Sam Barsky always hoped he would one day get noticed for the intricate jumpers he knits – but even he was surprised by his recent spectacular rise to fame.
Earlier this month, someone posted his fabulous custom creations on social media site, Imgur, and they went viral. The keen American-Jewish knit enthusiast, who has a learning disability, has since been interviewed by media from all over the world and has garnered more than 33,000 likes on his Facebook page.
These are not just any old jumpers. Barsky, from Baltimore in Maryland, knits jumpers featuring a famous building, or a nature scene. He then takes a picture of himself wearing it and standing in front of the landmark, such as Tower Bridge, Stonehenge, Niagara Falls, the Eiffel Tower, Times Square – and even in front of some electricity pylons.
Initially, if Barsky had a jumper to match the place he was going to visit, he would wear it there and sometimes, but not always, take a holiday snap. After realising he was building quite a collection of photos of him wearing the jumpers in the places they represented, he thought he should attempt more.
“So I did, and then I started, in advance of going to certain places, knitting jumpers to wear to those places. I was working hard on getting more pictures and planning trips just to get certain pictures,” he explains. “And finally now, for 93 out of my 103 jumpers, I have pictures of them in the places they represent.”
I wonder if his family has come to terms with his new-found fame. “I don’t know if they have fully absorbed all of the impact yet – this is very sudden,” he says. “I’ve not even absorbed it myself.”
But he doesn’t mind the publicity. “I eventually wanted to get to this point,” he says, “but I didn’t expect it like this. I thought I’d have control over it when it came.”
Barsky, 42, had wanted to learn to knit since he was a nursing college student and tried at various times to learn, but classes often got cancelled.
After he had to drop out of college in 1999 owing to serious health problems, he met three women who were knitting at a flea market. They promised to teach him to knit on condition that he bought wool from their shop.
But the scarf they taught him to knit was not enough for him – he wanted to make a jumper and they said it required more experience. He then learned of another shop near his home.
“The owner took an instant liking to me and so I told her I wanted to make a sweater, and she had me start on a sweater that very day,”
It was a solid colour sweater, which took him eight months to make, and he made a similar one after that. But again, he fancied doing “something more interesting” and found a description card in a Vogue knitting magazine featuring a map of the world.
“I told the owner I wanted to make it and she said it was for very experienced knitters. I refused to take no for an answer and I got the pattern and completed it within five months,” Barsky tells me triumphantly.
He continued to challenge himself and decided on a jumper with a waterfall and a river. He drew the design onto graph paper, but then knitted the jumper as he went along (which he now does with all his designs).
Unsurprisingly, his other hobby is travelling. “My wife and I don’t get to do it much, but we have taken a lot of trips over the years. We’ve been to 33 countries as a couple. We’ve been to Israel a lot and to the UK several times.”
He would love to go on knitting tours and show off his jumpers and meet the people he has met virtually in real life, as well as travel even more for pleasure. “I’d like to go to different parts of Europe and Africa and the two US states I’ve not been to – Hawaii and Oregon.”
Barsky sees his work as an art form. “This is what I do with my life – I want to help my cause,” he affirms. “I don’t know anyone else personally who does this. It is the first time in my life that I found unusual artistic skills. I didn’t even know that it was art until people were telling me it was.”
While he cannot pick a favourite sweater, he does like some better than others, and some have even been exhibited at local galleries. “There are some that came out better, look more catchy and have different colours or those that I think I did a better job of.”
Out of his jumpers that have a Jewish theme, he feels the Chanukah ones came out best. “They’re the most colourful and they have a lot of accuracy in them.”
Rosh Hashanah is his next favourite; he made his wife Deborah a matching dress featuring apple trees and a nature scene.
Judaism is an important facet of Barsky’s life. He was raised an Orthodox Jew and attends a Conservative synagogue. “I observe Shabbat and keep kosher and I feel very close to God and feel very much a part of the Jewish community,” he adds.
He usually has one or two jumpers on the go and they each take a month to complete. Deborah does not share his passion for knitting, but he has made her tank tops, skirts and some vests, and he attends knitting groups almost every day to knit with like-minded creatives.
As his new-found fame soars, Barsky has received numerous requests for bespoke jumpers, but his sweaters are, as yet, not for sale.
He admits: “I’m trying to pursue my career doing what I’m doing. I hope to one day find some avenues in the future to get paid for this – and it’s something I’m working on. The fame, I believe, will help the cause.”
ω To see more of Sam Barsky’s work visit: facebook.com/colorknit