Arts Feature: A Stitch In Time

Colcha Evolves As A Craft While Preserving New Mexican Heritage

Maggie Grimason
5 min read
Annette Gutierrez Turk’s embroidery
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At the confluence of the Rio Grande and Chama rivers in northern New Mexico, early Spanish colonists forged lives designed by their surroundings—gulping water from rivers whose headwaters were deep in the Sangre de Cristos, planting native seeds in the clay-tough earth and establishing community-binding traditions in a land vastly different from faraway Spain. With Oñate’s arrival in New Mexico, this region’s history was irrevocably changed in a multitude of ways, but one worthwhile contribution the early explorer made to New Mexican culture was, believe it or not, a humble breed of sheep. “Colonial settlers used churro sheep for food, for fiber … the sheep were essential for life,” colchera Annette Gutierrez Turk pointed out as she discussed her art, one of the few fiber art forms indigenous to our state.

Churro sheep and colcha embroidery are intimately bound to one another and the upper Rio Grande valley. Churro sheep—brought with Oñate to New Mexico in the late 17th century—are a sturdy breed that yield long, course fibers. Early Spanish inhabitants lived frugally, utilizing their livestock to the hilt, which included using the dense wool of their indispensable sheep for all sorts of applications, including woven fibers and threads. As Spanish colonies established themselves in New Mexico, colcha embroidery developed alongside them.

“The colcha stitch is a very old technique,” explained Gutierrez Turk, “early colonial settlers had to be frugal, they had to conserve material, that’s why a couching stitch is perfect.” She sat at her kitchen table with a multitude of vibrant woolen pieces spread out before her; she turned one over for me to examine the back, where not a centimeter of thread was wasted. Colcha is a catch-all term for a stitch, as well as a regional style. Traditionally, the long colcha stitch is held down by a series of other small, diagonal stitches and applied with wool thread to a wool fabric. This wool-on-wool stack is called
sabanilla style. Modern colcha artists also sometimes use wool on cotton and linen fabrics. Gutierrez Turk, however, adheres to tradition.

Gutierrez Turk is petite, with intelligent eyes and capable hands that she uses to spin wool, weave the fabric on her loom, hand-dye her materials with native plant materials, design original patterns based on ancient motifs and, finally, sit down to embroider them. “I think it’s important to stick to tradition. I enjoy the whole process,” she quickly replied when I asked her why she bothers with the whole, time-consuming practice. She paused before adding, “I’m a ninth generation New Mexican, it’s part of my heritage.”

She went on to explain the traditional designs and uses for colcha, which include religious depictions, and animal and plant motifs, applied to fabrics that were used as altar cloths, bed coverings and clothing. She added, “Modern colcha isn’t locked into traditional patterns. Beauty is perceived differently by different generations and cultures,” and that this art has evolved apace with those perceptions. Members of her colcha stitch-a-long group that meets monthly at the National Hispanic Cultural Center have used the style to depict everything from Marilyn Monroe to the scenery of their backyards. “It’s like all art, a form of self-expression,” Gutierrez Turk said. She just happens to paint with stitches instead of brush strokes.

Colcha connects art, history, memory and the natural world with one another, creating a complex, tactile chronicle that unites the past with self-expression. “These are art forms developed by people who were not artists. Maybe they weren’t pretty, but they were representative of their lives,” Gutierrez Turk said, and perhaps just as important she adds that this art form, used to add beauty to utilitarian items, “brought people joy.”

“There are many beautiful designs and patterns that you would never find anywhere but in old colcha pieces,” Gutierrez Turk explained. In her work, she embellishes on these traditional patterns to create something wholly original—perfectly exemplifying the ways in which colcha preserves cultural memory while making room for self-expression and an evolution of the craft. Gutierrez Turk finds inspiration for her work everywhere. “It’s all free form,” she laughed, “I’m inspired by everything around me!” adding that, as she searches for patterns in the world, she has become more aware and appreciative of her surroundings. “It has always … expressed what’s in the heart,” Gutierrez Turk said when speaking of her own work, “I like teaching that, passing that on.”

Gutierrez Turk provides basic instruction and guidance in colcha at the monthly colcha stitch-a-long at the National Hispanic Cultural Center where the group “does an awful lot of talking,” too. For more information on these meet-ups, check the National Hispanic Cultural Center’s (1701 Fourth Street SW)
online calendar.
Colcha design and embroidery

Colcha design and embroidery by Annette Gutierrez Turk

Maggie Grimason

churro yarn

Maggie Grimason

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