If you're a fan of modern embroidery, you're probably familiar with the work of self-taught expert Sarah K. Benning. Since 2013, the contemporary crafter has breathed new life into the ancient art form with her stitched studies of plants, interiors, and other quaint still-life scenes. Six years later, and Benning has amassed a loyal following of artists—including My Modern Met's own Sara Barnes.
Barnes, whose popular personal blog, Brown Paper Bag, chronicles her interest in illustration, also has ample experience as an embroidery artist. With this background, it comes as no surprise to learn that Barnes is the writer behind Embroidered Life: The Art of Sarah K. Benning. Giving readers a glimpse into Benning's successful practice, this book aims to “offer insight into some of her most detailed and meticulously crafted pieces.” It also features tips, tricks, and advice from the artist herself, helping stitchers of all skill levels hone their craft.
In our interview below, we speak to Barnes about her exciting new book. Detailing everything from her research process to her feelings about the finished product, this interview reveals what exactly went into crafting Embroidered Life: The Art of Sarah K. Benning.
How did you and Sarah K. Benning meet?
Sarah and I met on the internet! I had written about her work on my personal blog, Brown Paper Bag, and we connected through Instagram—mostly just liking each other's photos and commenting on posts. She also grew up in Baltimore (where I was living at the time), so it was easy for us to meet in person when she and her husband Davey were visiting the city.
What do you think sets her work apart from that of other contemporary fiber artists’?
The amount of detail that Sarah puts into each piece is incredible. She primarily uses one stitch (the satin stitch) but does so in interesting ways; she will layer stitches and accents to her work by sewing on top of stitches she's made. This gives her work depth, both visually and physically. Sarah is also a trained fine artist and her drawing skills really help to elevate her work by allowing her to create visually complex compositions that are stylized but clearly informed by real life.
Sarah has also tapped into something larger with the subjects of her embroidery. She has famously stitched indoor jungles and beautiful interiors (I love how she embroiders rugs) that are aspirational spaces. Who doesn't want a beautiful home or a large, happy Monstera plant? (I do!) Sarah calls her early embroideries “the slowest wishlist ever,” because they are things she wanted in her home. And as we are constantly looking at other people's lives on Instagram and getting ideas on Pinterest, there's something about her ability to stitch it all that makes it very appealing to the viewer, as these things might be on our wishlist, too.
You are also a skilled embroidery artist! What was it like to research, follow, and document someone else’s practice so closely?
It was really inspiring to get to know Sarah's embroidery practice. Her story is relatable to anyone who engages in artistic practice, as well as any creative entrepreneur who wants to make a living from what they produce. Sarah had challenges starting her business, yet she has remained true to herself while continually iterating and challenging herself to create increasingly complex compositions in thread—and to experiment with it, too. Working on this book has changed the way I think about my own embroidery and small business I've created from it.
What steps were involved in the book’s creation, and roughly how long did it take to complete?
To write the book, I traveled to Sarah and Davey's home in Keene, New Hampshire. They were gracious enough to host me for a couple of days while I spoke to Sarah about her artistic process, studio space, and admired her work in person. (I also got a sense of the small town where they live and what their daily life was like.) After spending a couple of days there, I traveled to Boston with Sarah. She was teaching three workshops at a local art space, so I observed her as she instructed attendees on how to embroider. For some, it was the first time and others had done it before.
I recorded all of our conversations and took a lot of photos, so I had a lot of raw material to work with. I had a couple more phone calls with Sarah afterward, and I completed the first draft of the book in about three months.
How did it feel to finally see the final product?
I wrote the book in the spring/summer of 2018. I don't linger on projects—I like to keep things moving and onto the next one! So, finally seeing it in person was awesome, of course, as well as a bit nostalgic. Writing the book was a fun experience.
Please tell us about the book’s amazing embroidered cover!
The embroidered cover is based on one of Sarah's most popular monthly DIY patterns. The original photograph is of that exact embroidery on top of the leaves. I guess I didn't realize that the final cover would be embroidered, so when I went to approve the cover (prior to production), I was delighted to see that part of the cover was stitched!
Do you hope to pen more books in the future? If so, would you like to stick to embroidery, or perhaps explore other artistic arenas?
I would love to write more books! I really enjoy writing profiles (like Embroidered Life), so if I'm interested in the person and the subject, I would absolutely explore other fields. In the age of social media, the role of an artist and craft person is always changing so anytime I can capture that moment in writing is of interest to me.
Ready to start reading? Enter for your chance to win a copy of Embroidered Life: The Art of Sarah K. Benning and an embroidery kit from the My Modern Met Store. Or, pick one up from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, IndieBound, or Chronicle Books.