From nurse to embroidery tutor to working on some of TV’s biggest shows - Sara Dennis has power in her healing hands! In this inspiring interview, we learn more about Sara’s path to embroidery and her experiences of being an expert on The Repair Shop - a show we all know and love!
Sara Dennis is familiar to many more these days from her role as one of the restoration experts on BBC’s The Repair Shop. It’s a far cry from her original career in nursing: she ran a combat field hospital for the Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps.
But it was a first class degree in Art History from Lancaster University that was the stepping stone to her vocation: teaching. Now a highly respected RSN tutor, Sara talks to us about her TV experiences, inspiring others and her hands-on approach to education and mental health.
What’s it like being an expert on The Repair Shop?
I have repaired several pieces for The Repair Shop now. Restoring and repairing any personal items is often a minefield: does the client want restoration, conservation or preservation? All of which require different approaches. So, the initial conversation with a client is crucial, understanding what they perceive to be the outcome, and managing their expectations.
The Repair Shop is no different: we want the clients to be happy with a job well done. There is just the added ingredient of the film crew, but they are so knowledgeable and experienced. I have never felt rushed or judged whilst working in the barn, it is one of the most supportive working environments.
Being with the other experts, all extremely talented in their own field, is an absolute pleasure. The whole team - experts, camera crew and staff are some of the kindest, most humble people you could wish to meet. They are just as they appear on screen: welcoming and generous. I am not sure how they found me, or how I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to work with them!
You were also involved with Game of Thrones – one of the most successful drama series of the decade. Please tell us more…
The Game of Thrones ‘Hardhome Embroidery’ was fun. I was only involved in the initial stages: a colleague and I had to work out how to form the body of the White Walker, not so easy given the size! We laid out the design and tried to create a pattern and foundation for the 3D image. The pattern, made of paper, was fairly simple, but getting the multidimensional effect which was light enough to maintain its own weight when upright was quite a challenge. It involved much experimentation and laughter.
…and the other high profile commissions you’ve been involved with?
I’ve been lucky enough to work on several high profile RSN commissions: an evening gown designed by Nicholas Oakwell Couture for the GREAT Britain Campaign, ‘Magna Carta (An Embroidery)’ designed by artist Cornelia Parker for the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta and Burberry’s ‘Makers House’ in partnership with The New Craftsmen.
I have also exhibited at Hampton Court Palace and Alexandra Palace and created a bespoke commission for St Olave’s Church in the City of London.
Take us right back to the very beginning. How did you get into embroidery?
My earliest memory of stitching was, like many embroiderers, with my grandmother. I remember making a calico apron with ladybird buttons; each one of the 22 buttonholes was stitched by hand in bright scarlet. I often think about my grandmother whilst I stitch. She was, like many of her generation, a talented needlewoman. I wish I had had more time to stitch with her; she would be amazed and delighted by my eventual career choice.
So what does embroidery satisfy in you?
That’s an easy question to answer – creativity. I have never regretted my other career choices; they were very fulfilling and have been useful since, but none was creative.
What can you tell us about your experience on the RSN Future Tutor programme?
The Future Tutor Programme is a three-year full-time course; and it really was full-time, I guess we stitched about 80 hours a week on average. That enabled us to learn every technique taught at
the RSN – from crewelwork to tassel making. We also worked in the studio on commissions and conservation projects. This grounding has given me the confidence and ability to teach a wide range of techniques to a wide range of students.
It was a privilege to walk into class through the empty corridors of Hampton Court Palace to learn at one of the most prestigious schools; and it is now a similar privilege to arrive in the quiet of the morning to teach there. There are about fifty RSN trained tutors and we all work with each other, I guess we are like a large unique family really.
What is it about teaching you enjoy?
I love teaching embroidery: I really like people and to watch someone’s innate talent grow is a privilege. In common with many similar crafts, embroidery allows the student to see their progress, they can see how much better the stitches are formed towards the end of a project.
It’s watching the moment when a student really gets it and enjoys their work. When a student walks away having had fun and is proud of what they’ve achieved – whatever it is, then I am happy. I also learn so much when I teach, not always about embroidery, but people are so interesting, and everyone has something to give.
Beyond teaching, you also find time for charity work…
I started working with Combat Stress during my final year of training. I was able to create pinned sweetheart cushions with the resident service personnel. We had a great time, and of course, I am drawn to military charities as I served, and my husband is still serving. I won the RSN Outstanding Achievement Award for my work with Combat Stress.
I really do believe in the healing power of craft; it keeps your hands busy and your mind occupied, even if just for a short time. I think art and craft is seriously lacking in schools.
So, if you had an hour in front of the Education Secretary what would you say?
I could write a whole essay on this. Art and craft is so underrated by the education system, in my opinion. The pressures in education at the moment are putting exam results ahead of creativity, freedom of expression and practical skills. Arts subjects are being cut in schools with the result that a generation of young people are missing a vital slice of the education pie. Leaving school unable to cook, sew, paint, create is just plain sad.
It has been well documented that practising crafts is beneficial to mental health. It is no accident that wounded soldiers as far back as the Crimea were encouraged to participate in manual crafts, such as embroidery. Crafts, such as hand embroidery, are so undervalued, I fear at some point they will be lost, we have already lost some of the older more specialist stitches.
Wise words, Sara. What advice can you give to someone who is passionate about embroidery but unsure about pursuing it as a career?
It would be easy to say: “Just go for it!” But it is not that simple. There is a lot to take on. Being a talented embroiderer is not enough: you need business skills, you need to be organised and love hard work. You need to able to weather the knockbacks and be able to bounce back. But most important of all: you need to believe in yourself and sometimes that’s the hardest part of the job. Working for yourself by yourself can be a solitary path, but ultimately it is so rewarding.
It’s clear you are very busy, but what sewing do you do for your own pleasure?
I genuinely have absolutely no time for sewing for myself, lots of ideas! I have found a poem in the archives of The Victoria and Albert Museum about old embroidery stitches which I intend to research. But I am just about keeping my head above water with the demands on my time now. I am going to work in Bangladesh with Colouricious holidays soon, so a change is as good as a rest!
Thank you, Sara - we wish you bon voyage!
Be sure to watch The Repair Shop on BBC One!
Ready for more inspirational reads? Check out ‘From industry to embroidery: an interview with Hoffelt & Hooper Co.’ and ‘Mindful stitching: an interview with Oz and Belle’.