Sam Barsky has knitted 157 sweaters freehand since he began his journey with yarn more than two decades ago – and he’s just getting started.
Many of the sweaters depict scenes from locations that Barsky has visited with his wife Deborah. Together, they’ve traveled to 33 countries and most of the 50 U.S. states, and Barsky said he has hundreds more places he wants to see.
“I have a long wish list,” he said. “I know I’ll never get them all done in my life. But if I have travel plans somewhere, I knit a sweater of that place in advance of those travels.”
Barsky shares his creations almost daily on TikTok and Instagram, with his social media accounts amassing more than 200,000 and 100,000 followers, respectively.
The sweaters show locations ranging from Stonehenge to the Dead Sea. Barsky has made several sweaters out of places back home in Maryland too, like the Inner Harbor, Oriole Park at Camden Yards, and the observatory at Patterson Park.
Most recently, he knitted an Ellicott City sweater, with the town’s name displayed across the bridge next to the B&O Ellicott City Station Museum.
@sambarsky My latest sweater – finished! #sweater #knitting #knit #knitter #ellicottcitymaryland #ellicottcity #ellicottcitymd #railroad #railroadbridge #mainstreet ♬ original sound – Sam Barsky
While attending a flea market in Lutherville in 1999, Barsky saw a table where three women, owners of the now-closed Woolworks near Lake Roland, were knitting and selling yarn.
Barsky asked the women where he could go to learn how to knit. They offered to teach him for free under the condition that he buy their yarn.
Barsky quickly picked up the skill and knitted his first sweater, a plain teal garment. After his first year of knitting solid-colored sweaters, he decided to raise the difficulty level by knitting a map of the world based on a pattern he found.
“I thought ‘that’s what I want to do next,’ and I did that,” he said. “And then after doing that, I was thinking what can I do after this? This was such a complex pattern. I wanted something more challenging than that.”
In 2000, Barsky began freehanding his own sweater designs, starting with a covered bridge over water.
“I realized after doing a couple of them the possibilities were endless,” he said.
Barsky also started taking photos wearing his sweaters in the locations that they depicted.
“I noticed at one point–it was completely by accident–I have pictures wearing certain sweaters in those places,” he said. “I thought ‘Wow, this is a great idea to do this intentionally now.’”
Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Barsky has had to focus more on local places as inspiration for sweaters.
“When the pandemic started, my traveling ground to a halt at that point so I was doing a lot of local landmarks then,” he said.
Barsky said he loves to wear sweaters year round. He knits long-sleeved sweaters for the winter with animal fibers like sheep or alpaca wool, while he uses cotton and other more breathable fabrics to knit short-sleeved sweaters for summertime.
For his 100th freehand sweater, back in 2016, Barsky knitted a “sweater of sweaters” featuring miniatures of 34 of his previous sweaters.
Other creations throughout the years have included sweaters for Hanukkah and Passover Seder, a cicada sweater, and a sweater of Martin Luther King Jr. delivering his “I Have a Dream Speech.”
Fans often ask Barsky if they can buy a sweater from him, but he has to turn them down.
“It takes me so long to make one piece that I can’t possibly make them and sell them,” he said, adding that he typically knits a sweater in one month. “Lots of people don’t understand that at all, and I get people begging me to buy them all the time…. Even the yarn alone can be a lot of money.”
As a compromise, Barsky sells T-shirts with prints of some of his sweater creations. The shirts are produced by Picture This Clothing in Las Vegas.
Barsky also records video messages, wearing certain themed sweaters, for the recipient’s birthday, anniversary, holiday or other special occasions. Customers can pay what they can for the videos, and 10% of the proceeds go to charities.
Most people who see his sweaters have been very supportive, Barsky said.
“The majority of the comments are positive,” he said. “I do get a fair share of negative ones but I don’t let them bother me.”
On Barsky’s recent Instagram post about his Ellicott City sweater, user @flying_spaghet_monster wrote “Amazing work! I really look forward to seeing your posts. Such a beautiful bright moment of my day, each one.”
TikTok user @hlundi90 commented on Barsky’s video of his “sweater of sweaters” to say “Every time I see you I think your sweaters can’t get anymore intricate and then here you go making a sweater of your sweaters! Amazing.”
Most of all, Barsky is happy to share his work with his close-knit community of fans.
“I enjoy creating my own things,” he said. “I enjoy transforming real places into my artistic representation of it and getting to wear it. I enjoy talking to other people about it.”