I was reacquainted with the work of Sarah K. Benning yesterday through Instagram, and I was floored. And you can see why. The subject matter at hand combined my two interests – gardening and craft in the beautiful, intricate embroideries that remind me a little bit of 8-bit pixel art (also my favourite). All three of my favourite things all rolled into one? Yowza.
It’s easy to think (and I can almost hear gasps going) – wow – her work is amazing. Her skill is amazing. OMG plants. I have plants. Why didn’t I think of that before?! And yet, hers is a journey that is familiar to a lot of artists out there. She didn’t start out doing the kind of embroideries that you now recognise as her handiwork, plastered all over blogs and magazines. Like everyone else, she started out by experimenting, and taking small steps.
I first knew about her work when she hand embroidered greeting cards and art cards and sold them on Etsy back in 2013:
Her work evolved to include embroideries in hoops in 2014, and as you can see from her pictures below, her embroideries also started to evolve in intricacy:
Towards the end of 2015, she started to experiment with more complex patterns in her embroidery, using her plants and cactuses as the main subject of her work:
While Sarah is trained in fine arts, she is self-taught in the art of embroidery.
From her About page:
Originally from Baltimore, she attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and received her BFA in Fiber and Material Studies. Shortly after graduating in 2013, Sarah discovered her love for embroidery, a relaxing hobby she could enjoy while working as a full-time nanny. She approaches each piece as an illustration rather than a textile, often abandoning traditional stitches and techniques in favor of bold shapes, playful patterns, and contemporary subject matter.
Sarah’s embroideries often depict potted plants and her newest works position these potted gardens in interior spaces and pairs them with other textiles. She approaches these pieces as illustrations, creating drawings in pencil directly onto the fabric before filling the image in with thread. In this way, the thread become more like ink or paint than traditional embroidery, which accentuates the bold shapes, patterns, and color in the compositions.
While her earlier works (2013-2014) already showed a love of plants, cacti and landscapes, her continuous experimentation in embroidery has allowed her to be able to execute more intricate and detailed compositions, such as more recent ones below:
It was gradual, and organic – as laid out in her FAQ page:
Where do you get your patterns and how do you transfer them to fabric?
I invent them! Drawing is a major part of my practice, so I keep sketchbooks of ideas, composition thumbnails, plant details, and textile diagrams to aid in the creating of my stitched works. These sketches then come together as final designs by re-drawing them directly onto my fabric with pencil. The under drawing gets completely covered up with the stitching. This process allows for a lot of revision and experimentation before I get down to sewing.
What stitches do you use and how can I learn how to do this?
I don’t always adhere traditional embroidery stitches and techniques, thinking of the thread more like ink or paint and inventing or adapting stitches as I go. The one common embroidery stitch I do use is the satin stitch, which is how I achieve the fields of color that create the foundation of each element in my compositions. The final and most fun stage to every piece is the surface pattern that creates all the detail in the plants, textiles, and pots.
My advice to anyone wanting to learn is to go get the basic materials (hoop, fabric, thread, needle, scissors) and just start experimenting! My work has evolved over the past 3 years and is my full-time job. Believe me, I didn’t start out sewing complicated things. Be patient with yourself and have fun!
It’s easy to look at an artist’s success and think that they knew what they were doing right from the start. Looking through Sarah’s work, I’m not sure if she had any inkling that her work would evolve to be where it is right now. But what I see is persistence, evolution and a constant challenging of her craft. Her love of subject is already apparent even in the beginning, and they run like threads interwoven in the fabric of her progression. They’ve always been there, and it’s exciting to see where her experimentation will take her.