one at a time, in strict order. To do this a reed is held in the right hand and applied to the edge of a bundle of wool of the desired colour where a sliver of unspun fibre (rove) has been teased out. The reed is then rotated between thumb and fingers. This motion, together with the action of the fingers of the left hand, draws out a continuous, even rove (in a manner not unlike that of spinning) which is wrapped around the shaft of the reed in a spiral. Wrapping continues for a distance determined by the bands of different colours, it is replaced in the exact position from which it was taken. The wrapping is a laborious process and a wall screen may take two to three months to complete.

Wall screen from the Chui Valley

n the next stage the wrapped reeds are bound together into a screen. For this a special type of loom is used at which women work standing up. It consists of a horizontal bar at about breast height supported on two uprights. Between 10 and 30 pairs of elongated, fist-sized stones are selected (depending on the width of the screen) to act as spools for the binding yarn. A substantial length of yarn, usually of stout wool or goat hair, is wound around first one, then the other of the pair of stones and fastened in such a way that it will not unwind. The two yarn-laden stones (now joined by a thread about two meters long) are suspended from the horizontal bar so that they hang down on either side. The remaining pairs of spool-stones are prepared in the same way, slung over the bar, and the threads connecting them spaced out evenly at intervals of about 10 to 15 cms.

Kitchen screen from the Issyk-kul region, made by Tokombayeva

The assembly process is begun by placing a reed on the horizontal bar. To bind it in place stones are taken over the bar and hung the other side. Their pairs are then moved in the opposite direction so that members of each pair change places. Another reed is then placed on the bar and the whole process repeated. The reeds are added in strict sequence according to the planned pattern. The binding process is extremely simple; the same pair of stones is exchanged throughout. In the finished article the binding threads are visible as straight lines running the length of the screen.

The long, tapering upper part of a decorated door screen seen from the inside
of a Kirghiz tent with wooden doors. State Historical Museum, Frunze, 1987

There are two subtleties in this process which are worth noting. First, though the reeds can be bound singly, in practice each exchange of stones binds two reeds together, though not as pairs because adjacent threads do not bind together the same two reeds. On the loom, when a reed is placed on the bar to be bound, only the odd-numbered stone-pairs are exchanged. When the next reed is in place, the the even-numbered stones are moved. If the reeds are numbered sequentially, reeds 3+4, 5+6, 7+8, etc. are bound together by odd numbered threads, and reeds 2+3, 4+5, 6+7, etc. are bound by the even-numbered threads. The result is a strong homogenous structure. Second, the stone-pairs are not exchanged any old way, but always moved in the same direction (say clockwise) round each other. This twines the binding threads into a spiral.

Kirghiz Encampment

Kurdish and Persian nomads sometimes add a decorative element to their screens (which are not wrapped) by exchanging the position of adjacent stones to produce a net-like lattice pattern.(6) The Gurani of the Kermanshah province of Iran and some Kurds in the province of Ilam make wrapped reed screens which are also decorated with an ornamental lattice of binding threads. A few Kirghiz screens are decorated to a minor degree in this way. The effect is usually limited to the outer edges.

When the binding process is completed the threads are knotted to secure the last reed in place, the reeds are trimmed to a uniform length and a strip of cloth, often goat-hair, sewn over the

edges to strengthen the screen and protect the reeds from accidental damage. From the point of view of weaving history, the process of assembling a reed screen is of exceptional interest. The construction apparatus is, in effect, a type of warp-weighted loom.(7) The stout binding threads form the warp, the stone spools the warp-weights, and the wrapped reeds the wefts. The warp threads of the reed-screen loom, 18 or more meters in length, are however much longer than those found on the warp-weighted looms recorded in Scandinavia and the American southwest. Moreover the reed-screen loom functions so to speak "upside-down."

Kitchen screen from the Chui Valley made by B. Sabatyrova, 1940s. 116x240 cm.

