|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 were utilized.
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
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
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 meanings.
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
Vocational Education's booklet, “New Mexico Colonial Embroidery,” 1943, after permission was secured by the
2 Ibid., 3.
3 Op.cit., 4.
©Copyright 2008. Patricia L. Cummings, Quilter's Muse Publications, Concord, New Hampshire. All rights reserved.