A STITCH THROUGH TIME

Taos bor­dado­ras pre­serve colcha cul­ture

Tradiciones: Artes - - CONTENTS - BY SCOTT GERDES

It’s only one sim­ple couch­ing stitch; you’re just mak­ing an an­chor, pulling a sin­gle thread back to the right­hand 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.’ ”

The ma­te­ri­als

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.

The de­signs

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.

Groom­ing bor­dado­ras

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.”

Taos News ar­chives

Tra­di­tional colcha pat­terns of­ten fea­ture sim­ple flow­ers and leaves.

Scott Gerdes

Con­nie Fer­nan­dez, right, shares her knowl­edge and pas­sion of colcha em­broi­dery dur­ing the open­ing re­cep­tion at this sum­mer's ex­hibit at La Ha­cienda de los Mar­tinez.

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