On the classical warp-weighted loom, wefts are inserted one below the other, beginning at the top of the loom; as weaving proceeds the fabric grows downwards towards the ground. With the reed-screen loom the wefts are added one on top of the other and the screen grows, as it were, upwards, allowing a fabric of any desired length to be made. Weavers in both cases work at the loom standing up. In some respects the loom is even more "primitive" than the warp-weighted loom because there is no shedding mechanism and the warp threads are actually twined. The reed screen with its twined warps and rigid wefts could thus be considered to belong to the category of non-woven structures, such as baskets, used prior to the invention of true weaving.

Fragment of a reed screen from the Toguz-Toru district of the Naryn region, made by Mamatova. 80x174 cm.

Uses and Functions
When a Kirghiz tent is being erected, the wall screen is placed around the outside of the wall trellis in two or three sections. The wall felts are then added on the outside of the screen, completely covering it. The wall screen is only visible from outside the tent when the lower edge of the outer felts are hitched up in summer to increase ventilation. The wall screen is not always decorated with woollen wrapping for its entire length, indeed it may not be wrapped at all. If it is only part-wrapped, the decorated section will be placed to the left of the threshold as you enter, on the men's side, because this is the area of wall least likely to be obscured. As you enter the tent, to the right is the kitchen screen, opposite is the stack of bedding, and to the left of centre is a large embroidered hanging (tush kiyiz). The wall screen will be visible to the left of that.

Container for china bowls by K. Zhumalieva, Frunze, 1983, 31x13.5 cm.
Door screen from the At-Bashi district of the Naryn region made by Turdubyubyu Zhusupova, 1969. 103x418 cm.

The kitchen screen serves to curtain off a section of the women's area. It is held in place by lashing one end to the tent's trellis, and the other to a pole. This is where all the equipment connected with milk-processing is kept and the yoghurt is put to set, protected from draughts and the unwanted attentions of children. It often has a colourful pelmet hanging from the top edge decorated with embroidery and appliqué. The entrance to the tent is covered by a door flap which can be rolled up and fastened with a narrow woven band (or rope). It consists of two parts: an outer felt (eshik tysh) and an inner reed screen (eshik .chii), an arrangement which allows the felt to be rolled up while the screen is left hanging.(10) The screen's upper end has a long tapering section which extends upwards towards the roof wheel and is lashed to one of the roof struts (uuk). This is the part which is most often decorated. The lower part of the screen which people rub against when they come in and out of the tent is usually left undecorated, though the occasional example, made for a really luxurious tent, is decorated throughout. The shape of the door screen is curious and there is no obvious reason for it. Yet it is so distinctive and persistent that one wonders if it could be the vestige of some earlier device which did have a function

It is not uncommon for Kirghiz tents to be furnished with both door flap and doors (which open inwards) in spite of the fact that nomads as far apart as Fars, Azerbaijan and Mongolia associate wooden doors with the disagreeable constraints of the settled life. Wooden doors, which are heavy and difficult to transport, are probably a fairly late development and in practice are status symbols.(11)

Social Background
A bride going to live with her husband and his relatives would bring a full set of tent-furnishings with her, which would include decorated reed screens. Since reed screens were everyday objects it is to be expected that the craft of making them was learned in childhood by imitation and participation, just as felt-making, weaving, milking, butter-making, tanning and other domestic skills were learned. However it appears that chii were commissioned and it is on record that a wall screen was worth two sheep. Some families may therefore have specialised in making decorated screens, though they can hardly have been a marketable item outside a very small circle of potential customers. Craft specialisation would therefore have been quite limited. More research is needed on this point.

Door screen from the Issyk-kul region made by K. Botalaeva, 1960s, 104x291 cm..


1. The wrapping material is predominantly wool, however details of the design are sometimes worked in silk.

2. Chiy would perhaps be a better transliteration; the double i is retained to avoid the risk of it being pronounced "chai."

3. Baluchi chit, Persian chit, chiq, chikh, Lak chikh, Kurdish chikh, Shahsevan chikh, chiy, Turkish chig, Ersari Turkmen chigh, Qashqa'i chiq, Kazakh shi, Karakalpak shii, Moghol chiq, Taimani chiq.

