It’s only one simple couching stitch; you're just making an anchor, pulling a single thread back to the right-hand side of where your design is and tacking it down. For centuries, this uncomplicated sewing technique has defined Spanish embroidery in Northern New Mexico. Its beginnings were born of necessity.
In Colonial times, and even earlier, many people living in the Río Grande Valley were isolated and had limited materials for patching blankets.
“ Colcha (“bed covering”) really lends itself to working in low light, maybe by fireplace at night,” describes colcha embroider and workshop instructor Connie Fernandez of Taos. “It is so easy once you start. It's repetitive. You don't have to think about it. You don't have to go and check where you placed the last stitch. How many rows over? None of that. You can work five minutes, put it down, do what you have to do, come back to it again later. It made sense to stitch this way in Colonial times.”
The origin of Spanish colcha embroidery has various interpretations. All forms of needlework are found on every continent, in every country. It's universal. The colcha stitch is similar to the ancient Romanian “bokhara” couching stitch. But when we come to Northern New Mexico, we're talking about the churro wool and natural dyes that were available in Colonial times. Vibrant colcha embroidery could be found throughout the entire boundary-void area of Spanish colonization from Southern New Mexico to Southern Colorado.
“The most logical story about the beginning of colcha embroidery in New Mexico,” informs local colcha embroider Irene Brandtner de Martínez, “is that the wool blankets developed holes, which were caused by moths or wear. The ladies would embroider a flower or an animal to cover the hole. With time, the blanket became a thing of beauty.”
“The use of the word colcha (in the Río Grande Valley) for these embroideries started in the 1930s with Anglo women’s interest in the colorful embroideries,” adds Brandtner de Martínez.
When you trace its global history, Fernandez says you will find pieces of what would be colcha-style embroidery in Spain and Portugal. “You can look at pieces in other countries going out from there. Then you look at central South America, you look at Mexico, you look at people from Spain, Portugal and from other areas going into Mexico and eventually coming up the Camino Real and settling here,” she explains. “They're bringing memories with them. They're bringing practices and designs that were taught to them.”
Both of Fernandez’s grandmothers did embroidery, but not colcha. “It was just part of life. All my dresses were made from flour sacks when I was little,” she recalls from her years growing up in Connecticut.
Using her knowledge of other forms of embroidery gleaned from her grandmothers, Fernandez really began to experiment with colcha in the early 1990s after retiring from a 43-year teaching career in California and Colorado. She picked a lot of it up on her own and after moving to New Mexico, had more time to devote to her new passion.
“I was struggling with it. The very first time that I was able to sit with somebody and receive encouragement was actually in San Luis, Colorado,” she says. “Josie Lobato, who had done a revival there, and her daughter were demonstrating during a kind of community day. I actually sat down and worked on a piece and brought some stuff I had done. Josie told me, ‘You are fine. Continue.’ ”
Traditional Northern New Mexico wool-on-wool colcha dating from 1800-1850 mostly came from churro sheep. It was handwoven as sabanilla (the backing) and as naturally dyed yarn for the embroidery. Today, this process is used for “good pieces” — it would have to be used if you wanted to show your work in say, the Spanish Market. For everyday purposes, women later used other materials that became more available, such as linen and cotton. But for traditional colcha, it’s churro wool or nothing.
"The churro sheep is the all-important animal that provided sustenance,” Fernandez says. “It provided its wool, and the wool became your yarn and that became your cloth and that became bedding and clothing. That, and then using natural dyes, are all traditional when looking at it. The churro sheep is what makes colcha unique here.”
For the backing on her contemporary creations, such as framed artwork, Fernandez has repurposed a skirt from a yard sale. She’s used men's pants and other types of cloth from fabric stores and second-hand shops. “I love using Mexican shawls. The sabanilla does not always have to be clear and white (as in traditional backing). It can be different.”
Her cousin Carmen Velarde grew up using burlap although that’s very hard on your hands, Fernandez cautions.
Traditional designs are not complex and could be done more quickly. Scenes and extensive detail were not done in the past. Common traditional patterns became widespread and consisted of flowers, birds, animals and the Tree of Life. When you look at any kind of embroidery or materials from New England, Fernandez says, you’re going to see similarities in the designs of things from Mexico, “because you're talking about the trade routes.”
Colcha wasn’t used just for bed coverings or for patching a pair of pants. In the 17th through 19th centuries, says Brandtner de Martínez, embroideries were used in churches as altar cloths, altar carpets and wall hangings.
“I think some people — maybe outside of here — and even in the Catholic religion, forget about the religious heritage that was traditional to the area. In a sense, people had deep ownership of those little capillas of those churches,” Fernandez expresses.
And although rare, Fernandez adds, in Colonial times colcha was sometimes used to make curtains.
Modern colcha can be found on pillows, purses, suit jackets, wall art and wearable art. To Fernandez, colcha embroidery — whether in its traditional or contemporary form — reflects the heart and imagination of its maker, the bordadora.
Keeping this tradition alive is what Fernandez loves most about doing colcha. She holds a workshop from 10 a.m. to noon the third Monday of every month at La Hacienda de los Martínez. The Hacienda Martínez group started three years ago.
“In our colcha group, it is not a job,” she stresses. “We just love what we do. We do not critique. We want relaxation. We want the ability to implement, to create and to learn. I always tell anyone I teach, ‘Keep your mistakes. Put it aside, write down what you did because then you’ll know how it turns out.’ I'm still learning. We all are.”
What else she loves about the colcha group are the various recycled materials the women bring in: “Most of the women here, not everyone but most of the women, do not have immediate access to big stores, and we don't have oodles of money to spend. We reuse.”
In today's chaotic world, for Fernandez and many others, colcha embroidery provides a respite of meditative peace, while simultaneously creating something beautiful, reflective or intriguing whether they sell or display their works or not. “It is a joy to preserve and pass on this cultural treasure.”