|Las Colchas de New Mexico: Embroidered Textiles
Patricia L. Cummings
The Spanish word “colcha” is used in a general sense to mean a quilt, a bed covering, or a bedspread. A brief overview about
colchas will be offered here. One book states that New Mexicans call any bed covering a colcha. Modern "colchas,” sold
online, are mass-produced, puffy affairs and no different that some of the imported home decorator quilts sold in department
stores. This article explores the artistry and background of colchas as developed during the time of the Spanish colonization of
New Mexico by Juan de Oñate (from 1598-1610).
Ancient Colcha-Making Tradition Continues
Let's start at the beginning, when considering the colchas of New Mexico. Colchas are one of the few original textile arts
indigenous to New Mexico. They combine art and practicality and are still being made by colcheras today, some of whom
meet once a week at the museum in Santa Fe, in a type of embroidery bee. An event in Santa Fe called “Spanish Market"
features artists who win prizes for their colcha-making.
One such person is Kathleen Lerner. See her beautiful colcha with a typical star motif. This is one isolated repeat design image
of 12 that comprise her 235th colcha. In 2007, the piece won Best of Show, a Blue Ribbon and People's Choice Award at
Spanish Market in Santa Fe. The size of a garage door, she says, it is made of the wool of churro sheep. Only natural dyes
Colcha making is a Spanish Colonial art form made possible by the utilization of wool from churro sheep, a sturdy breed that
yields long, coarse fibers that are occasionally mixed with fine, merino sheep fibers and other fibers today, according to Bud
Redding, marketing director of the Spanish Colonial Arts Society in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The churro sheep has lasted in
New Mexico since Oñate brought them in 1598.
In the early days of harvesting churro fleece, it was sun-dried atop roofs to kills fleas. The sun's ultra-violet rays provide an
instant sanitizer. This practice was carried out in the days when fleece was sheared using only a sharp knife. By the way, the
word “churro” means “common.”
Rare Resources Assist in Study
When I first began collecting information, several years ago, I found exactly three publications. One is a pamphlet called “The
Colcha Stitch: Embroideries by Rebecca James.” A second booklet, with motifs from old colchas, is titled, New Mexico:
Colonial Embroidery," by Carmen Espinosa. A third (book) is called, stitching rites: colcha embroidery along the northern rio
grande by suzanne p. macaulay.
Rebecca James' booklet is a wonderful resource that provides a brief history and directions on how to do this versatile type of
embroidery. Her goal was to see that colcha work continue being done by artists, not copyists. In her introduction, she states:
Colcha embroidery began to degenerate after 1850 or 1860 due to the influence of new designs, store-bought patterns,
commercially dyed yarns or threads. But this deterioration did not end that early --- proved by the fact that embroideries have
been found using flour-sacking as foundation material as late as 1910.
More recently, a two volume set was discovered: Spanish New Mexico, edited by Donna Pierce and Marta Weigle and
published by the Museum of New Mexico Press, Santa Fe in 1996. This set of books handsomely represents “The Arts of
Spanish New Mexico” and “Hispanic Arts in the Twentieth Century,” respectively. Many examples of colcha style designs can
be viewed in Vol. 1 of this set, described in much more detail than is feasible here.
That same book compares the Colcha stitch to the basma stitch used in the creation of Jewish altar cloths. Additionally, the
author compares the stitch to the bokhara stitch, used by Turks before conquest by Muslims. This information points to the
fact that there is nothing new under the sun and that even ancients influenced each other, conceivably via trade.
Colchas can be one of two types: wool-on-wool, Sabanilla labrada, or wool-on-cotton which sometimes utilized spent
dishtowels, feedsack, and recycled textiles (in the twentieth century). The condition of the foundation fabric did not really
matter as the surface would eventually be covered completely. Those colchas provide the visual appearance of a rug, better
suited for a wall decoration or couch cover, rather than a bed.
Others have designs that are visual units unto themselves. Motifs vary from flowers or animals to birds and geometrics and
some designs reportedly show a distinctly Spanish influence. 1 Deer, roosters (a popular theme in Latin American Art) and
stars were often the motifs of choice. Morning glory designs are also popular. A blog associated with "El Rancho de Las
Golondrinas," A Living History Museum, shows a white sabanilla with isolated embroidered motifs that use the Colcha Stitch.
Since Spain has been influenced by art from many places, it is not surprising that Oriental, Persian and Moorish designs show
up in the colchas of New Mexico, not the least of which is the “Tree of Life.” Of course, some motifs are indigenous to the
native populations of the state. The range of colcha-making extended into southern Colorado.
One on-line source tells a story and mentions that originally, colchas did not feature figural renditions of saints until the 1930s,
Church Inspires Altar-Cloth Making
Some colchas were made to adorn the altars of churches, and some of these still exist in private collections, none of them
dated after 1850, and many well before that date. 2 Sabanillas, pure white woolen background material was the base upon
which the decorative motifs of embroidery were worked. The word, sabanilla, has taken on many other textile related
Many extant items of Spanish Colonial Art reflect the deep religious beliefs of the artisans who make them. Today, las
colcheras try to make their colchas in an authentic manner, according to Linda Esquivel, an artist from New Mexico with
whom I spoke. Some spin the churro wool, and dye it, and others weave the wool of the same type of early looms used
during the Spanish Colonial period.
"Teaching A Lost Art," is an online story, with photos, written by Kathaleen Roberts, published on July 25, 2008 by Journal
Santa Fe. Julia Gomez, a teacher of colcha techniques is interviewed. The women who keep this dying art alive look forward
to the prizes they win for their work at Spanish Market.
Types of Stitches
Simple stitches of embroidery are used such as the Outline Stitch, Chain Stitch, French Knots, Buttonhole Stitch, and Long
and Short stitch. The primary stitch is called the “Colcha Knot Stitch.” In addition to the other connections, previously
mentioned, that stitch has been compared in other resources to the Bokhara stitch, a type of couching stitch, used universally,
even in the Bayeaux Tapestry.
When I have executed this stitch in the past, I have simply called it a self-couching stitch. The Colcha Knot Stitch consists of
laying parallel, long stitches and then tacking them, at intervals, beginning with the last stitch laid and working to the first, with
the same thread. The stitch yields a textured appearance.
Dyes for the Wool Yarns
Dyes were collected from desert plants such as the chamisa bush and the canaigre plant. Yet others were traded, among them:
Indigo, cochineal, and brazil-wood chips. 3
If you are a current colcha maker, or own an old colcha and can spare a photo, we would love to feature a photo.
For a little more information, see the website of the Spanish Colonial Arts Museum, Santa Fe:
I hope that you have enjoyed reading this overview about colchas, an ancient tradition of the southwestern United States. I
really enjoyed the information in all of the resources I used for this article but most especially the two heavy volumes from the
Spanish Colonial Arts Museum.
1 “New Mexico Colonial Embroidery,” 3. Information for this booklet was reproduced from the New Mexico Department of
Vocational Education's booklet, “New Mexico Colonial Embroidery,” 1943, after permission was secured by the publisher.
2 Ibid., 3.
3 Op.cit., 4.
©Copyright 2008. Patricia L. Cummings, Quilter's Muse Publications, Concord, New Hampshire. All rights reserved.