Las Colchas of the Texas-Mexico Border
Photos by Alex Labry. While a ruffle might not seem so unusual on a baby quilt as shown here, a ruffle is an integral part of all colchas from the Texas-Mexico border, not just baby quilts. Other features that identify these quilts are the wool batting and the fact that they are always two-color and whole cloth.
My friend Beatriz comes from a storied land-grant family with deep roots along both sides of the Rio Grande River. Many of her family hailed from what is now known as Guerrero Viejo (Old Guerrero). Guerrero, which was once a jewel of Spanish architecture during Mexico’s colonial past, is now a ghost town, having been flooded in 1953 to make way for the Falcon Reservoir. (Years of drought have caused the water to recede enough that the ruins of the old city can once again be accessed by land.) In its heyday, the city was a commercial and cultural center, and one of the things it was known for was quilts. When the famed French naturalist Jean-Louis Berlandier visited Guerrero in 1827 during a scientific expedition, he noted that the city was famous for its needlework and colchas.
In Spanish, the word colcha means bedcovering or quilt. In New Mexico and elsewhere, it has also come to mean a particular embroidery stitch or any work in which the colcha stitch is used.
In Texas, however, the term commonly applies to a quilt, and along the Texas-Mexico border, from Laredo down to Reynosa at least, it may refer to a certain style of wholecloth quilt of two colors—one color on the top and another on the back—with a ruffle around the edge. This region was traditionally sheep herding country, and because of that, the batting used in these quilts was always wool. The quilting was often quite intricate, but only a few quilting designs were used.
Beatriz has several of these quilts, among them one made for a wedding and another for a baby gift. She remembers them being made by her aunts, who were graduates of the Jose Gonzales Benavides School for Young Ladies in Guerrero, which taught “commercial skills” such as typing and needle arts. Twin sisters Elvira and Ortilla Gonzales, both of whom were deaf and neither of whom ever married, had started this school in the 1920s. When Guerrero was flooded, Beatriz’s aunts, as well as the Gonzales sisters, moved to Laredo.
Beatriz recalled an incident regarding a ruffled colcha that had been made as a wedding gift for a bride whose fiancé was killed in a car accident while driving to the ceremony. Beatriz remembered one her of her aunts saying, “Well, you know that the Lyre pattern always brings bad luck!”
When my daughter was born, a friend found a vintage pink and blue ruffled colcha at a garage sale and bought it for me as a baby gift. There was no provenance information with the quilt, but my friend was told that it was made in the 1940s. Ruffled colchas were certainly being made well into the 1960s, but I do not know whether they are still being produced today.
I am always fascinated by the cultural influences that show themselves in quilts and the way that such things as place, time, beliefs, ethnicity, and rituals become manifest through the quiltmaker’s creation. The ruffled colchas of the Texas-Mexico border may be a tiny subset of the quilting tradition, but they add another layer of richness to the art form as a whole.
I would very much like to know more about ruffled colchas. While I suspect that they may be unique to South Texas and Northern Mexico, I do not know that for a fact. If anyone reading this has more information, I would appreciate hearing from you.
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Column 48: Las Colchas of the Texas-Mexico Border
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