Tuesday, June 12, 2018

A Litle Colcha

Many readers of this know that Marsha is an enthusiastic and (IMHO) quite talented knitter.  So when we moved to Santa Fe and decided to volunteer at El Rancho de las Golondrinas, the Spanish Colonial living history museum in the nearby “census-designated place”* of La Cienega, it was a natural that her major “character playing role” interest was to be someone who practices the fiber arts of that historic period.
And as the museum’s website indicates there are plenty of opportunities to “learn [and practice] traditional activities and crafts like colcha embroidery, washing wool with yucca root, carding, spinning on wheels and malacates (spindles), dyeing with vegetable dyes, and weaving on two & four-harness looms.”
Here in northern New Mexico weaving is the preeminent Spanish – and Native American – fiber craft.  In fact weaving with locally grown cotton has been happening in the Southwest since about 800 AD – eight centuries before the arrival of any Europeans.  The Chimayo Weavers website says, “When the Spanish came to the Southwest, the Pueblo Indians were made to weave as part of their subjugation. The churro sheep brought by the Spanish became the new fiber source, and the striped, longer-than-wide format of the Rio Grande blanket was adopted for Pueblo blankets. In 1680 the Pueblo Revolt occurred, and the Spanish were driven back to El Paso del Norte. When the Spanish returned to New Mexico, more cooperative arrangements were made for peaceful coexistence. Pueblo weaving today consists of mantas, including elaborately embroidered examples, sashes of varying widths and weave structures, and the striped blanket descendants of those woven for Spanish overlords.”

Marsha has already taken her first weaving steps at El Rancho, wefting several inches on the museum’s pedal loom during the recent Fiber Fest.  She also plans on learning colcha embroidery, which was popular from the early 1700s to late 1800s in the southwest United States.

According to nordicneedle.net, “the traditional Spanish Colonial colcha designs were influenced by East Indian prints and 18th century crewel. So, the designs included flowers, leaves, birds, often with a central medallion. The stitch that became known as ‘colcha’ was a self-couching stitch [aka Convent Stitch, Klosterstitch, Span Stitch, and Spannstitch.”]  I am guessing that the “East Indian prints and 18th century crewel” that influenced colcha designs must have somehow come to northern New Mexico by way of the Camino Real and/or the Santa Fe Trail, which were really the only sources of new ideas for this at-the-time really isolated part of the North American continent.
While the majority of colcha embroidery was done on bedspreads made of “sabanilla”, a loosely-woven wool fabric with a 12- to 22-thread count, it also appeared frequently on runners and altar cloths.
But did the Spanish knit?  Indeed yes.
The oldest knitted pieces that have been discovered are some intricately patterned socks (sometimes called Coptic socks) made of white and indigo cotton in Egypt around 1000 - 1400 AD.  But the complexity and level of skill exhibited in these pieces of footwear clearly indicate this was not that first knitter’s first ever project.
So it is likely that knitting began closer to the low end of the above date range and was an extension of an earlier fiber art known as “nålbinding” – an hand craft known to have been in existence circa 250 – 420 AD that uses a single needle and produces a very similar-looking product.  Knitting likely began when an early nålbinder, possible under deadline to get that birthday present done, picked up a second needle and tada! – a brand new craft is born.
And, according to sheepandstich.com this Egyptian invention then spread to Spain “carried over by Arabs during the Islamic Conquest or brought back by Spaniards during the Crusades – before exploding into the rest of Europe [where initially] it was mostly confined to the very rich, very royal or very religious (as in the Catholic Church).”
To that point, the oldest European knitting relics are some detailed silk pillow covers that date to around 1275 A.D., which were found in the tomb of Prince Fernando de la Cerdo of Spain.  Most of the early knit objects in Spain, not surprisingly, were liturgical garments and accessories for the Catholic Church, knitted of very fine yarn and sometimes stitched with gold and silver threads.
By the 14th century knitting had spread to Italy and Germany as evidenced by my personal favorite thing I discovered in this research, the “knitting Madonnas” – paintings depicted the Virgin Mary sitting beside the baby Jesus, needles in hand, slipping, purling, and decreasing.      

So why was the BVM knitting?  The Cambridge History of Western Textiles believes these paintings indicate that knitting had more become commonplace and even fashionable among upper-class women – “sweetly domestic” according to Donna Kooler in the Encyclopedia of Knitting.  As we will quickly see, knitting in the 1500s was very much of a guy-thing, so “it is unlikely that reverent altarpieces of the Madonna and Christ would introduce a revolutionary theme of the Madonna usurping a male-dominated trade.”
As mentioned earlier the hard-core knitters in Spain were the all-male knitting guilds that kept the Spanish men of style, in style.  “Men in knee breeches depended upon elegant legs for their fashion status, and baggy stockings were a disaster,” says historian Irena Turnau.  In addition to form-fitting stockings members of the guild had to demonstrate their expertise in making felted caps, embroidered gloves, shirts, waistcoats and knitted carpets.
My own las Gomondrinas character is that of a “vecino” farmer or miller (depending upon where I am needed) – neither of which call for the display of my elegant legs in knee length breeches.  In fact the trousers I wear are largely indistinguishable from Levi jeans but for the stiffer canvas material, button fly, and lack of belt loops.  So I will not be beseeching my favorite vecina for any custom-made leg ware.   Marsha has however offered to crochet a red sash to add a little color to my gray, black and white ensemble.
And in return for this kind gift I am going work on finding an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe – our favorite icon (southwest or otherwise) – wefting away on a pedal mill.  Or better yet perhaps convent-stiching colcha roses onto the cape of Juan Diego – the recently canonized native Mexican peasant to whom the Virgin appeared in 1531.
Since moving out here we have seen Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe's image just about everywhere, e.g. tattooed onto the backs, arms, and legs of women and men – or decorating the hoods of highly polished low-rider cars.  So why not doing a little colcha?


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