Quilts made in the rural areas of any part of the United States are a genre unto themselves. They reflect a pattern of hard physical labor. Rusty Mondragon, of Wagon Mound, said of her mother, "I helped her to farm; she taught me to make quilts." And Thelma Rodgers of Estancia said, recollecting her relative isolation, "I learned how to quilt over the telephone." New Mexico continues these two traditions and adds a third, the crossing of two cultures. Beginning in 1540, when Coronado was seeking the fabled "seven cities of gold," the Spanish entered the New Mexico territory. By 1598, they had established permanent settlements. The Spanish inhabitants, who often acculturated in Mexico before heading north, had no indigenous quiltmaking tradition. The Spanish word colcha, from the same Latin root (cucilta) as the word quilt, means bed covering, and is used to describe a blanket or bedspread. Quilta is a more recent "Spanglish" word.
The immigrants from the south were herders of sheep and weavers of wool and cotton. They did not practice the American tradition of quiltmaking. Wool was the most available fiber. Blankets, serapes, and shirts were fashioned without cutting the loomed product. Worn garments were darned or unraveled to be rewoven.
In 1540, Coronado had brought 5000 churro sheep, and again in 1598, Oñate's settlers herded in another 4000 of the animals. Although originally intended only as food, the sheep thrived on the New Mexico climate and diet, and were soon as prized for their wool as for their flesh. Woven blankets and yardage became the chief trade items in the caravans that annually traveled the Camino Real to Mexico.
Leather and wool were the common fabrics of the frontier. By the 18th century, silk damasks and Indian calicoes were arriving in Santa Fe via Mexico and the Manila galleons, but only for the very rich. The poorer people began to imitate the wealthy by embroidering in wool on wool. They used flowers, birds, vines, and leaves, as well as calico paisley designs.
Colcha embroidery detail, Torres family, circa 1860
It wasn't until 1833 that the first woman from the eastern United States, Mary Donaho, traveled the Santa Fe Trail to settle in the Mexican territory of Nuevo Mexico. Sadly, we know nothing of her quiltmaking. The late 19th century brought another design element from the eastern United States, the Lemoyne (8 pointed) Star patchwork quilt motif. It was incorporated into the weaving of the rio arriba, northern Rio Grande area, to augment the earlier geometric patterns.
Broken Star, by Perfecta Kiehne, (67"x76"), 1930
(derived from Lemoyne Star patchwork quilt motif)
There simply was no quilting tradition among the Spanish/Mexican settlers along the Rio Grande corridor. Not until the coming of the railroad in 1880, and home delivery of mail, which included the Sears, Roebuck, and Montgomery Ward catalogs, were these people confronted with the concept of "leftover scraps." Frugal and conservative, they had to find a way to solve the problem of oversupply, once materials became plentiful.
Scraps or rags were simply the answer to a problem. They might have been used in ways other than quiltmaking. However, it is very cold in the snowy mountain regions of northern New Mexico. From sheep to finished serape is a long, arduous task. A person who could devise a quicker, easier way to winter warmth was a godsend to the family. Piecework could be used to create a new cover for worn blankets. Cotton rags are still spun and woven for rugs, but not as blankets for the bed.
Approaching the task like a painter, the housewife found herself confronted with an empty space the size of a blanket and an enforced palette of clothing scraps. Familiar with the weaving tradition, it was natural to make long strips assembled from scraps of various widths laid horizontally and then stitched together, just as one might throw the weaving shuttle from selvage to selvage, in order to create a whole cloth from horizontal threads.
Think what it must have been like for the first Hispanic quiltmakers. No pattern to follow, no traditional criteria for technique, no rules. They were on their own. Was it frightening? Given the two guiding principles of life among the Hispanic people, family and faith, it was probably less frightening than it would be in a more commercially centered society. The finished quilt, whatever its appearance, was a family necessity, not an ornament. In the all-encompassing faith of the Catholic Church, people were not expected to be perfect, nor were temporal concerns paramount. As they dress their churches in a new coat of mud plaster each year, so new covers, not new quilts, are made to prolong the life of an older quilt or an even older serape.
Mexican independence from Spain permitted the opening of the Santa Fe Trail, and began the slow change of immigration from south-north to east-west. President James Polk's policy of Manifest Destiny led to the occupation of New Mexico territory by the United States in 1847, and fired adventure-seeking immigrants with dreams of the "Southwest". Migration became a pattern, as exaggerated stories drifted from one frontier to the next. Disgruntled Forty-Niners who recalled passing through the rich, short-grass prairies of eastern New Mexico, returned as settlers. Having been posted to a southwestern frontier fort, many a U.S. Army trooper retained a vision of New Mexico as haven or horror. The exploits of Kit Carson were magnified in dime novels even before his death in 1868.
