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The Persistence of Pueblo Embroidery

Since the early part of the twentieth century, Anglos have questioned whether Pueblo embroidery could survive as an actively-practiced craft. All Americans today practice fewer handcrafts than did people a hundred years ago. However, for a variety of reasons, Pueblo people are more likely than non-Pueblos to continue practicing traditional arts of all kinds.

     Pueblo Stitch
     Types of Garments
        Dance Sashes
     Yarns & Fabrics
     Spotlight: Evelyn Bird Quintana


Gathering of archaeologists and others involved in the
creation of the Laboratory of Anthropology (c. 1930).

     Starting in the late 1910s and on into the 1920s, the Southwest, especially the Santa Fe area, became a magnet for a particular type of well-heeled, educated Eastern Anglo. Many of the newcomers believed that the Pueblos enjoyed an especially strong, grounded culture whose traditions, including their handcrafts, should be preserved. At the same time, the newcomers also sought to “improve” the natives and their arts, especially to create a national market for their artistic works. This impulse led to the establishment of the Indian Arts Fund and the Santa Fe Indian Market, among other institutions. Both these institutions live on in altered form today. Also important were handcraft courses offered at the Santa Fe Indian School and later in Pueblo cultural centers.


Early collectors of Pueblo clothing

Indian Fair (1922)

During the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth century, the Southwest was a relatively isolated part of the world. Museums have examples of Pueblo clothing from this period, most of it women’s apparel. Women’s everyday dress of this era remained in the indigenous style, very similar in style to the dress the Spanish described at the time of their colonization of the region. The men were more apt to adopt the newer, imported styles. Inevitably, collectors preferred to acquire the unusual women’s wear. These items are variations of the handloom-woven rectangle, uncut and untailored. Some pieces of men’s ceremonial clothing of this time period also appears in museum collections, especially dance kilts and sashes, but also men’s shirts, ranging from poncho style wool shirts to a later style of embroidered cotton shirt, which became popular in the 1920s, especially at Jemez.


Indian Market (c. 1952).  

Indian Arts Fund and Indian Market

The Indian Arts Fund, established in 1925, focused its efforts on buying up the best items of Indian manufacture in the belief that Pueblo people would soon no longer be able to produce their traditional handcrafts. This type of “salvage” anthropology was typical among whites of the period. However, the IAF members soon joined Bureau of Indian Affairs officials in encouraging Pueblo people to produce altered forms of their traditional handcrafts for the growing tourist and collectors’ markets.


      Some of the IAF members launched the Santa Fe Indian Market to provide a market place for native craftspeople. Indian Market continues to occur each August in Santa Fe and accommodates a growing range of arts and artists. However, in the early twentieth century, embroidery did not appeal to non-Pueblos as other textiles and pottery did. Anglos believed that embroidery was a dying art.


School and Enrichment Programs

     Efforts to encourage embroidery and other textile arts among Pueblos continued on into the 1940s and 1950s with programs at the Santa Fe Indian School, then a federally-run institution. Today, it is run by and for the New Mexico pueblos.
       The teachers at the Santa Fe Indian school were mainly Anglo women. In an effort to give young Indian women marketable skills, the teachers instructed their students to embroider small household items such as placemats, napkins, and aprons with Indian motifs. The teachers also introduced new stitches, such as cross stitch.

     Many of the mid-twentieth-century Anglo efforts to preserve or revive Pueblo arts stemmed from a nostalgic and unrealistic view of the Pueblo people. Some reformers wanted to segregate Pueblo people from the rest of society and prevent them from using modern technologies or adapting Anglo techniques. They paid little attention to the native use of embroidered textiles. However, renewed interest among Pueblos in performing ceremonial dances in the second half of the twentieth century revived the demand for embroidered mantas, kilts, and other items.
      In the late twentieth century, Pueblo cultural centers began offering courses in traditional hand crafts. Many of the embroiderers who attended the IARC convocation learned to embroider at the Santa Fe Indian School or through local enrichment courses. Now they teach such courses as well as passing on their skills informally.

Pueblo Embroidery Today

     The survival of embroidery demonstrates the tenacity of Pueblo culture. Few Americans wear hand-made clothing, and Pueblos wear the same mass-produced everyday clothing found throughout the US. However, a visit to any of the pueblos on a feast day offers the visitor a splendid look at beautiful handmade, embroidered garments. Demand for the clothing necessary to observe these rituals remains strong. Contemporary embroiderers use manufactured materials and additional stitches, but they produce mantas, kilts, breechcloths, and sashes for many of the same reasons that their ancestors did hundreds of years ago.



Frances Pino embroidered this manta for the IARC collection using cross-stitch.

Border Detail



      Some designs have changed slightly; for instance, the “picture frames” in a late-twentieth-century manta may display negative patterning. Such innovations indicate a healthy and creative continuation of the Pueblo artistic tradition.





      In addition to creating ceremonial attire, many embroiderers produce non-traditional items, such as clothing for Christian religious ceremonies, including weddings and christenings. Many churches have altar cloths and priestly vestments embroidered in the Pueblo style. The embroiderers distinguish these pieces from their traditional work and refer to it as “contemporary.” Many of them use these items to experiment with innovative design ideas that develop out of the traditional design vocabulary.

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