Keenan Goldsmith Knitting Bartender

The Knitting Bartender: How Keenan Goldsmith Built a Brand and Community

Discover how the maker behind the Knitting Bartender cultivated his inherited passion for knitting to create a clothing brand and inclusive online community.

This is part of our yearlong Black History Month series celebrating Black creators and the meaningful lessons handed down through generations of past, present, and future change-makers.

Keenan Goldsmith never knew his grandfather.

The insurance salesman died a dozen years before baby Keenan came bouncing into the world on a chilly, foggy morning in Louisiana. But John Goldsmith left something behind for his descendants, something that had kept him alive in a German concentration camp by making him "useful" to the Nazis, something that had offered him solace 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 over decades, and, during the pandemic, built a brand around it, attracting a niche social media following as a fiber artist.

Keenan Goldsmith aka The Knitting Bartender
Courtesy of Keenan Goldsmith

Keenan Goldsmith, an introverted New Orleans bartender, transformed himself into the Knitting Bartender, social media influencer.

It was a metamorphosis prompted by sudden unemployment in 2020.

Goldsmith was making a living serving craft cocktails at Flambo, a French Quarter restaurant. Then, by city decree, all New Orleans watering holes were forced to close. The mayor cited a surge in COVID-19 cases and a White House Coronavirus Task Force recommendation for stanching the virus's rampant spread.

Goldsmith decided to use his involuntary time off as a period of reassessment. "I wanted to use the time wisely to do something for myself, " the 42-year-old said.

He had enjoyed knitting since his mother taught him the basics when he was 10 years old. "My mother taught me what she learned as a kid—what some people would say ladies learned. But I never cared about that," he said.

Anita Goldsmith, a single mother, used knitting to keep her children calm and quiet when she needed them to be. Before visits to the doctor's office, the family would stop at Woolworth's, where she allowed them to pick out any color yarn they wanted for projects they would start in the waiting room.

Keenan Goldsmith's mother Anna Goldsmith on designed tan background
Courtesy of Keenan Goldsmith

Busying their little hands worked like a charm, particularly for Keenan. "I've always liked projects," he said.

"Raising three children is not easy when you're doing it by yourself, " he said of his mother. "My mom struggled. She sometimes worked three jobs. But she always made time for us. Knitting was a bonding experience."

In high school, he and his three younger sisters got a side hustle going: He developed patterns for knitted hats that they all made and peddled to fellow students. His skills grew from that, as he began to teach himself beautiful and intricate cable work. "The more complicated the pattern, the more interested I was," he said.

For a while, he was absorbed by it. While working at an Irish gift shop in the Quarter as a teenager, he found himself being frequently admonished by his bosses, who were afraid he was concentrating more on his knitting than the customers. As he got older, his interest waned a bit, but never died. He embraced other creative endeavors, becoming proficient at the cello, the violin, and the piano. In between, he mixed in the theater. But he kept coming back to knitting, gradually teaching himself more. Along the way, he learned the details of his grandfather's story.

Keenan Goldsmith's grandfather John Goldsmith on designed tan background
Courtesy of Keenan Goldsmith

As a young man, his grandfather—born Hansreiner Ludwig Goldschmidt—was thrown into a Nazi concentration camp, where his captors utilized his knitting skills. "If you were productive, they left you alone," Keenan said.

Goldschmidt managed to escape and joined the U.S. Army, working as a translator. Through that, he became a naturalized U.S. citizen, changed his name, and embarked on a career as an insurance salesman.

But the Holocaust was never far behind him. He battled depression and fits 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 from his childhood in Mainz.

Keenan has been told he takes after his grandfather in more ways than one—he's adept at picking up 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 cut tragically short by cancer at the age of 47. The elder Goldsmith never found his work as a salesman rewarding. Keenan Goldsmith wanted to make sure that his own work always would be.

Keenan Goldsmith aka The Knitting Bartender with knitting project
Courtesy of Keenan Goldsmith

During the early days of the pandemic, as he started considering his possibilities, it hit him. Somehow, someway, he wanted to construct a new life around knitting.

Keenan Goldsmith

I think the misconception is that men don't knit. There's a huge population of guys who knit. It's not gender-specific.

—Keenan Goldsmith

He started posting photographs on social media of his knitted handiwork, mainly English country-styled vests and sweaters, inspired by Ralph Lauren. The world needed an escape from the rancor, racism, and divided politics, he thought. As a gay, Black man, he could also see that the world also needed more diverse online knitting communities, so he decided to start his own.

Keenan Goldsmith aka The Knitting Bartender with knitting project
Courtesy of Keenan Goldsmith

"The stereotype of someone who knits is someone older and female," Goldsmith told fiber 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 welcomed, and so that's what we have." He created a space where people could learn from each other, no matter the skill level, and promote themselves. His Facebook group has grown from five people to more than 7,000. And, most importantly, "We're all willing to help each other," he said.

Under Knitting Bartender, Goldsmith sells a line of T-shirts, hoodies, and tank tops to raise the money to buy the yarn he needs to build a collection. His Facebook and Instagram posts also drew the attention of two people who own alpaca farms. They agreed to provide him with yarn in return for him giving them shoutouts when he posts photographs of the beautiful sweaters he creates from their raw material. Soon, he'll begin giving knitting lessons virtually. The next step, he said, is publishing and selling his patterns.

For right now, he still has to work other jobs. These days, that's in the New Orleans' ever-growing film production industry, where he works in craft services, providing food and drink on movie sets.

Who knows where the Knitting Bartender will take him. Turning a hobby into a business has been challenging for Goldsmith, but also exhilarating.

Keenan Goldsmith with his nephew Sean Gasper
Courtesy of Keenan Goldsmith

"I never thought that I could do it," he said when he was featured on the streaming channel The Design Network. "And there was just something that said, 'Go for it.' And I did."

It's an all-consuming venture. But, when he's not busy growing his brand, he's got another passion project in the works. He's teaching his nephew, Sean Gasper, how to knit.

"This is my way of relating to my nephew, to share a common interest. And, if he has children of his own, or nieces and nephews, he can pass it along. I would love that. When you teach a kid when they are young, they will always come back to it," Goldsmith said."You have to have patience in knitting, not just making your garments but in teaching. Sometimes when I'm teaching my nephew, I'm sitting six feet away. I'm giving him his space and not looking over his shoulder. Sometimes he makes mistakes. He'll drop a stitch or come back with a tangled mess, but you have to have patience. He's learning. And that's how my mother was with me and how my grandfather must have been 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 willing to learn. It really is about sharing."

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