Colcha: Stitches And Stories

The Colcha embroidery tradition is front and center at two Taos Museums this summer.

The fascinating history of this needle art has its origins in Spain, and perhaps the tradition goes even further back; to the Suzani traditions of Persia, brought to Spain by Moorish conquerors almost 1000 years ago. I speculate here, but in my mind I can see the look in Spanish women’s eyes as their gazes first fell upon these richly coloured, embroidered Tribal bed covers, traditionally part of a woman’s dowry.

Or maybe the Gypsy troupes travelling back and forth from India, carried embroideries from Kashmir to Seville? No matter, the fine embroidered shawls and Colchas, have come to be as much a part of Spanish culture as they are to their Oriental counterparts.

The Spanish word colcha means coverlet. Here in New Mexico, any bed covering is referred to as a colcha. The word colcha is commonly also used to identify an embroidery stitch or any piece in which the colcha stitch has been used.

There are many theories as to how colcha embroidery in New Mexico evolved. The colonists, of the Upper Rio Grande (present day Colorado and Northern New Mexico) river basin, may have been inspired by the flowers and leaves they saw on East Indian chintz, or Crewel embroideries brought here by Traders and settlers coming from the East and Midwest.

It’s a known fact that the floral designs of post 18th Century Spanish bedspreads can be traced to the block printed Indian cotton hangings that came into the country in the late seventeenth century,  and inspired the settlers to imitate the pretty floral shapes using available, albeit coarser materials. In both design and function, the linen and silk embroidery of Spain and Mexico is closely related to the colcha embroidery found in the American Southwest. Many of the designs used in traditional New Mexican colchas, including the double-headed Hapsburg eagle, are also  found in Spanish and Mexican embroideries.

Only the wool-on-wool colcha embroidery work, is distinct because it may be one of the few textiles developed and made in New Mexico during the Spanish colonial period. The landscape of the Espanola valley  was once filled with churro sheep brought from Spain by the colonists. The wool of the churro lent itself well to embroidery as its long straight fibers are relatively low in lanolin.

The wool was coloured with dyes  made from indigenous plants (with the exception of Indigo), and the patterns they created were from primitive drawings of the flora and fauna the women observed in their daily lives.  In time, the introduction of commercial yardage and yarns influenced the styles and compositions as well. Because of the remoteness of this region, northern New Mexican women had to be resourceful and the local colcha tradition was further defined by their use of scrap materials and recycled textiles.

The current show at the Harwood Museum tells us a little more about the evolution of this distinctly New Mexican craft, while focusing on one area in particular.

The exhibit (coincides with Judy Chicago’s Birth Project, which also uses embroidery to tell a story), shares locally made colchas, highlighting the 20th century works of Frances Varos Graves and her masterful assemblies that have come to be known and recognized as the Carson colcha; here, where craft becomes art.

“The 20th century saw a resurgence of the colcha tradition,” the Harwood’s introduction to this show explains, “ with a combination of traditional and modern techniques and materials. The styles and patterns also adjusted, as works were created for sale as much as for ‘fine art,’ to be sold at Spanish Market and collected at local museums.”

The colchas in this exhibition are from the museum’s collection, borrowed from a local collection (Hank Saxe and Cynthia Patterson), and from the New Mexico Museum of Art.

The Taos Historic Museums have long been the staunch supporters of local culture and arts and crafts, including Colcha embroideries which they have displayed at the Martinez Hacienda over the years. Opening on Saturday, July 13th, the latest  exhibition will run from July 1st through August 31st.

It includes traditional pieces from many Spanish Market participants and contemporary themes as well, showcasing this craft  that spans both continents and centuries, yet remains a living and thriving tradition.

In addition, the Museum is honored to exhibit an extraordinary collection from the San Luis Valley. This loan is made possible by Sangre de Cristo Heritage Center (San Luis, Colorado), Costilla County Economic Development Council, Valley Wide Health Systems, Sangre de Cristo Parish and private collections. This is the first time this collection will be shown in New Mexico.

For more information about both of these shows, please visit the links below.


Harwood/Carson Colchas




All images (including Frances Graves, Virgin on a Crescent Moon c. 1940 Colcha (wool), thanks to the Harwood and Taos Historic Museums

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