SANTA FE, N.M. — The Northern New Mexico Spanish Colonial Colcha Embroidery show started by accident.
Director/curator Loretta Atencio had scheduled a monthlong exhibit for her own embroidery at Española’s Bond House Museum when she came up short.
“I didn’t have enough artwork because colcha takes so long to make,” she said in a telephone interview from her Dixon home. “So I called people and asked if they wanted to be in a show. I called everybody I knew.”
Now in its third biennial, this show of multicolored flowers, vines and birds stitched in the gentle art of colcha is at the Bond House Museum through Aug. 30. About 20 embroiderers will be showing 60 works of art tumbling across pillowcases, table runners, tablecloths, napkins, vestments and clothing.
The Spanish word colcha means coverlet or counterpane; New Mexicans typically call any bed covering a colcha. Sabanilla labrada, or wool-on-wool colcha embroidery work, is unique because it may be one of the few textiles developed and made in New Mexico during the colonial period.
Similar to the couching stitch of English embroidery, colcha is a long stitch held down by small diagonal tacking. The technique leaves little yarn on the back aside from a shadow outline. There are no knots.
Artists dye their own yarn from churro sheep using native plants such as chamisa for yellow and onion skin for gold. Madder root turns orange, while green leaches from wild spinach. The cochineal insect, which feasts on prickly pear, produces the rich reds so critical to traditionally embroidered flowers. Some artists weave their own background cloth or sabanilla, sometimes washing it in yucca root to soften its naturally coarse texture.
Atencio first discovered the traditional embroidery at the old Chimayó Trading Post. Owner Leo Lopez knew the technique.
“It looked soft and it looked natural and the colors were not like commercial pigments,” she said. “I thought if he could do it, I could do it, too. My mom was doing embroidery, but not that kind.”
Colcha nearly disappeared as recently as 10 years ago. Its revival can be traced to Spanish Market award winners, the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art and classes and workshops.
Atencio isn’t taking her nimble fingers to needles right now; she’s busy spinning and dyeing yarn.
“I’m one of those people who want to try everything,” she said. “I’m collecting plants – the hollyhocks – because their blossoms are already fading.”
She isn’t sure what colors New Mexico’s signature flower will produce.
“I’ve never done that before,” she said.