Some artists use paint, others pen and ink, charcoal or pastel — Sarah K. Benning uses thread to bring her illustrations to life.
More specifically, she uses embroidery floss, made by a French manufacturer since the mid-18th century that comes in close to 500 hues to help tell her story. That story began seven years ago after she finished art school in Chicago and moved to Albany, N.Y. She found work as a nanny and began selling greeting cards she drew, made collages on and stitched.
Burned out from the grind of her art classes, she thought the cards were a way to stay creative without being too serious. She saw embroidery as the perfect hobby, far removed from fine art. Those greeting cards evolved into stitching on fabric but still mostly featured text or geometric patterns.
Then her needlecraft turned into memorials to all of the houseplants and furniture she’d left behind in her many moves. When she and her now-husband, Davey, left Albany to teach English on the island of Menorca (off the coast of Spain), she took her business with her.
The Mediterranean climate meant new inspiration of landscape and plant life that made it into her embroidery work. She also started incorporating more interior scenes because she was craving a homier space, living in what was a mostly functional apartment.
When the teaching gig ended, the couple was ready to find a place to settle back in the States. They looked in Baltimore (where Benning is from) but also in Keene, where Davey went to high school. Two and a half years ago, the couple moved into an 1873 Victorian home in Keene, equipped with a studio space where Benning could continue doing artwork but also with room to contain hers and her husband’s growing DIY business: embroidery kits for do-it-yourself-ers and digital PDF patterns.
Although Benning, 29, never set out to be a pattern maker, at the beginning of every month, she releases a new pattern via her Etsy store. While she doesn’t use patterns herself, she began getting requests for them a couple of years ago.
In addition to her stitching and pattern making, Benning also curates a series on her website called “Craft with Conscience,” where she interviews other artists about crafting art in the digital age.
She noticed interest was picking up on Instagram every time she posted her designs. She now has a 512 million followers.
Her work is still heavily inspired by plants — “plants I have, plants I’ve seen, plants I wish I had. I don’t think I’ll ever tire of the subject matter because there is just so much to it. So many colors, shapes, textures and environments to learn about and translate into my work.”
When Benning travels, she seeks out botanical gardens and greenhouses and takes photos and sketches ideas for future projects. She’s most inspired by contemporary and mid-century interior design and botanicals, although lately, she said she’s been drawn more and more to historical architecture.
“Maybe that will find its way into my work someday,” she said.
Each of Benning’s pieces begins from a sketch. She then begins the long, labor-intensive process of coloring in her drawing with thread. She describ Ewing arts es her method as contemporary embroidery to differentiate it from more traditional methods of working with needlepoint.
“Forgoing tradition and the often rigid parameters of conventional needlework, I use just a few techniques to build the surfaces and textures of my work,” she said, “the complexity of each piece stemming from the composition itself and deliberate use of color rather than traditional stitch techniques.”
Benning releases her work in collections every one to two months, sending a notification to her mailing list when new pieces are available. She feels her large number of followers on social media is related to her commitment to document and share her work well. Author Sara Barnes documented it last fall in her book, “Sara Barnes’s Embroidered Life: The Art of Sarah K. Benning.” Barnes writes about illustration for both her blog, Brown Paper Bag, and the site, My Modern Met.
Recently, Benning’s work was featured on Martha Stewart’s website and in Yankee Magazine, and she also recently completed six hand-embroidered illustrations for The Washington Post’s end-of-year book recommendations.
She’s now exploring the mixture of painted surfaces and embroidery.
“Early on in my career I experimented with this materials mix, but at some point, it fell off,” she said. “It’s been really great to get back to it and explore and expand my work.”