A mystery solved. How do they make the colourful, and portable reed screens used in nomadic tents.?
All photos by the author (Andrew Lane), and by Lolan Sepan, Director of the KTCM (Kurdish Textile and Cultural Museum, Erbil, Kurdistan)
The screens are the vertical walls of the traditional black nomadic tent (‘reshmal’) and the patterns on them are amazing. They are light, and easily rolled up for transportation by donkey, camel or horse. They block the sun and wind but allow controlled ventilation, and simultaneously decorate both the inside and outside of the tent.
Nomadic reshmal in the higher pastures of the Kurdish mountains (photos: Lolan Sepan of the KTCM)
This reed screen was being used as an internal partition (photo: Lolan Sepan of the KTCM)
In 2014 I was fortunate to spend a couple of months working at the Kurdish Textile and Cultural Museum in Erbil, Kurdistan, northern Iraq. In previous years, during visits to the museum, I had witnessed traditional spinning and weaving techniques, and traditional felt mat making, as part of the ‘Weaving Project’, funded by the United Nations.
Kurdistan is modernising fast and sadly the old ways are being discarded wholesale by a population which greatly admires the European way of life, and consequently is slightly embarrassed by the old “backward” ways. All modernising cultures go through this phase until eventually they begin to value what they once had, what they have lost. Occasionally things are collected and preserved by visionaries, often considered to be mad at the time. The wonderful Kurdish Textile and Cultural Museum is an example of this, a collection of visionaries, preserving all aspects of traditional nomadic and village life, and sometimes in spite of resistance from the local authorities. However Kurdistan did not suffer the massive cultural, social and economic storm of an industrial revolution, as we did, and the consequent wholesale destruction of ancient ways, so the traditional Kurdish way of life was preserved until fairly recently. So the museum owners have the benefit of modern ways but are saving things from a period which is the equivalent to our medieval age. We think that saving steam engines was a marvellous thing but just imagine if you could go back to medieval times and preserve items intact, still in use, gifted or purchased from its maker or owner.
The ‘Weaving Project’ was part of that vision and its purpose was to get young people alongside older ones, for the transfer of old skills relating to textiles, before that older generation was no more.
I took pictures of all these activities for use by the museum, and though I had admired and photographed reed screens displayed on the walls I had never seen reed screen making in action. I have to admit that I paid less attention to the screens because they looked very modern, almost ‘pop art’, yet their use is ancient.
In 2014, after a lengthy refurbishment and enlargement, the museum staff worked hard to open on time, cleaning old favourites and restoring items which had never been seen before. All manner of textiles were chosen and I particularly enjoyed visits to their storage facility where racks and racks of ancient textiles were carefully wrapped and bound, among them were some old reed screens.
Racks and racks of ancient textiles in the storage facility
Restoration of reed screens
Restoring and documenting an old reed screen which has been in storage for a long time.
This old reed screen has had a soft edge added and has seen many years of use.
The making of new reed screen using traditional methods
I was fortunate during this refurbishment to witness the creation of brand new, but traditional, reed screens for display in the museum, for use with their indoor nomadic tent display. The museum doesn’t put things in glass cases and so the new screens, like many of the textiles on display, could be touched by visitors.
Reed screen making is a fading skill so I couldn’t let the event go by without making a record.
A view down the beam as a reed screen takes shape.
Skilful Kurdish reed screen makers
The inside of a nomadic ‘reshmal’ (black home) showing reed screens in their traditional use. Whilst most textiles are wool the roof is woven from black goats hair, which shrinks when wet, making it waterproof.
Here are some samples of stunning Kurdish reed screens, many of which can be seen on the walls of the Kurdish Textile and Cultural Museum.
The ones with the less vibrant colours tend to be the oldest, made from traditional, hand made, natural dyes whereas the brighter, glowing colours, are industrially made and were first imported into Kurdistan around about the 1950’s.
Reed screen examples, new and old:
Making a reed screen
The theory behind the construction is simple however the actual making requires patience, skill and imagination.
Stage 1 – selecting the reeds
The reeds are long and smooth
bundles of bare reeds
Stage 2 – wrapping the reeds
Each reed has coloured thread wound around it in such a way that a number of completed reeds, laid side by side, makes a stunning, and sometimes, mesmerising pattern.
Individual reeds are wrapped in thread, each one using the completed reed before it as a guide
The completed reeds are temporarily bound by thin thread until the makers get enough reeds for the construction stage, when a final strong binding is applied.
As an individual reed is completed it is temporarily bound with weak thread in its finished position. Notice how the amount of coloured thread wrapped around each reed varies according to the shape required.
Stage 3 – Final binding of the reeds together
The final stage requires the reeds to be bound together very tightly, one at a time, with robust thread, and tighter than can be achieved by hands alone. It therefore involves a technique using heavy stones as weights to pull the reeds together, but also as thread holders. The stones are passed, in the correct sequence, over the beam in order to pull it in tightly against the previous reed. The way in which the stones are passed also determines the pattern of the binding thread.
A reed screen at the beginning of the binding process with just few reeds added. The stones provide tension and act as thread holders.
The reeds are bound by heavy thread. Not only do the threads bind the reeds together tightly but, in skilful hands, also create their own patterns, sometimes complex ones, overlaying the coloured reeds, or areas of bare reed, as seen below.
An area of reeds without colour is decorated by the pattern of the woollen binding thread alone. Bare areas of reed make a contrast and show off the coloured panels.
Photo of ‘reshmal’ (black home) by Lolan Sepan of the Kurdish Textile and Cultural Museum
Reed screen close-ups:
The reeds are held tight by one maker, and bound by the other, by lifting stones across the beam
The heavy stones need to be lifted across the wooden beam, one at a time, clacking together on the other side, but in the correct sequence to make the chosen pattern. Their weight pulls the reeds together and holds them tight whilst another reed is added. The beam becomes a type of loom with the reeds being the weft, and the binding thread the warp.
Here you can see a reed screen being started, with just a few reeds added,.
The makers are coming to the end of a long reed screen with two coloured panels divided by a bare reed area.
The screen takes shape as the reeds are added. Although these two pictures look similar they are actually taken from either side of the beam. Above you can see where the last reed has been added on top of the beam. Below you can see the bound reed slowly descending to the floor.
And an example of a finished screen with bare reeds to either side.
Have a go
If you fancy making screens like this yourself then you need to obtain long, smooth reeds. Bamboo canes do not work very well as the raised undulations along the canes holds the canes apart, cause side slippage, and leaves gaps through which light passes, and so spoils the effect. However some reed screens are deliberately loosely bound to allow ventilation. Thin wooden dowels would work if you want a close bind. You could test your skill on a smaller version, using pencils and leftover wool.
Short video in support of the information above.