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crewel embroidered colcha coverlet detail

New Mexican, ca. 1820-1850

More than four hundred years ago, the first Spanish settlement was established on the northern frontier of New Spain, in what is now New Mexico. As a colony of Spain from 1589 through 1821, and then as a Mexican territory until 1846, New Mexico had markedly Hispanic cultural roots, yet developed its own unique decorative vernacular traditions. This aesthetic is particularly evident in colcha needlework, a type indigenous to the New Mexican region. An outstanding example of crewelwork embroidery, this coverlet displays the characteristic charm and exuberance of the colcha technique.

Colcha can be applied interchangeably to both the embroidery stitch and the finished textile. The Spanish word in fact means “bed covering”; however, examples of colcha table coverings, curtains and altar frontals are also known. The technique is classified as a self-couching stitch—it is in essence a very economical method that provides richly textured surface motifs, yet very little yarn is wasted on the reverse. The subtle shading and curvilinear designs that can be achieved with colcha stitch are well demonstrated here. The ecru colored cotton twill is worked predominantly in rich, naturally derived shades of reds, blues and greens; pale golden yellow and orange accents enhance the palette. In the center, a stylized sunburst medallion is surrounded with offshoots of foliate arabesques and bold flowers. This composition is flanked by four floral sprigs, each assemblage of fantastical blossoms tied with a delicate bow. An unusual border of curling S-shaped motifs and lozenges delineates the rectangular field, and is further surrounded by a dense, vigorous frame of floral vines. Confronted pairs of birds, shaded black and tan, are nestled within the design at each corner. The multicolor scalloped wool lace border, a distinctive feature of colcha coverlets, adds the finishing decorative touch.

There is speculation as to the origin of the colcha repertoire of motifs and the technique itself. European decorative traditions can be identified in this piece, especially with regards to the bowknots and diminutive birds. It has been suggested that Indian painted cottons influenced colcha designs; Chinese silk embroideries, imported to New
crewel embroidered colcha coverlet

Mexico as shawls and altar frontals, are another possible source. The most direct relationship exists with New England crewelwork—the opening of the Santa Fe Trail in 1821 brought these “workt” textiles with undulating, freestyle designs to the Southwest. The stitch itself, though used exclusively in New Mexico since the mid-eighteenth century, is of mysterious origins: both Asian and Iberian (mainly Portuguese) sources are cited, but this form of self-couching stitch is not typical of Spanish or Mexican needlework.

The Witte Memorial Museum in San Antonio, Texas, has a similar bedspread that was purchased in Mexico (30-4114-93 G). Another comparable example is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (69.124).

90” H x 63” W

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