Sam Barsky: The World is his Sweater
Located in Baltimore Maryland resides artistic knitter Sam Barsky. Sam has been knitting intricate sweaters depicting famous monuments and landscapes for the last 20 years. His work is a breath of fresh air, unpretentious, accessible, a beautiful example of art incorporated into the everyday. It exists outside of the confines of a gallery or institution, outside of the insular echo-chamber of the ‘art world’ rhetoric. The sweaters are a celebration of architectural marvels and the beauty of the natural world. It was a great joy to meet Sam on Zoom and take a closer look at his work and process.
Barsky with his Stonehenge sweater in front of the monument
Interview by Leah Gudmundson
Images courtesy of Sam Barsky
LG: How’s it going? How’s your day so far?
SB: It’s good- I set up for this yesterday so I have all my sweaters around me. Can you see the one I’m wearing? It’s the Eiffel Tower.
LG: Yeah I see it- it’s amazing!
SB: Since you’re in France I thought the Eiffel Tower would be a nice one to wear. Then I have a whole bunch of them around me, like the dinosaur one and the t-shirt replica of the dinosaur one.
LG: That’s so cool. I just watched that video of you this morning, of you dancing to the dinosaur song.
SB: Oh yeah, that was a big hit on Tik-Tok
LG: Oh was it? I don’t have Tik-Tok- I’m behind the times with technology.
SB: I just started it a few months ago, and my sweaters are a big thing on it. Here’s the Wizard of Oz one.
LG: I love that one, the characters are so well realized. Can you tell me about the first sweater you made of a landscape or monument?
SB: The first one I made was of clouds in a blue sky. My friend and I were driving somewhere and we were remarking how beautiful the sky was, with the clouds in it. And I thought to myself then, I should try and make a sweater of it. Then I did a few sweaters with other elements of nature in them. Later, I was looking at some pictures, and I thought, why not instead of doing only nature sweaters I could also do famous landmarks. That’s what I’ve been doing ever since.
LG: How many do you think you’ve created?
SB: Over 150.
LG: How long does each one take?
SB: It’s different for each one, but I’d say an average of a month.
LG: I know that you make t-shirt replicas of the sweaters that are for sale, but you never sell the sweaters themselves. Why is that?
SB: Exactly. It’s impossible for me to be a human sweater-mill. I get requests by people to sell the sweaters themselves just about every-day. There are a lot of people who don’t understand why I don’t sell the actual sweaters. They think that they could be the special one if they offer a certain amount of money.
LG: Would you ever try to commercialize the knit sweaters or do you like to keep it as a practice you do for yourself and just offer the t-shirts?
SB: So far, I haven’t found a practical way to do it.
LG: Do you make other types of art that aren’t knit based?
SB: Not on a regular basis. Knitting is my interest- it’s what I enjoy doing. The only other thing I do is to make hats to donate to the hospitals.
LG: That’s such a lovely gesture. There are a lot of images of you visiting a place or monument that you’ve made a sweater of. The Tower Bridge in London, for example. Do you try and visit every place that you make a sweater of?
SB: Now I do. That’s not how I started. It’s an idea that I accidentally came up with along the way, and now I do intentionally.
LG: What would your top 3 places to visit and make a sweater of be?
SB: It’s hard to say. I have a wish- list much longer than that. I haven’t even been to the real Eiffel Tower yet.
LG: Have you been to Paris before?
SB: Actually not! I’ve been with this sweater to the Vegas Eiffel Tower. There’s also an Eiffel Tower closer to me in an amusement park, and I took a picture with it there too. Other than Paris, Machu Picchu is on my list and lots of places in Europe and Asia. Sometimes I’ve visited the places before making the sweater, so I don’t have a photo of it. Like I’ve been to Hong Kong but I made my Hong Kong sweater afterword.
LG: Do you consider your sweaters to be artworks?
SB: At first, that’s not how I thought of it. I thought they’re just interesting sweaters I knit. Then, my former Principal from Elementary School told me – these are works of art – you should do something with them.
LG: That’s amazing. I personally look at them as artworks and love the idea that you visit a place while wearing a representation of it. It has this inception feeling of the replica. We can see your interpretation of it.
SB: Thank you. I try my best to make what’s on the sweater look like the real thing. It’s not always easy to do given the limitations of what you can do with knitting.
LG: How does it work technically? Do you draft a pattern before knitting?
SB: I have the idea of the theme in mind. Then I look for yarns that resemble the things in the real world. I freehand it as I go along; I don't draw out a graph in advance.
LG: One that I really like is the marsh sweater because it has so many textures- the yarns are so varied. Is it partially mohair?
SB: It’s actually something called eyelash. It’s a synthetic fibre which is very thin so it’s not meant to be knit alone, so I combine it with cotton.
SB: I actually have two like it in different colors. I modelled it after a place we visited in South Carolina once. There’s also a place in the suburbs of Baltimore that looks very much like this. So I took a picture there.
LG: So do you use a variety of different yarns for each sweater?
SB: Yes, whatever is suitable for the certain project. I make sweaters for cold weather out of very thick wool. I also make short-sleeve sweaters, like a t-shirt style, so I wear those when it’s warmer out or I’m indoors.
LG: Do you wear them quite often or just once in a while?
SB: I don’t own anything else to wear.