BALTIMORE — Sam Barsky is a modest Maryland man who knits improbable sweaters. But this Saturday evening, just following Shabbat, he turned on his computer to discover that he had become that rarest of 21st century unicorns – a human internet meme.
Barsky, a member of several knitting groups in the Baltimore area, knits tiny hats for newborns in hospitals. For himself he designs his own brightly colored graphic sweaters. And while most knitters use a printed pattern, Barsky knits his designs freehand, using only his own creativity as a guide.
In a conversation with The Times of Israel on Monday, he said he assigns himself goals. At one point he knit a sweater for every Jewish holiday, starting with his favorite, Sukkot. On a Facebook page he posts his creations and chats with knitters around the world.
Whereas formerly he knit sweaters depicting places he had visited, recently he’s upped the ante. Now he first knits places he hopes to see, and then, when visiting the actual locations, he photographs himself while sporting the sites’ wearable twin.
But something changed last week when “Desmond the Potato” posted a gallery of Barsky’s art — mostly the travel sweater shots — on Imgur, a site described as “an online image sharing community and image host.”
Possibly to give the troll-heavy site a new piece of red meat, Desmond entitled the post, “This guy makes sweaters of places and then takes pictures of himself wearing the sweaters at those places.” But the gallery took on a life of its own. With almost 1.2 million views on Imgur alone, viewers see in the bespectacled, shyly smiling Barsky nothing short of a folk hero.
“If this guy doesn’t have his shit together, I don’t know who does,” wrote one viewer who identifies as “vilecomfort.”
“He found a hobby and loves it. Frickin’ awesome. He is nerdy and not ashamed. He sounds like he a genuine down to earth guy tho [sic],” posted “mrantman.”
“I don’t know why this makes me smile but it does. Rock on quirky dude,” wrote another.
The enthusiasm spilled over on to Barsky’s Facebook page “Artistic Knitting of Sam Barsky,” where comments poured in from at least four continents in a myriad of languages. Barsky, who is an avid social media user (for knitting groups, mostly), was shocked when he had to apologize for not being able to respond quickly to all of the messages due to the volume.
He arrived Monday night to the coffee shop in suburban Baltimore in one of his warmest sweaters — a safari design with elephants, lions and crocodiles against an African sky. With him, he carried a giant Rubbermaid box filled to the brim with the sweaters that are “breaking the internet.”
Barsky explained that he wore the safari sweater for warmth, before going to the bathroom to change into the 100th sweater he knit — one depicting miniature versions of his previous sweaters. Most of the diners were oblivious that they were sitting next to an overnight sensation, but at least one older woman grinned and told Barsky — and her companion — that this was the knitter she had been talking about.
“It’s something I knew I wanted someday, but it just came so suddenly — the level that I became famous was so sudden,” Barsky said. “I didn’t expect it. I wasn’t ready for it and I’m overwhelmed by the flood of emails and messages and different forms of communication I’ve received, all in less than 24 hours.”
Barsky believes that his appeal is due to his unique style, which emphasizes pictures over patterns.
“First of all, as far as I know, I don’t think anybody else in the world knits like I do,” he said. “I know many talented knitters and I don’t even think I’m the most talented knitter in the world. When people see all these colorful things they find it very attractive and charming.”
“I have not knitted from a pattern in almost 17 years. I do some counting when I have to, but it’s a lot of estimation,” he said.
‘I don’t think anybody else in the world knits like I do’
His sweaters have been recognized locally at the Baltimore Creative Alliance, at the American Visionary Art Museum, and at local cafes and libraries. But this wave of international fame, with articles running in languages such as Portuguese and German, is unprecedented.
“I’m OK with it as long as only good comes out of it,” Barsky said of his new status as a human meme. He dismisses some of the harsher comments posted on the freewheeling — and sometimes juvenile — Imgur website.
“Those people are losers anyway, and they’re not going to help or harm me. Those are people who even if I got to know them, I wouldn’t be friends with them anyway,” said Barsky.
Unraveling the origin story
The travel photos didn’t start as a major life goal.
“At first I thought if I’m going to a certain place, I might as well wear a sweater that goes along with it, that would be neat,” he said.
“I started to take pictures unconsciously without the sweaters in mind, like you usually take travel pictures when you’re in a place. Before long, I had a collection of myself wearing the sweaters in the places they were made for, maybe about 10 or 15 like that.”
