Colcha means “bedcover” in Spanish. This style of needlework was created by Colonial settlements in northern New Mexico. Colcha embroidery has a wonderful history and revival that we will explore today.
Colcha embroidery was popular in the early 1700’s to late 1800’s in the southwest United States. The traditional Spanish Colonial designs were influenced by East Indian prints and 18th century crewel. So, the designs included flowers, leaves, birds, often with a central medallion. The stitch that became known as “colcha” was a self-couching thread. The colcha stitch was free-form and flowing. It was perfect for large motifs as well as finer details. This technique also maximizes the thread usage, which is important since most of the earlier stitching was done over the entire surface of the base fabric.
The original base fabric was called “sabanilla”, a loosely-woven wool fabric with a 12- to 22-thread count. Thirty inch strips were sewn together to create the bedspread. While the majority of the embroidery was done on bedspreads, they also made runners and altar clothes, often with fringe.
Colors were dictated by what was available. Sheep provided the wool in white, brown, and black. Dyes from plants provided green, yellow, and peach colored yarns. There was also a rare blue indigo and a red cochineal, made from crushed bugs.
The process of preparing the wool, spinning the yarn, weaving the fabric, and dying the yarn was time consuming. When pre-made items became available due to industrialization, it was easy to see why women chose the commercially-made goods. Tighter woven cotton fabrics replaced the woven wool strips. The original yarns were also replaced by spun yarn that had a consistent size and twist. The overall designs were no longer needed to cover the loosely-woven patchwork strips. In time, even the handwork was abandoned to the modern finished products. The original embroidery had almost been forgotten except for museum exhibits.
Revisited and Revised
The first revival began in the 1930’s in Carson, New Mexico. There was a salvage operation that took old colcha pieces and tried to repair them. Two sisters, Frances and Sophie Graves, joined a local business, an Anglo Mormon and Hispanic venture. In time, the patterns changed to reflect the stitcher’s style and interests which included wagons, cowboys, buffalo, and horses. The stitches became much more regimented losing the flowing lines of the earlier stitchers. While the style changed, it still had a purpose: it brought the heritage stitching back.
Fast forward to the middle 1970’s. Known as the Villenueva project, the Museum of International Folk Art reached out to women in the region. The museum sponsored workshops teaching colcha embroidery. Women were encourged to stitch pictorial projects based on their daily lives. Following in the 1980’s, Colcha embroidery played a large part in the revitalization of the San Luis Valley. Father Patricio Valdez created The Sewing Circle, which was predominantly Hispanic women. He believed you could not have spiritual growth without economic success. The ladies learned to stitch the traditional Colchas that were then sold, bringing money back into the villages.
There is an excellent book, Stitching Rites: Colcha Embroidery Along the Northern Rio Grande by Suzanne Pollock MacAulay, that addresses the pros and cons of revitalization, and its impact on the historical accuracy and evolution of needlework. This book discusses Colcha embroidery, but probably relates to many other heritage techniques as they evolve over time.
Let’s learn the Colcha stitch. First, let’s gather up our stitching supplies.
The backing fabric should be of medium weight with a loose weave such as Monk’s cloth, Aida cloth, or wool flannel. You must be able to get the thread and needle through the fabric easily. Natural off-white is traditional. Other colors are acceptable as long as you can mark the design on the fabric.
Wool yarn was used originally. The finer the thread, the more detail could be stitched. Bella Lusso wool would be a very versatile choice. You determine the number of strands to use, depending on how thick you want your couched line to be. Today you can use a variety of threads. Keep in mind that you will be using long lengths up to 36″ at time.
Experienced stitchers will often stitch in hand, but you may want to use a hoop or frame when you start. This helps you learn how to stitch with a consistent tension that won’t pucker or sag.
The Colcha Stitch
This is a stitch laid along the top of the fabric and then couched down with the same thread. The initial stitch can be straight, curved, short, or long. Similar stitches include Roumanian and Bokhara.
To get started, thread your needle with at least a 36″ length of thread. Find the widest part of your design element. You do not want a knot on the back of the fabric. So, do a running stitch along where you want to start.
Bring your needle out at the left side of the design element and back down at the right side of the design element.
The first couching stitch should start one-eighth to one-quarter of an inch from the top.
Bring your needle through the fabric below the foundation thread. Make a diagonal stitch across the foundation line. Continue making the diagonal stitches along the line. When you reach the beginning point make sure you have enough thread to make another long foundation stitch. If not, bury your thread through the stitching on top of the fabric and start a new thread.
Repeat the couching process, being careful NOT to create a pattern with the couching. You will work from your original foundation line down to the bottom of your piece. When you have filled in that section, turn your work and work the other half of the section again working from the top to the bottom. Do not carry your thread across the back. Instead, bury your thread or travel underneath the top stitching.
Why you ask? Because the back of your work is just as important as the front. It is meant to be looked at, not covered up. The back should look like it is covered with seed stitches.
Continue filling in the remainder of the design. The original pieces were completely stitched with very long lines connecting the motifs. You can do this as well for larger pieces. If you have a small item, such as an ornament, you can leave the background blank or do stitches like a water ripple around the design.
The charm of this technique is its “folk artsy” appearance. There are really no rules. You decide which direction you want your foundation lines to go. The diagonal couching should not be uniform, so there is no need to count or measure. It truly is a free-form style and very relaxing to stitch.
Para las bordadoras de San Luis “A lo dado no se le da fin.” (For the embroiderers of San Luis, “What is given has no end”.) from Stitching Rites.
These museums have Colcha embroideries in their collections. Before you go, contact them to be sure the textiles are on display.
- Albuquerque Museum, Albuquerque, NM
- Millicent Rogers Museum, Taos, NM
- Museum of International Folk Art, Santa Fe, NM
- El Rancho de las Golondrinas, La Cienega, NM
- The Art of Colcha Embroidery
- Colcha Embroidery Handbook, Sandia Mountains EGA Chapter, 1995
- The Spanish Colonial Ornament and the Motifs Depicted in the Textiles of the Revival of the American Southwest, Nellie Dunton, 1935
- New Mexico Colcha Embroidery, Susan Ellis, 1989
- Stitching Rites: Colcha Embroidery Along the Northern Rio Grande, Suzanne MacAuley, 2000
We hope this guide makes your stitching easier and more enjoyable!
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