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An Exclusive Look at Sarah K. Benning's Contemporary Embroidery

A young embroidery artist is shaking up the age-old craft with bold botanical scenes so vivid, you can practically smell the flowers.

In 2013, after Sarah K. Benning had earned her BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, she wanted a break from the city’s stressful, competitive art scene and took a job as a nanny near Albany, New York. During the children’s naptime, she taught herself how to embroider — first stitching on paper, then later on fabric in hoops — as a way to keep her hands busy. "The more pieces I made, the more I fell in love with the process," says Benning, who focused on fiber and material studies in school.

 
She began selling note cards stitched with thread on Etsy, and gradually expanded her offerings to include intricate pieces available on her website, depicting "scenes of interiors, houseplants, and mysterious female figures" that could hang on a wall. On her Etsy page and through her Instagram posts, she cultivated a large fan base — she has more than 386,000 Instagram followers — and a year ago, she started selling a monthly digital pattern kit for all skill levels, which includes a design and detailed instructions.


Traditional embroidery is bound by rules, but Benning's approach is meant to be flexible. She provides thorough guidelines and techniques for each of her DIY patterns, but hopes makers will experiment and follow their instincts about color choice, materials, even types of stitch.


"I love how slow, deliberate, and methodical embroidery is," she says. "It's very relaxing." It’s also forgiving: If you make a mistake, you can just cut out the error and try again. "If it's a new craft for you and is feeling frustrating, take a break and come back later," Benning says. "There is no right or wrong way to make art."

Meet the Maker

"I think of each piece as an illustration that happens to be made with thread, rather than ink or paint," says Benning. She sells her work, which ranges in complexity, on her website, updating the items every four to six weeks.

Tools of the Trade

In her ongoing effort to bring embroidery out of Grandma's attic, Benning takes a freestyle approach, using just a few basic techniques (rather than a lot of complex stitches) and five simple items. 

  • 1
    Good Shears

    "Look for a sharp pair of scissors. Fiskars makes a range of products, from large fabric shears to small thread snips to really cool, TSA-friendly foldable ones," Benning says.

  • 2
    Starter Fabric

    "The best material for beginners is cotton: It has a tight weave, so you can keep your stitches close together. Linen is more challenging, but it creates a nice textural difference between fabric and stitching."

  • 3
    A Pattern

    "I use regular pencils to trace a pattern onto fabric, because I can achieve more detail than with a fabric marker. If you're working with dark fabric, switch to tailor's chalk or a white pencil."

  • 4
    Colorful Floss

    "DMC embroidery floss and needles — I like size 5 — are widely available and come in more than 400 rich colors. Plus, the thread is so silky and smooth when you're sewing."

  • 5
    Nice Hoops

    "I always use wooden ones. Once I'm happy with a completed project, I trim the excess fabric, leaving a quarter-inch all around, and secure it to the hoop with tacky glue."

Benning’s Inspiration

“Whenever I travel, I seek out botanical gardens and wander greenhouses, take pictures, and sketch ideas for future projects.”

  • Botanischer Garten, Berlin
    Botanischer Garten, Berlin

    "My absolute favorite. So many of the details I find there make their way into my work."

  • Kew Gardens, London
    Kew Gardens, London

    "The glass houses here are an amazing mix of classic Victorian-era architecture and modern designs."

  • The Garfield Park Conservatory, Chicago
    The Garfield Park Conservatory, Chicago

    "This is the first botanical garden I ever visited, and I instantly fell in love with it. I visited every few months when I was in school."

  • Botanischer Garten, Berlin
    Botanischer Garten, Berlin

    "My absolute favorite. So many of the details I find there make their way into my work."

  • The Garfield Park Conservatory, Chicago
    The Garfield Park Conservatory, Chicago

    "This is the first botanical garden I ever visited, and I instantly fell in love with it. I visited every few months when I was in school."

  • Kew Gardens, London
    Kew Gardens, London

    "The glass houses here are an amazing mix of classic Victorian-era architecture and modern designs."