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Kyrgyz Textiles: Chiy

We're delighted to offer this guest blog post written by Michele Hardy, PhD, curator of a current exhibit on Kyrgyz textiles at Nickle Galleries, University of Calgary. In this post, Michele introduces us to Kyrgyz chiy, reed screens created for many uses in nomadic living.

Kyrgyz Textiles: Introducing the John L. Sommer Collection

In 2009 Nickle Galleries at the University of Calgary in Calgary, Alberta Canada hosted Reeds and Wool: Patterned Screens of Central Asia, a travelling exhibition organized by the Kaufman Museum at Bethel College in Kansas, USA. The exhibition featured rare examples of Kyrgyz textiles collected by Dr. John Sommer and donated to the Kaufman for the purposes of an international tour. With the tour completed, the collection—together with a collection of Sommer’s notes and photographs—were recently donated to Nickle Galleries. The John L. Sommer Collection includes important examples of felt and carpets as well as a series of spectacular chiy, or reed screens.

 Kyrgyz Textiles: Introducing the John L. Sommer Collection, (installation view). Photo: Andy Nichols, LCR PhotoServices. 

Traditionally nomadic herders, the Kyrgyz kept sheep, horses and yaks, practices that shape their unique cultural traditions. Kyrgyz women use wool to weave, felt, embroider, and stitch their garments and household goods, as well as to make yurts, their domed, tent-like homes. Constructed of collapsible wooden lattices, yurts are covered on the outside with large panels of felted wool and on the inside with decorated felt wall rugs, embroidered panels, and boldly patterned reed screens.

Ashkana Chiy (detail), Kyrgyz, late 19th centuryCollection of Nickle Galleries, gift of John L. Sommer and the Kauffman Museum, Photo: Andy Nichols, LCR PhotoServices.

How chiy are made

Although similar textiles are made in India, Iran, Turkey, and Japan—Kyrgyz reed screens are uniquely embellished. The chiy maker (chyrmakchy) begins by collecting and processing Lasiagrostis splendens (chiy) an indigenous grass. Designs are made by wrapping each stem with different colours of wool.  The wrapped stems are put together with warp twinning on a simple frame “loom.” Each stem must be added in the right order for the design to emerge. Designs draw on a repertoire of motifs, patterns and color preferences shared with other Kyrgyz textiles and are influenced by surrounding cultures. They often emphasize balance, reciprocity, and the natural world.  Common named motifs include rams’ horns, (kaikalak), combs (tarak), partridge eyebrows (kekilik kash), and amulets (tumarcha).

Types of Chiy

Chiy are used for a variety of purposes—from small covers, containers, door covers and suspended shelves, to walls and screens. Ashkana chiy, are used to partition areas within the yurt. The largest examples, kanat chiy, are wrapped around the lattice frames of Kyrgyz yurts. They provide insulation during the colder months and, with the outer felt covers rolled up, privacy and air circulation during the warmer months. Eshik chiy are special door screens that hung behind a felt or wooden door.

Ashkana Chiy, Kyrgyz, mid 20th century, Collection of Nickle Galleries, gift of John L. Sommer and the Kauffman Museum, Photo: Andy Nichols, LCR PhotoServices.  

Kanat Chiy, Kyrgyz, mid 20th century. Collection of Nickle Galleries, gift of John L. Sommer and the Kauffman Museum. Photo: Andy Nichols, LCR PhotoServices. 

Eshik Tysh (door rug), Kyrgyz, 19th century, Collection of Nickle Galleries, gift of John L. Sommer and the Kauffman Museum, Photo: Andy Nichols, LCR PhotoServices.  

How to see this exhibit

Chiy were largely unknown in the West until the breakup of the Soviet Union. Whether simply used up, ravaged by moths or time, few exist in public collections outside of Russia or Kyrgyzstan. The Sommer’s collction significantly expands Nickle Galleries’ holdings of Central Asian textiles, a collection actively used for teaching, learning and enjoyment. We welcome visitors from near and far. The exhibition, Kyrgyz Textiles: Introducing the John L. Sommer Collection continues to March 28, 2024.  For information visit Nickle Galleries.

Michele Hardy, PhD is Curator, Nickle Galleries, University of Calgary and can be reached at

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