New Mexico Colcha Club: Spanish Colonial Embroidery & the Women Who Saved It

By Green, Laura Marcus | Journal of American Folklore, Winter 2012 | Go to article overview

New Mexico Colcha Club: Spanish Colonial Embroidery & the Women Who Saved It


Green, Laura Marcus, Journal of American Folklore


New Mexico Colcha Club: Spanish Colonial Embroidery & the Women Who Saved It. By Nancy C. Benson. (Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press, 2008. Pp. 168, color and blackand- white illustrations, references, index.)

In New Mexico Colcha Club: Spanish Colonial Embroidery & the Women Who Saved It, Nancy C. Benson tells the story of colcha embroidery, a tradition unique to northern New Mexico and southern Colorado. The author aptly calls her book a "biography" of colcha in which she describes the art form's birth, heyday, decline, and ultimate revival (p. 11). New Mexico Colcha Club adds to a substantial literature on Spanish colonial culture in New Mexico and Colorado and on colcha in particular. Benson enriches our understanding of colcha by weaving a canvas of vivid contextual detail and embroidering it with the personal stories of colcha stitchers from two generations, Teofila Lujan and her daughter Esther Vigil.

Part 1, "Roots of Colcha Embroidery in the Spanish Province of New Mexico," explores colcha's development, grounding readers in state history through evocative accounts of life in the new territory. Benson's thorough research yields references to embroidery in estate inventories, shipping records, explorers' diaries, and church documents, demonstrating the value of handmade textiles in seventeenththrough nineteenth-century New Mexico. As Spanish colonists arrived in the northern Rio Grande region in the early 1600s, they brought the ingredients for colcha to take root and prosper: Churro sheep, spinning, treadle looms, and a passion for embroidery. Northern New Mexico winters furnished further incentive for creating wool-on-wool embroidery that adorned bedspreads, carpets, altar cloths, and other church linens.

Colcha stitchers spun and dyed their own Churro yarn, which they used to embroider on handwoven wool yardage called sabanilla. Originally, colcha embroidery covered the entire ground cloth with floral, animal, and geometric designs. Early colcha was inspired by Spanish embroidery. Northern New Mexico was relatively isolated, but trade routes brought Chinese silks, Philippine embroidery, and Indian chintz fabric, fueling new design ideas. Benson explains this unique constellation of aesthetic and practical influences: "Women in remote communities used their ingenuity and initiative to create a regional embroidery technique that satisfied their need for something warm and beautiful and represented their determination to endure in a world where they had to make do with what they had" (p. 54).

New Mexico became part of Mexico in 1821 and was annexed by the United States in 1848. These political realignments cast Santa Fe as a commercial hub, ushering in a flood of new trade goods. The arrival of factory-made cotton yardage and commercial wool yarns brought unprecedented convenience and a new palette of colors to colcha embroiderers. They began replacing their handwoven sabanilla and homespun yarn with manufactured materials. Wool-on-cotton colcha emerged at this juncture, distinguished by the incorporation of new stitches to create freestanding motifs that allowed the ground cloth to show. Anglo-American crewel embroidery also sparked design innovations. New motifs began appearing on colcha, including birds, insects, and elaborate flower designs, as well as pronghorn antelope, deer, and buffalo, as New Mexico women tapped their natural surroundings for inspiration. In addition to furnishing their homes and churches with hand-embroidered linens, some colcha stitchers earned money by selling their work.

The arrival of the railroad to New Mexico in 1878 wrought more far-reaching changes. By the close of the nineteenth century, colcha embroi- dery had become an heirloom from earlier times, with very few practitioners. New higher-yielding breeds of sheep replaced the Churro, resulting in inferior yarn for weaving and embroidery. Manufactured goods and other handwork traditions like quilting and crochet supplanted the more painstaking colcha work. …

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