History of Colcha embroidery

Monique worked as the sound recording archivist of the John Donald Robb Archives of Southwestern Music at the Center for Southwest Research. She sent me more information on the history of colcha, and here is an edited version of her remarks:

The designs of Castelo Branco embroidery are so similar to New Mexico colcha. There was a period of time when Portugal was under the dominion of Spain, thus the accomplishments of the Portuguese were overlooked. King Philip II of Spain entered Portugal in 1580, and it was not till 1640 that Portugal regained its independence. However, during this time of expansion and flourishing trade, goods made their way to Mexico and on to New Mexico.

The Portuguese were the masters of the seas. When Afonso de Albuquerque, a Portuguese navigator and explorer sent to India in 1508, conquered the island of Goa in 1511, he opened a trade route to Europe (Albuquerque is also the name of the biggest city in New Mexico). Among the imports were magnificent bed covers, coverlets with the similar design as the one in Castelo Branco and also northern New Mexico. Coverlets (colcha) were viewed as exotic luxuries. According to the author Nicolau de Oliveira (1566-1634), “there were no ships from India that does not bring at least four hundred.”

Here is a traditional colcha embroidery design worked by Monique with Persian wool on linen (it’s 20 x 42 inches/41 x 101 cm):

Can any of my Indian readers tell me which Indian embroidery styles may have inspired these?

Monique also sent me a list of books on colcha embroidery:

  • New Mexico Colcha Club: Spanish Colonial Embroidery & the Women Who Saved It, by Nancy Benson
  • Stitching Rites: Colcha Embroidery along the Northern Rio Grande, by Suzanne P. MacAulay (This book is about colcha stitchers in the San Luis valley of Colorado, especially colchera Josie Lobato.)
  • Weaving and Colcha from the Hispanic Southwest: Authentic designs, by William Wroth (This includes many designs.)
  • Colcha Embroidery Handbook, by Karen Schueler (This is about techniques.)
  • Colcha, by E. Vigil (Available from the Espanola Valley Fiber Arts Center. The author’s mother is featured in Nacy Benson’s book.)
  • The EVFAC also has supplies for colcha, such as churro yarn (http://www.evfac.org/for-sale/equipment.html.)

A lot of the books are available at a library nearby, so I’ll be checking them out myself sometime soon. I’ll keep y’all updated!

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9 Responses to History of Colcha embroidery

  1. Monique says:

    Thank you Hannah for posting the list of books on NM colcha embroidery. East Indian chintz or indianilla as it is called in NM is not the only theme. Colcha were embroidered to adorn altar in NM churches and private chapel. The embroidery was often crosses and saints. At present, the favorite saint is the Virgen de Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico.
    Among one of the design used in some old NM colchas is the double- headed Hapsburg eagle. I believe that the eagle also appeared in some household embroideries in Portugal.
    Monique

  2. There are quite a few references of Indian influence on Portuguese ,for instance http://www.illuminatedspaces.com/historicarts/qsource28.htm
    A google search on Indo Portuguese embroidery may give more insights.

    • Monique says:

      Thank you Deepa..yes I remember the article ” portugal and the east through embroidery” but have not looked recently for anymore sources. It was Meri’s reply to the posting of the NM floral embroidery that prompted my comments.
      The contribution of the Portugues to NM and the southwest is understated and overlooked. My reasons for looking into the Portuguese influence in the U.S. southewest and NM were two fold; trying to find new ideas for students looking for research material. In order to help them, I had to know where to look myself. The other reason was my own interest in embroidery.
      Again thank you..it was a neat article and I learned something new today.
      Monique

      • Monique says:

        There is also John Irwin ” Indo Portuguese embroideries of Bengal”..what a journey, from silk to sheep.
        Monique

  3. Joan Laurion says:

    My hometown, Madison WI, is sistered with a small village in El Salvador called Arcatao. The women in that village all do very unique embroidery which I understand is Colcha embroidery. Their designs are not the same but the embroidery itself is. How would this style of embroidery have gotten to the mountains of El Salvador?

    • Hannah says:

      It may have been brought over by Portuguese colonists? I will have to look into the history of who settled in El Salvador. The New Mexico colcha embroidery seems to be a descendant of Castelo Branco Portuguese embroidery (http://enbrouderie.com/2011/02/02/on-colcha-embroidery-and-portugal/). I just created a new category for it, since I now have three posts on Castelo Branco embroidery and have plans for more.

      • Monique says:

        Hannah, there is a very interesting article in Piecework magazine Sept/Oct 1999 about New England early wool whole-cloth quilts. The designs are very similar to the Portuguese embroidery of Castelo Branco. The author is Lynne Zager Bassett.
        Monique

    • Monique says:

      Joan,
      In the colcha embroidery of NM, a single stich ( a variation of the couching stitch) is used with consistency, both for all over embroidery and free standing designs. The variation is that the securing stich is made by the same thread that has just been laid across the material. Fundamentally, it is the combination of a long thread laid across the material, with shorter stitches binding the long thread down at intervals, which produces ” couching”.
      Monique

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