At that point, Barsky decided that the sweaters were to be an intentional part of the photograph.
“Then every time I was going to a new place, I would wear a sweater for where I was going and then I realized I have to do that with all of them — I have to make them look better and better each time,” he said.
He denies having a favorite, “but I know some are better than others,” he said.
“The one where I went to Thailand and was holding a tiger, that’s one people like a lot, because I was holding a real baby tiger,” he said nonchalantly, as if it was a relatively common pastime. “I have a list of sweaters I want to get pictures of in places, and I’m frantically crossing them off as I get them done.”
“I’ve taken several with my power line sweater, which I’ve worn both in front of pylons in this area and in Israel. The Israeli pylons are styled a lot differently and they really look more interesting,” said Barsky.
‘If you get to know Israeli pylons, you’ll know that’s what they are’
The pylon sweater — one of his most popular online — celebrates the Israeli variety. “If you get to know Israeli pylons, you’ll know that’s what they are.”
In the case of the pylons, knitting them was a mindfulness exercise to understand differences in generic scenes.
“I never would have noticed the difference if I hadn’t knit the sweater. Having knit the sweater makes me pay more attention to them now,” he said.
Yarning for the Holy Land
The pylons are far from the only Israeli site memorialized in yarn. Barsky, who dreams of moving to Israel, has a photo of himself in a tank sweater at the Latrun Armored Corps Memorial; a Western Wall sweater at Judaism’s holiest site; a cubist-style rendition of Safed in the airy mountain town; and in an assortment of nature scene sweaters depicting the views from the Banias springs, the Dead Sea, and the Baha’i Gardens.
“Even though it’s not a Jewish place, it is a beautiful place. I don’t know any Jew who doesn’t admire that place,” he explained about his decision to depict the Haifa shrine.
In Israel last month, Barsky met with an Israeli filmmaker as well as a number of Israeli knitters.
His Sabra counterparts, he said, are less sweater-oriented — likely due to the warmer climate. Instead, Barsky said they are much more interested in hats, socks and small objects, like knit baskets.
Less famous than his travel-themed sweaters, but no less intricate, is Barsky’s Jewish holiday collection.
A weekly synagogue-goer and active participant in Jewish life in Baltimore, Barsky felt that he should knit a sweater for his favorite holiday, Sukkot. From Sukkot, he went on to Hanukkah, and then continued to knit sweaters for all of the major Jewish holidays. Shavuot, he says, was the greatest challenge. He has since done an additional two Sukkot sweaters, all depicting his boyhood sukkah, as he strives to get it exactly right.
After realizing that the Sukkot sweater was getting over a week’s worth of wear, Barsky added Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah as well.
There is great attention to detail in each of these holiday works. The candles on his Hanukkah sweater are made with glow-in-the-dark yarn, and tiny bees dance around one sleeve of his Rosh Hashanah sweater, which matches a similar New Year’s sweater-dress that Barsky knit for his wife.
Once a year, Barsky can also be seen wearing his Yom Kippur sweater — a short sleeved sweater with a white background, in keeping with the tradition of wearing white on the day of repentance. The front holds a facsimile of the High Priest’s jewel-encrusted breastplate, an allusion to the afternoon service recounting the priests’ ceremony on Yom Kippur — and to the fact that Barsky is a proud Kohen.
Barsky goes to social knitting groups almost every day. There are, he noted, “very few other men” in the groups, but he isn’t bothered by their absence. “There are other men who knit, just not in the open.”
He has no idea how many people have liked, followed or engaged with the viral pictures of his knitting. But, he has always been active in Facebook knitting groups, working with approximately 50 groups in both Hebrew and English.
Barsky’s passion for knitting began at a low point in his life, when health problems forced him to drop out of nursing school mid-semester.
“Even though I have this neurological problem, I don’t wake up every day thinking I’m someone who has this neurological problem,” he said.
“I wake up every day thinking of knitting, alongside other things that mean a lot to me, like family and friends and other things I love in life. When you have any kind of health problem you can either chose to identify yourself as someone with whatever kind of ailment it is or someone who has whatever passion you have.”
Has Barsky, as some posters online suggested, found a secret to happiness?
“Yes,” he said, without a moment’s hesitation. “To enjoy what you do is the secret to being happy. To enjoy every moment. I think about what Albert Einstein said when people asked him why he worked so hard. He said he didn’t work so hard. He just enjoyed what he’s doing.”