On TikTok, this knitter stays a stitch ahead of his social media fans

On TikTok, this knitter stays a stitch ahead of his social media fans

On TikTok, this knitter stays a stitch ahead of his social media fans

Pikesville, Maryland, the United States resident Sam Barsky recalls first learning of TikTok, the social media app that’s taken off across the globe, during an interview with 60 Second Docs, which produces short documentaries, in 2019.

By the following year, Barsky, 48, was uploading TikTok videos of his nature walks and, eventually, of his hand-knit sweaters, which portray landmarks and destinations from Italy’s Leaning Tower of Pisa to the Inner Harbor of Baltimore.

“The first time I talked about one of my sweaters on (TikTok), the video went viral,” he said. “It’s like ‘Wow, I should be doing this normally’.”

It’s a familiar tale to those who have tracked Barsky’s decades-long knitting career, which he first shared online on Facebook. Now, he’s amassed a following of more than 241,000 on TikTok (@sambarsky) and 226,000 on Instagram (@sambarskyknitter), and is hopeful his Tumblr page could take off, too.

This month, he’ll embark upon yet another digital escapade: producing bite-size videos on YouTube, known as “shorts”.

Already, he’s become a celebrity – both on social media and in the Baltimore area.

“I always used to tell people if they asked me how famous I am, I would say ‘I can still be anonymous in a Walmart’,” Barsky said. “But now, I’ve gotten spotted in Walmart.”

Barsky (left) showing a piece he is working on.

Nearly every day, Barsky spotlights one of his 160-plus sweaters, posting photos and videos across each social media platform he uses. When he cycles through all of his creations, which takes about half a year, he starts over again.

“Of course, my collection always grows,” he said.

Unlike most, Barsky knits without a pattern – a feat that impresses his peers.

“He just has it in his head,” said Michele Happel, a Howard County resident who organises classes and events at Howard County Library System’s Miller branch. “That’s the most amazing thing to me, because I just don’t know how he could possibly keep track of it.”

Barsky frequents the “Pins and Needles” gathering that Happel, 50, started roughly 17 years ago for those who knit, crochet, quilt and more. Ever since he began attending four or five years ago, she said, “he just fit right in”.

“He always wears one of the sweaters that he’s made, so you just know, you can spot him right away,” Happel said.

During the coronavirus pandemic, when most travel screeched to a halt, Barsky said he focused on knitting sweaters inspired by Baltimore-area landmarks.

His repertoire includes sweaters depicting the field at M&T Bank Stadium, Guilford’s Sherwood Gardens and the observatory in Patterson Park. Another in the works will depict Mount Vernon’s George Peabody Library.

“I didn’t even think that local ones… would be that marketable,” Barsky said, noting that his fans have proven him wrong.

Barsky doesn’t sell the sweaters themselves, for a number of reasons: each takes at least a month to create, the cost would be high, reproducing multiple of the same would be tricky and getting sizes correct would also prove difficult, he explains on his website.

Barsky is part of a knitting group in Hampden.

“It’s impossible for me to be a human sweater mill,” Barsky said.

Instead, he brings his one-of-a-kind creations to a company in Las Vegas called Picture This Clothing, to be photographed and printed onto T-shirts that look just like the real deal.

Barsky also sells pay-what-you-want video greetings.

“I have a philosophy of being open to all budgets,” he said.

In many cases, Barsky’s knitting work involves travel – once he makes plans to visit a destination, sometimes for a workshop, he’ll begin creating a sweater to match the scenery. He’s travelled overseas to cities including London, Israel and Venice, and also ones that are closer to home, like Philadelphia, New York and Pittsburgh, snapping pictures of himself and his sweaters along the way.

In some of those photos, Barsky’s wife of almost 20 years, Deborah, makes an appearance.

“She’s not into knitting herself,” Barsky said, but the pair enjoy travelling together.Barsky’s sourcing of materials, however, is often done locally; he shops for yarn at Cloverhill Yarn Shop in Catonsville, Black Sheep Yarn Shop in Timonium, So Original in Columbia and Neighborhood Fiber Co. and Lovelyarns in Baltimore, he said.

At Lovelyarns, Barsky gravitates toward worsted weight yarn – a medium-weight option – or something a bit bulkier, Melissa Salzman, the store’s owner, said. He also attends the store’s evening “Sip’n’Stitch” events, which bring knitters, crocheters, needlepointers and other fibre artists together every other week.

“Everybody who comes here knows Sam,” Salzman, 46, said. “Sometimes he’ll be here for Sip’n’Stitch and people will be walking by the window and go, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s the sweater guy’.”

Salzman first met Barsky at Lovelyarns in 2016, when she was working there part-time before taking over as the Hampden shop’s owner the following year – and before she knew who he was, from his social media presence.

“He’s a really sweet guy,” Salzman said. “It’s great that he’s been able to carve out a living just from knitting, which is something that he loves.”

On social media, his joy is palpable.

Barsky attempted to harness tricks for boosting online engagement, like using a healthy heaping of hashtags, he said. But even to Barsky, some aspects of Internet fame remain a mystery.

“They have their own system that I don’t think they want the public to understand,” he said of social media algorithms. “I just hope for the best, no matter what I do.” – The Baltimore Sun/Tribune News Service


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