By Daniel Nozick
BALTIMORE — Sam Barsky is easily recognizable by his hand-knit sweaters that depict themes ranging from nature scenery to Jewish holidays to recognizable landmarks and tourist destinations.
Recently Barsky, 42, found himself in the international spotlight. A post of his sweaters on the website Imgur, self-described as “the best place to share and enjoy the most awesome images on the Internet,” went viral the first weekend of January.
“I looked at my Facebook page and had over 100 friend requests all at once,” said Barsky. “Some mystery person found out about my sweaters and posted about them on a site that I had never heard of before without talking to me. It apparently become their most popular article of the day, made their front page and went viral.”
He’s become widely known for his sweaters and for photos of himself at scenes clad in the matching sweater he knitted.
Since then, the mass media picked up on the story. Outlets all over the world have published stories and are seeking out Barsky, who lives with his wife in Baltimore, for interviews.
“It’s overwhelming,” he said. “I have a few thousand unread messages on email and on Facebook requesting all these interviews and articles. It’s too much for me to handle all at once, so I’m getting to some every day and am writing apologies about why it’s taking so long to respond — that it’s because I’m flooded and it’s nothing personal.”
Barsky was interested in learning to knit for a long time before he finally took it up. It appealed to him because he could make his own clothes with designs of his choosing. However, he encountered difficulty when he tried to learn while studying nursing at the Community College of Baltimore County.
“In the middle of the ’90s, I took a book out of the library, bought some yarn and tried to figure it out. I couldn’t, so I gave up for a time and concentrated on my studies,” Barsky recalled. “A couple of times throughout my years in college, I signed up for courses in various places like adult education centers to try to learn how to knit, but they were always canceled due to low enrollment.”
However, 1999 proved to be a rough year for Barsky. He started to develop mobility issues that forced him to drop out of his nursing program halfway through, in the middle of a semester. He was left trying to figure out what to do next with his life.
At a flea market one Sunday morning, Barsky had a chance encounter with three women who were knitting. That was the catalyst for learning to knit.
“I asked them, ‘how do I learn how to do that?’ They told me that they owned a yarn shop, and that if I would come in, they would teach me for free on the condition that I bought their yarn,” Barsky said. “I made a point of wearing a commercial sweater with a multicolored paisley pattern the first time I went in, because I wanted to show them what my goals were.”
The yarn shop was Woolworks in Baltimore. (It now has new owners, according to Barsky). He was told in the beginning that making sweaters was for experienced knitters, so the women started him on a scarf instead, which he never finished. Several weeks later, a friend that he had met at the shop told him of another store called Woolstock Knit & Sew in Glyndon, outside the city.
“The moment I walked in, the owner, Leslye Solomon, told me that I would walk out of the shop having started work on a sweater — I was very excited about it,” he said. “She started me on a solid color sweater. It took me about eight months to complete it, but I got it done just in the nick of time before the end of the millennium.”
After knitting two sweaters, each monochromatic, Barsky decided to challenge himself and create a sweater in five months that depicted a map of the world. He followed that up with a sweater that sported a different type of design: a nature scene “that had a picture on the back of a tall waterfall and a cloudy sky, and on the front it depicted a raging river with a covered bridge and waterwheel.”
The latter took him just two months to finish and he declared it a success — “People didn’t mistake for something else!” Since that time, Barsky has amassed an enormous collection of sweaters, and now averages about a month to make each sweater.
“At that point I realized I could put anything on a sweater,” he said. “I realized I could do buildings and iconic landmarks, I did a castle. It’s really weird, but I did the Twin Towers before 9/11. I also did the Tower Bridge in London.
“Fast-forward several months, I decided it would be nice if I had some Jewish-themed sweaters, so I made a Sukkot sweater, and shortly after that, a Chanukah sweater. Over the years that followed, I was making sweaters of many different landmarks all over the world, nature scenes, at least one for every Jewish holiday. By 2016, I was a celebrity within the worldwide knitting community.”
At first, Barsky would just come up with the idea for his next sweater off the top of his head. However, if he was going to visit a location that he had depicted in a sweater, he figured that he might as well wear that particular sweater — what better place to wear it?
“I wouldn’t think of going somewhere with the point being to get a picture,” Barsky explained, however. “Whenever you’re at a tourist attraction, it’s normal to take pictures.”
What stood out was his sweaters, rather than that he was taking a picture.
“Over time I realized I had a good collection of 10 to 15 pictures [wearing a sweater depicting my surroundings] — they weren’t the greatest, but at that point I realized I had to grow the collection, and I would take pictures like that at every opportunity.”
Today, Barksy has a total of 104 sweaters, with matching pictures for 93 of them.
“For 105, I am doing a Groundhog Day sweater. I was planning to make a Martin Luther King Day sweater, it’s about halfway done, but because of this past week of publicity, I didn’t have the time to finish it,” said Barsky. “Since I only have two weeks, I’m focusing on getting the Groundhog Day one done. After that, I’ll find out what to do next based on what place we plan to travel to or what event comes up.”
Daniel Nozick is a staff reporter for the Baltimore Jewish Times.