The coming of the railroad in 1880 accelerated immigration, for now the Southwest was perceived as a true extension of the eastern United States, safe for even the most timid. Families coming from the east brought their quiltmaking traditions with them.
Crazy quilt, detail, artist unknown,
Estancia, New Mexico, (69"x78"), 1911
An exquisitely embroidered crazy quilt, made in Estancia and dated August 18, 1911, bears witness to the availability of mail-order silks and velvets, patterns and ideas foreign to the frontier. This quilt was bought at an estate sale, and nothing is known about it except what is recorded on the quilt: "Many happy returns of the day", "FPG & KNP", "Estancia, New Mexico." In every dark swatch, black or burgundy velvet, there is an embroidered picture, including symbols of good luck like a horseshoe or a pre-Nazi swastika, known to Navajo weavers as the "Rolling Log." The light patches are cut from patterned silks and satins.
Crazy quilt, detail, by Maggie Williams, (64"x74"), 1906
In 1906, a thirteen-year-old girl named Maggie made a crazy quilt. Her parents came from Texas to homestead near Moriarty. Unable to attend school and make new friends, Maggie relieved that first winter of pure lonesome misery by using scraps of clothing and thread to embroider a storybook quilt. The pictures in the patches are of the plants and animals Maggie could see from their dugout, a hastily dug basement, roofed-over to provide shelter until there was time and money to build the house. The embroidery stitches around each patch are different one from another. Maggie explored all of the possible permutations of the feather stitch, added crosses, chains and daisies, and challenged her imagination.
Postage stamp, by Modena Shaw, (64"x74"), 1944-45
Eleven years later, Modena Shaw, aged 11, came in a covered wagon with her family, from Texas, to homestead outside Mountainair, a town soon to be known as the pinto bean capital of the world. It was a hard life, and no easier after marriage, when she and her husband would twice annually cut two wagon loads of wood and haul them 41 miles to Belen to exchange for groceries, tools, and clothing. If Modena found time in those days to make even the most utilitarian of quilts, we don't know. Her earliest surviving quilt is a fine Postage Stamp, made in 1944-45 for her son's wedding. This quilt contains approximately 9,720 postage stamp-sized pieces of cloth, all pieced by hand in concentric circles of color. She was 40 years old and just finding the time to indulge in the "fancy" quiltmaking tradition remembered from childhood.
The Great Depression brought more homesteaders. Neva Turner recalls that there was no work in Texas, so they "came on out" to Quemado. "We were only going to stay for maybe three years or until times got better, and then we'd go home. Never made it."
Maiden ladies came too. Drucilla Ghann (Seward), a Florida schoolteacher, wanted to see where the Indians lived. She found work teaching school in Gallup, met a handsome cowboy, married him, and never again left New Mexico.
Beatrice Holley (Mactavish) and her sister arrived in Magdalena from Alabama. Both were schoolteachers looking for adventure and jobs, and with them came their quiltmaking skills.
Free land, short-lived mining booms, adventure seekers, and missionaries all helped to bring the eastern tradition of quiltmaking to New Mexico. Tops were pieced in blocks according to a prescribed pattern, the layers then put into the frame and quilted, not tied together.
Over the intervening years (1880 to the present), the two traditions, utility and decorative, have gradually come together, but are still referred to as old-way quilts, "haphazard", and new-way quilts, "fancy."
Eight-Pointed Star, by Isobel Griffen, 1994
by Viola Silva, 1992
An old-way quilt is made in a day, without a prescribed pattern. It usually involves several members of the extended family in cutting, sewing, and tying. The back of the old-way quilt resembles the front, and there may or may not be a filling. A new-way quilt uses templates, a predetermined pattern, has a plain back, a filling, and is either quilted or tied. These two traditions still exist in New Mexico although, with the proliferation of magazines and television shows about quiltmaking, the making of haphazard quilts is declining.
Eldeene Spears of Taos County, the daughter of one rancher and the wife of another, explained it this way: "My nice quilts are the ones that use a paper pattern and I quilt them. The others, the blue jean and old wool trouser pallets, are tied together."
This, then, is the background of quiltmaking in rural New Mexico, where quilts have helped to meet the inevitable challenges of any frontier: to fulfill immediate needs, and to gradually enrich the quality of life.