4. Kibitka is the Russian term for a felt tent. A. P. Fedchenko, "Puteshestvie v Turkestan" [Journey in Turkestan], vol. I, pt. Il, Izvestiya obshchestva lyubitelei estestvoznaniya, antropologii i etnografii [Proceedings of the Amateur Society for Natural Science, Anthropology and Ethnography], vol. XI no. 7 (St. Petersburg-Moscow: 1875) p. 143.

5. Antipina defines "chyrmagan chii" as mats of chii stalks wrapped with coloured wool, see K.I. Antipina, Osobennosti materialnoi kultury i prikladnogo iskusstva yuzhnykh kirgizov [Particulars of the Material Culture and Applied Art of the Southern Kirghiz], (Frunze: 1962) p. 286. Makhova explains that chyrmagan is derived from the verb meaning to wind around or twist round. See E.I. Makhova, "Uzornaya tsinovka" [The Patterned Reed Screen]," in S.V. Ivanov and K.I. Antipina, Narodnoe dekorativno-prikladnoe iskusstvo kirgizov [National Applied Art of the Kirghiz], (AN CCCP: 1968) p. 33. Chyrmagan, presumably related to Turkish çevirmek to wrap or encircle, thus defines the wrapped decorated chii, as distinct from the plain undecorated type.

Kanat is the term applied to the individual sections of collapsible wall trellis terege. It means literally wing, an apt description of its capacity to fold up and spread out. Here it refers to a wall-screen section. When used as a loan word in other languages kanat (qanat) may refer to a screen, the tent wall or even something covering the tent wall. Chyrmagan kanat chii, (often simply kanat chii), thus translates "wrapped wall section reed-screen," which for simplicity will be termed "wall screen." Since only decorated (i.e. wrapped) screens are under discussion here, the word wrapped is understood and therefore omitted. 6. P.J. Watson, Archaeological Ethnography in Western Iran, (University of Arizona Press: 1979) p. 190.

7. It is often called a mat loom, though the term reed screen loom has been used here. Its wide distribution may be a function of its antiquity; its use by the Ainu is well illustrated in W.A. Fairservis, Asia Traditions and Treasures, (American Museum of Natural History, New York: 1981)p. 53.

8. The wrapped screens of the Kurds and Gurani actually form the wall of their summer tent and are not tent-dividers as sometimes reported.

9. Peter Andrews, whose many helpful suggestions for improving the text are gratefully acknowledged, explains that screens made from the strong Phragmites or similar tough cane by the Turkmen, Karakalpak and Firuzkuhi are used outside to protect the felts and that the more delicate grass stems used by the Kirghiz and Kazakh are not strong enough to serve this function and therefore used inside the felts. It still seems possible that climatic considerations may have some bearing on the choice between inside and outside use. The Kalmuks had the reed screen on the outside and the Mongols with rare exceptions do not use them. See A. Rona-Tas, "Die unübertroffene Technik der mongolischen Jurte", in W. Heissig and C.C. Müller, Die Mongolen, (Innsbruck & Frankfurt/Main: 1989) pp 138, 140, for photographs of Mongol tents with reed screens being used instead of felts.

10. For the operation of the two parts of the door flap see: R. Dor and C.M. Naumann, Die Kirghisen des Afghanischen Pamir, (Graz:1978), pl. 41; and P.A. Andrews, The Felt Tent in Middle Asia, Ph.D. thesis SOAS, (London: 1980) ill. 61 and p. 553. Also: G. Almásy, Vándor-utam Azsia szivébe irta, (Budapest: 1903). The National Museum, Copenhagen has a Kirghiz tent collected in 1896.

11. Andrews (1980), p. 301, points out that in the time of Chingiz Khan wooden doors were rare on felt tents and their use was a mark of status. He gives examples of miniature paintings illustrating the co-existence of wooden doors with the threshold felt (p. 270 and ill. 86).

With thanks to Oriental Rug Review, and Ron O'Callaghan for permission to reproduce this article here.