Colcha embroidery is a folk art characteristic of Northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado history, traditions, and cultural expression. The term, colcha, translates from Spanish as quilt or bedcovering.
The colcha stitch is a long laid stitch secured to the ground cloth by self-couched stitches; it is worked with a single thread & needle. The colcha stitch is similar to Bokhara, Roumanian, and Kloster couching stitches, but it is employed differently for free-form surface design effects. Designs typically featured stylized flowers, vines, leaves, animals and Moorish-influenced arabesques.
During the Spanish colonial era, the hardy Churro sheep's wool was spun into yarn and dyed with local plants indigenous to the high desert as well as with cochineal and with indigo imported from the far-flung Spanish Empire. These handspun yarns were made into a loosely woven cloth, termed sabanilla, derived from the Spanish word sábana (sheet or shroud), which adorned beds, windows, and ceilings as well as home and church altars. The stitch itself mended many a torn shirt or pants, and also added layers of additional coverage and design to the cloth, thus increasing the weight of the blanket two or even threefold, and rendering it warm.
Today, colcha embroidery artists continue to practice this art form in private homes and small circles. Many follow ancestral designs and make embroidery pieces that often depict early designs, images from nature, and religious motifs. A few choose to address social issues or dare to break with conventions of the Hispanic culture. Some of these artists teach throughout their community, whereas others are introduced by family members, an expression of their local culture. A few times, colcha embroidery was introduced to a community as a result of economic development programs as was the case in the San Luis Valley, Colorado, and to document the history, life, and faith of the people of the Pecos Valley that now adorns 265 feet of embroidered panels throughout the Roman Catholic Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Villanueva, New Mexico.
Colcha embroidery pieces can be admired in many New Mexico museums or purchased from the artists during exhibitions. Embroidery circles still meet regularly in Albuquerque at the National Hispanic Cultural Center, in Santa Fe at the Museum of Spanish Colonial Arts, and in Taos at the Hacienda de los Martinez. These embroidered textiles win prizes at the Spanish Colonial Arts Society’s annual Spanish Market in Santa Fe, the biennial Albuquerque Fiber Fiesta, and the biennial Colcha exhibit in Española. The work is also appreciated during demonstrations at Rancho de Las Golondrinas, the living history museum south of Santa Fe. Surprisingly, colcha embroidery is rarely part of local textile art exhibits or competitions.
Beyond the region of Northern New Mexico, this traditional embroidery form remains largely unknown because it has been insufficiently researched, documented, and is rarely included in national needlework collections.
In the pages that follow, we invite you to meet colcha artists and explore their artwork.