This is part of our year-long Black History Month series celebrating black creators and the meaningful lessons passed down through generations of changemakers past, present and future.
Keenan Goldsmith never knew his grandfather.
The insurance salesman died a dozen years before baby Keenan was born on a cold, foggy morning in Louisiana. But John Goldsmith left something to his descendants, something that kept him alive in a German concentration camp by making him “useful” to the Nazis, something that comforted him during his bouts of depression. John Goldsmith taught his daughter, Keenan’s mother, to knit. And she passed the craft on to her children.
Keenan took that knowledge, nurtured and mastered it for decades, and during the pandemic built a brand around it, attracting a social media niche as a fiber artist.
Keenan Goldsmith, an introverted bartender from New Orleans, has turned into social media influencer Knitting Bartender.
It was a metamorphosis brought on by sudden unemployment in 2020.
Goldsmith made a living serving craft cocktails at Flambo, a restaurant in the French Quarter. Then, by municipal decree, all water points in New Orleans were forced to close. The mayor cited an increase in COVID-19 cases and a recommendation from the White House coronavirus task force to stem the rampant spread of the virus.
Goldsmith decided to use her involuntary leave as a reassessment period. “I wanted to use the time wisely to do something for myself,” the 42-year-old said.
He loved knitting ever since his mother taught him the basics when he was 10 years old. “My mother taught me what she learned as a child, what some people would say women learned. But I never cared,” he said.
Anita Goldsmith, a single mother, used knitting to keep her children calm and quiet when she needed it. Before visits to the doctor’s office, the family would stop at Woolworth’s, where they would let them choose any color yarn they wanted for projects they would start in the waiting room.
Keeping their little hands busy has worked like a charm, especially for Keenan. “I’ve always loved projects,” he said.
“Raising three kids isn’t easy when you’re doing it on your own,” he said of his mother. “My mom struggled. She sometimes worked three times. But she always found time for us. Knitting was a bonding experience.”
In high school, he and his three younger sisters had a side business: he developed patterns for knit hats which they all made and sold to other students. His skills grew from this as he began to teach himself beautiful and intricate cable work. “The more complicated the scheme, the more interested I was,” he said.
For a moment he was absorbed in it. While working in a neighborhood Irish gift shop as a teenager, he found himself frequently scolded by his bosses, who feared he was focusing more on his knitting than on the customers. As he got older, his interest waned a bit, but never died. He embraced other creative endeavours, becoming proficient on cello, violin, and piano. In the meantime, he mixed at the theater. But he kept coming back to knitting, learning little by little. Along the way, he learned the details of his grandfather’s story.
As a young man, his grandfather, born Hansreiner Ludwig Goldschmidt, was thrown into a Nazi concentration camp, where his captors used his skills as a knitter. “If you were productive, they would leave you alone,” Keenan said.
Goldschmidt managed to escape and joined the US Army, working as a translator. Thanks to this, he became a naturalized American citizen, changed his name and embarked on a career as an insurance salesman.
But the Holocaust is never far behind him. He struggled with depression and bouts of rage, but was patient with his young daughter as he taught her to knit. He avoided talking about Germany unless it was an amusing story of his childhood in Mainz.
Keenan has been told that he takes after his grandfather in more ways than one: he is good at learning languages, just like his grandfather. He too has a green thumb when it comes to roses.
John Goldsmith was happiest when he was knitting. He never followed a printed pattern and enjoyed designing his own. His life was tragically cut short by cancer at the age of 47. The elder Goldsmith never found his job as a salesman rewarding. Keenan Goldsmith wanted to make sure his own work would always be.
Early in the pandemic, as he began to consider his possibilities, it hit him. Somehow he wanted to build a new life around knitting.
He started posting photographs of his knitted work on social media, mostly English country style cardigans and sweaters, inspired by Ralph Lauren. The world needed to escape rancor, racism and divided politics, he thought. As a gay and black man, he could also see that the world also needed more diverse online knitting communities, so he decided to start his own.
“The stereotype of someone who knits is someone older and a woman,” Goldsmith told textile artist Irina Shaar when she interviewed him for Fiberchats, her YouTube channel. “I wanted younger people, and I wanted guys, and I wanted trans people. I wanted everyone to feel welcome, and so that’s what we got.” He created a space where people could learn from each other, regardless of skill level, and promote each other. His Facebook group has grown from five people to more than 7,000. And, more importantly, “We’re all ready to help each other,” he said.
Under knitting bartender, Goldsmith sells a line of t-shirts, hoodies and tank tops to raise funds to buy the yarn he needs to build a collection. His Facebook and Instagram posts also caught the attention of two people who own alpaca farms. They agreed to provide him with yarn in exchange for his thanks when he posts photos of the beautiful sweaters he creates from their raw material. Soon he will start giving knitting lessons virtually. The next step, he said, is to publish and sell his patterns.
For now, he still has to do other jobs. These days, it’s in New Orleans’ growing film production industry, where he works in craft services, providing food and drink to movie sets.
Who knows where the Knitting Bartender will take her. Turning a hobby into a business was challenging for Goldsmith, but also exhilarating.
“I never thought I could do it,” he said when featured on The Design Network streaming channel. “And there was just something that said, ‘Go ahead.’ And I did.”
It is an all-consuming business. But, when he’s not busy building his brand, he has another passion project going. He teaches his nephew, Sean Gasper, to knit.
“It’s my way of relating to my nephew, of sharing a common interest. And, if he has children of his own, or nieces and nephews, he can pass it on. I would love that. When you teach a child when they’re young, they’ll always come back to it,” Goldsmith said. “You have to have patience to knit, not just to make your clothes but also to teach. Sometimes when I teach my nephew , I sit six feet away. I give him his space and don’t look over his shoulder. Sometimes he makes mistakes. He drops a stitch or comes back with a tangled mess, but you have to be patient. He learns And that’s how my mom was with me and how my grandpa was supposed to be with her. We talk about it in the fiber artist community. Knitters are squishy, warm people. We try to have empathy and patience with anyone who wants to learn. It really is a matter of p sharing.