Colcha Embroidery
Esther Vigil

Colcha Embroidery was created by the Spaniards who came to New Mexico in 1598. The Spaniards were the first Europeans to colonize the Americas.

Colcha means a blanket and it also defines the only stitch they used to embroider. Colcha is a couching stitch that comes from Crewel Embroidery that had been in existence for thousands of years in Europe.

My ancestors were promised land grants if they settled in the new territory for five years. They came with supplies, tools and livestock, but survival was not easy They settled in areas near the Rio Grande in order to cultivate the land. Travel was hazardous so they had to create whatever needs arose with what they had in hand.

Winters were harsh, so they took the wool from the churro sheep, carded, spun and wove it into a woolen cloth called Sabanilla. Dyeing the same wool with natural pigments, they embroidered designs with only the couching stitch, now identified as Colcha. Colcha is a fill-in stitch which is layered on the cloth but you must return to anchor the stitch to the sabanilla. This provides two more layers of wool adding more warmth to the blanket.

In 1928, my mother, Maria Teofila Ortiz Lujan, chartered the "Arte Antiguo", (Ancient Art), in order to preserve the Culture and Traditions of our ancestors. The traditional arts were no longer practiced and were labeled "Dying Arts". Mother researched and copied the few designs available, and the group met in each other's homes monthly to revise colcha. She was a member for sixty- seven years. The club disolved in 1995, the same year mother passed on, four months shy of a hundred years old.

In the 1930's, during the Depression, President Roosevelt created projects like the WPA, Works Progress Administration. Night schools were set up to educate the adults how to recreate all the arts and crafts that were labeled "Dying Arts" in order to stimulate the economy. There was colcha embroidery, carved wood furniture, tin work, religious articles and other crafts.

By the time I was born in 1933, mother was passionately addicted with the art of colcha. At a very young age I was recruited to copy the few designs she had to embroider. Some were crude and narrow, the deer were minus some of their limbs, so I started to improvise in making corrections and creating some of my own designs. By the age of seven or eight I was well into colcha embroidery and colcha designs. I thought every household was doing the same thing.

In 1954, I married and moved to Albuquerque. Some years later I was asked to demonstrate colcha, and found to my surprise no one knew what colcha was. Then and there I was determined to continue in my mother’s footsteps.

The main question I was concerned with was, how could I preserve this dying art? We are no longer in need of blankets, so why not frame this beautiful art and expose and teach the public? In researching, I found nothing but the pamphlet that was printed for the WPA classes by Carmen Espinoza. Her aunt was a chartered member of the Arte Antiguo.

So, I built an inventory, and took up tin work in order to frame my own designs. I was interviewed by our local newspaper. The article came out on Mother’s Day, the same day I was doing a workshop at a local market place. When I arrived at the location, called Traditions, I could hardly enter with my inventory, the place was packed.

Someone in the crowd took twenty-four names of people wanting classes. A lady in a wheel chair came up to me and said, "I told my husband this morning after reading the paper, I don't want anything for Mother’s Day, except for you to take me to Traditions to meet Esther!" That was beautiful music to my ears. As tears came to my eyes, I could only think, Mom, I'm on my way, and what wonders an article in the newspaper made.

I have since taught classes, done workshops at schools. Also, the Museum of Albuquerque asked me to do a workshop when they were exhibiting a colcha they had commissioned my mother to do. I have also published the following books:

In 2006 - Colcha Embroidery,
ISBN: 1-4243-0837-2 also

In 2010 - Colcha Embroidery II
ISBN: 978-0-578-05721-7

These books contain a brief history, teach how to do colcha, and provide my original designs. This is the only book on colcha that gives extensive instructions. My books are in the museums in Santa Fe and in Espanola at the Fiber Arts Store. They are doing very well, and the number of people who have embraced colcha has significantly increased. At the time mother was in the Spanish Market in Santa Fe, a yearly exhibit in the last weekend of July, you could count the artists in one hand. Now there are around thirty. People from all walks of life are obviously enjoying the creation of this beautiful art work. I do believe Colcha is here to stay.