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A look at Sarah Becvar's realistic embroidery work

Tis the season for making a Christmas napkin
Tis the season for making a Christmas napkin

When Sarah Becvar’s extended family sit down to their traditional Christmas day lunch they will not only appreciate the effort that’s gone into the meal, but also the work involved in the pretty linen table napkins depicting robins, festive trees, holly and springs of fir.

For all the designs are created through freehand embroidery, a technique which Sarah has developed to use her sewing machine to ‘draw’ with thread and create a unique range of napkins, cards, bags, stitched scenes, brooches and gifts. Daily walks with her three golden retrievers in the lanes and fields around her home on the outskirts of Uckfield provide Sarah with year-round inspiration.

‘My morning walk is very beneficial and sets me up for the day,’ says Sarah, 48, as she takes a break in her studio her garden which is a short distance from the family farm where she grew up. ‘I call the lanes and surroundings Mother Nature’s botanical gift as I find it very exciting and wonder what I am going to see next. It might be little things such as the first honeysuckle or bluebells coming up in the spring, or the shape of a twig with holly on it or ivy wrapping itself around a branch in the winter.’

Great British Life: Sarah drawing with her sewing machineSarah drawing with her sewing machine

Sarah will head back and start sketching a new idea or, in the case of cow parsley which is one of her favourite subjects, start embroidering it straight onto the canvas as she knows its various guises so well.

‘My work takes in all the seasons and what is particularly nice about cow parsley is that it’s a very beautiful flower in the spring, but come the autumn it has this wonderful skeletal structure and that in itself has become a very popular design,’ she explains.

She also loves looking at old botanical guide books and has several that are nearly 100-years-old. ‘They are a joy to open,’ she says. ‘I might come home and think I’ll create a bluebell and I will get some of the books out to look at how they are illustrated, the colour and the shading, and that is also an enormous inspiration.’

Great British Life: The hand-stitched napkins made a festive addition to the tableThe hand-stitched napkins made a festive addition to the table

Sarah’s deep-rooted love of nature comes from her childhood growing up in the heart of the Sussex Weald.

‘My father was a dairy farmer and so I had all these beautiful fields around me,’ she says. ‘I was always outdoors and I was quite artistic and would often go for walks and pick anything that was flowering at the time and bring home bunches and sit and paint them. My paternal grandmother lived in the farmhouse and we were in the farm cottage, so she was always around. She was very creative and loved to crochet and was also an avid gardener and would walk around with me pointing out the plants she had propagated herself.’

Sarah has particularly vivid memories of the seeds her grandmother kept in old envelopes in a wooden chest.

Great British Life: Festive works make the season magicalFestive works make the season magical

‘It is one of those memories that has always stayed in my mind,’ she recalls. ‘The chest was full of all these different coloured envelopes and I loved the whole cycle of nature and how you could grow flowers and plants yourself. My brother, who is a regenerative arable farmer, runs the farm now and I find it fascinating to witness the change of the seasons and cycle of the crops.’

Sarah says she was extremely fortunate that her take on art was encouraged at Mayfield School. ‘I started sewing freehand at the age of 16 and went straight into making three-dimensional projects,’ she says. ‘I had a fantastic teacher and she allowed me to cross the boundaries between two subjects and so I made a branch out of thread and a section of a melon and made all the seeds. They didn’t make me sit there with a paintbrush and if it wasn’t for the teachers I would probably not be doing what I do now. They were very supportive and allowed me to flourish.’

After leaving school Sarah studied textile design at Winchester School of Art and went on to become a print designer for a furnishing company.

Great British Life: A hand-sewn Christmas cardA hand-sewn Christmas card

‘In the meantime I had a sewing machine at home and started making cards for family and friends,’ says Sarah who lives with her husband, Max, and their two teenage daughters.

Her hobby grew into a business after she started taking cards to some small shops to see if they would be interested in selling them.‘They did, so I thought that maybe there was a gap in the market for embroidered cards,’ she says. ‘There were a lot of hand-made cards on the market but I didn’t find any embroidered ones.’

Through the Prince’s Trust Sarah obtained a start-up loan and the help of a mentor which led to her launching Sarah Becvar Design in 2000, originally working out of a converted cowshed on the family farm.

Great British Life: Sarah Becvar and her dogsSarah Becvar and her dogs

‘The loan enabled me to exhibit at some trade fairs at a discounted rate and I met agents from all over the UK who took my cards and they were sold in places such as Liberty, John Lewis and Fenwick ,’ she says. ‘At my first trade fair I was the Giftware Association’s runner up as the best newcomer and I was thrilled with that. Even the runner up position gave me a real boost and an American distributor approached me and she started sending my cards over to the states where Barnes & Noble placed regular orders, so it was a really exciting time.’

Sarah, who also sells products directly through her website (sarahbecvardesign.com) with cards starting at less than £4, has also won other accolades including LUXlife magazine’s award for machine embroidery.

‘For a long time I was making wholesale orders and selling directly to the trade and it wasn’t until I started thinking about going to local fairs, particularly around Christmas time, that I started making other things,’ says Sarah. ‘I wanted to have things alongside my cards so people could buy a gift for someone and a card to go with it, so my range increased and I began doing embroidered hoops, pouches and lavender and wheat eye pillows. Over time I wanted to offer customers something else so I started making printed fabrics, using pictures of my embroidered flowers which I put into a repeat pattern on heavyweight cotton that people could buy make their own cushions, tablecloths and napkins.’

Great British Life: Bees think her flowers are realBees think her flowers are real

Through meeting people at craft fairs not only is Sarah able to explain her work, but also encourage others to have a go.

‘I think it is nice to see the face behind the brand and it means I can talk to people about the process and technique that I use,’ she explains. ‘Often people pick up a card and maybe comment on the price or think the design has been made on a computer. When I explain that I make every card by moving it around with my hands to create or draw the design with a needle the look on their face changes and there’s an appreciation of the amount of work and love that has gone into each project. I enjoy explaining how you can sew freehand and you can see people get excited and say they never knew and they might try it.’

One of Sarah’s biggest compliments came from bees when she had some of her lampshades on a table at an outdoor event.

Great British Life: Sarah draws robins 'freehand' on her machineSarah draws robins 'freehand' on her machine

‘The bees kept coming down towards the lampshades and I realised they thought they were real flowers,’ she smiles. ‘It was lovely and it made me chuckle and I thought I must be doing something right.’

Sarah’s business outgrew the cowshed and from her home studio she can now share her passion through freehand embroidery classes and watercolour painting sessions for up to seven people.

‘It is surrounded by my garden and the field at one end so it’s a really lovely view,’ she muses. ‘I am extremely fortunate to live here. The Sussex Weald is a beautiful part of the country. My roots are here and although I have travelled and seen various corners of the world this is a very special part of the world to me. I would never want to move.’



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