At a moment when embroidery is most definitely in the spotlight, Sarah K. Benning, a subject in our Spark series, is at the top of her game. Her dense, incredibly detailed pieces, which layer threads the way a painter might layer oils, have made her one of today’s most popular and successful contemporary embroidery artists. We caught up with Sarah for a peek inside her extraordinary world of teeny, tiny stitches.
Have you always considered yourself an artist?
My mom is a scientist, but not artistic. However, she was very supportive of my early interest in art. Plus, she was part of a community with lots of painters, designers, architects and performance artists. I was surrounded by people in the arts who made a living as artists, which made that path real for me.
You have a formal art education, but how did you find your way to embroidery?
I was a nanny in my first job after college. When I had time for myself, I started doing embroidery because it was so portable and the materials so affordable. At first, I was making hand-stitched greeting cards for friends and family. They encouraged me to get more serious and sell my work, so in 2013 I opened an Etsy shop to sell the cards. Then I began experimenting with the hoop pieces — I sold a lot of them, but they were really time-intensive to make.
When your online shop started to take off, did you have a plan to make it your “job”?
I’m a terrible planner. Things just evolve for me. I got requests for patterns as soon as I started selling the hoop pieces. The next thing I did was to create a monthly pattern program, which was liberating and made me feel much more financially secure.
Now that your art is also very much your business, does it still feed you in the same way?
Yes. It’s very meditative. It helps me calm my restless mind. So it’s also therapy for me, a sanctuary. Also, I think I’m a little sneaky: I can stitch a pretty thing to support a good cause. [Sarah has directed proceeds from her sales to causes including The American Civil Liberties Union, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, and most recently the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services.]
Your work is incredibly meticulous and slow. Are you a naturally patient person?
I’m not a patient person — I have a short attention span! But I’m obsessive, which is probably why I can do this. Plus I often have as many as two dozen compositions in progress. When I tire of one piece, I can pick up another to get a fresh reboot.
Traditional embroidery has been considered a woman’s handiwork for centuries. How do you feel about that?
I like bringing “women’s work” into the realm of art, not just craft. But I don’t think of my work as coming out of the embroidery tradition. Thread is my paint.
Tell us a little about your podcast, Craft With Conscience .
I began this in 2016 as a weekly Instagram series dedicated to sharing the work of others. This rose out of my frustration with having my work copied stitch for stitch, sold, and credited to other people. Even my website was counterfeited. Instead of feeling angry or heartbroken, I wanted to find a more positive way to talk about this. I’ve done about 60 podcasts of artist interviews now and it’s expanded to be a platform to discuss aspects of ethical art-making and consuming in the age of the Internet. Copying behavior drives all of us forward to make new creations.