Intarsia Abroad

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When Sam Barsky blew up the internet with his handknit sweaters last January, he didn’t realize what was happening at first. He woke up to over a hundred Facebook friend requests and thought his account had been hacked. Later, he discovered that photos of his handknit sweaters had gone viral on Imgur, and he was instantly catapulted to internet fame. He and his sweaters have since been featured by the BBC, NPR, Mashable, and others. The Baltimore-native knits sweaters of places and objects, and then photographs himself wearing those sweaters in front of the monuments they represent. To date, he has knit over 106 sweaters. One Sunday afternoon, I met up with Sam at a local yarn shop to learn more about his process.

BY JESS SCREIBSTEIN

How do you choose what to knit?
Anything that crosses my eyes is a potential sweater.

How do you prioritize what comes next? Do you order your queue?
It’s either a place I’m going to or an event coming up, or if I just desperately feel like I want to have something. Like, I felt like I wanted to have a power line sweater very badly when I made this. I see them all the time. [He pulls out his sweater depicting a series of powerlines.] I’d love to hear more about your process.

Do you sketch your ideas beforehand?
No. I just freehand it. I have the theme in mind, I pick up the yarn that I think would do the trick, and then I knit it as I go along.

How do you make sure you get it right? Do you rip out a lot?
Usually not. I have it planned out.

But it’s all in your mind’s eye.
Exactly.

You use intarsia for your colorwork. Did you know that when you first started knitting sweaters? Did you just figure it out?
I experimented. I first started out with two solid colored sweaters that took me the course of a year to make both of them. That’s what the instructors I had steered me into doing. But I knew I wanted to do something more. I didn’t want to spend my whole life just making solid colored sweaters. I found in the Vogue Knitting magazine a subscription card which had a picture of a map of the world sweater. It looked like a globe. And I go, “I want to do that next!” But the owner of the shop I was going to at the time said that’s only for very experienced knitters. I refused to take “no” for an answer. I contacted Vogue Knitting and got a copy of the pattern. I picked up some yarn off the shelf and got to work on it. She didn’t believe I could do it. It took me five months, and I got it done!

What did she say when you showed it to her?
She was amazed! This was my first multicolored sweater. After that, I had the idea of designing my own sweater using graph paper. As to what would be on it, I was looking at the cloudy sky one day and thinking, “That would be an interesting idea. A cloudy sky sweater!” And then I was thinking of other things that could go along with the cloudy sky. I was thinking of a nature scene. A waterfall, and I started drawing a waterfall on graph paper. And then I started thinking, “Why do I even need this graph paper?” So I just forgot about the graph paper and tried freehanding it. I did a river with rapids, and I added a waterwheel to make it more interesting. And a covered bridge. And here’s the cloudy sky to top it off! That was my first sweater without a pattern.

You really do like a challenge.
Yes, exactly.

Where did you get the idea next to be like, “I want to knit places I’m going to and take a photograph in front of them.” Did that just happen by itself?
It happened by accident. It just felt natural, even though I wasn’t seeking the pictures. If I’m going to a place, it just felt natural to wear the sweater of that place there. And at the same time, it’s just natural when you’re at a place to take pictures of wherever you are. By accident, I had a collection of 10 to 15 pictures wearing some of my sweaters in front of places and objects they represent. And I realized – this is a form of art also! So I made a conscious effort after that to get a picture of my sweaters in front of places they represent. I have 98 pictures so far. Some of them are my temporary pictures until I get the one I really want to get one day. Sometimes I create the scene myself.

Are you trained formally in art?
Not at all. I never took any art courses in college. Many years later, I wanted to see what an art course in college was like, so I signed up for an art course at BCC [Baltimore City College]. I didn’t like it at all. The instructor was just telling me, “Draw lines, draw lines,” and that was meaningless. So I dropped out after two days. There’s no degree in the universe to do what I’m doing anyway. I already trained myself to do this!