As a child, Suzette Merrill loved to play with yarn.
She would sneak into her mother's knitting basket and pretend to knit with all the brilliant threads. When she turned 6, her mother gave her a pair of needles and showed her to use them.
"I loved it. I'd sit inside and knit while the other kids were outside playing," Merrill says.
Today, at 38, Merrill still loves to play with yarn. And she still sits inside knitting--making one-of-a-kind jackets, skirts, dresses, vests, scarfs and sweaters.
The spare bedroom in her Laguna Beach apartment has been converted into a small factory. Two knitting machines occupy center stage. Cone-shaped spools of yarn in all colors and textures fill one side of a closet, and sweaters line the shelves of the other. Swatches of yarn knitted in different patterns are stacked high in baskets.
"The love of yarn motivates me," Merrill says. "I enjoy taking one yarn and seeing how many things I can do with it."
Customers usually learn of "Suzette Sweaters" by word-of-mouth. They'll see someone wearing one of Merrill's jacket-and-skirt ensembles and mistake it for a St. John knit, Merrill says.
Clients can order one of her original designs in any color or size. If they want a solid-color skirt instead of one with a cheetah or checkered pattern, or they prefer a short jacket to a long one, she'll knit it accordingly.
"A lot of times they have to use their imaginations. They have to picture what something would look like in a different color."
More inventive customers can work with her to create an outfit from scratch.
Merrill begins designing her fashions by experimenting with the yarn. "I find a yarn I like and work with it to see how it knits up."
She will take a smooth black yarn and mix it with gold or copper. A punch card inserted into her knitting machine allows her to try the yarn in different patterns, such as the cheetah and zebra prints she favored this fall.
"Once I have a swatch of knitted fabric, I'll look at it and say, 'What would this be cute as?' "
Her ideas often evolve from photographs she has seen in magazines and newspapers, clothing worn by her friends or people on the street, and the old favorites she has hanging in her closet.
Her bestseller this season is a short, boxy cardigan with a round collar, inspired by a casual black denim jacket she bought in a department store. By doing away with the pockets, adding big black buttons and using yarn in rich jewel colors, she created a novel look.
This fall, she used a lot of sparkly metallic yarns and fuzzy Angora, knitted up in animal prints.
One elegant ensemble features a V-neck cardigan of white Angora and gold yarn in a zebra pattern, with a straight knee-length skirt of solid gold for $832.
Merrill used black silk strands mixed with multicolored metallic thread to create a long, slinky evening gown with a solid black and gold border along its round neckline, cuffs, hem, and low V-neck back, for $598.
For a more casual look, she designed a short skirt in a black and gold cheetah pattern with a matching vest and plain gold knitted T-shirt for $600.
When Merrill finds a yarn she especially likes, she will design coordinating tunics, tops, skirts and pants.
"I try to create separates you can mix and match," she says.
Merrill started her knitting business 10 years ago. She was waiting tables in a Laguna Beach restaurant when she confessed to a local boutique owner that she wanted to sell her sweaters.
"I was wearing one of my sweaters at the time, and she offered to carry one like it in her shop. She sold it just like that," she says.
Merrill had always knit by hand, but she taught herself to use a knitting machine to boost productivity. She also learned to make a stitch gauge, a swatch of knitting that tells her how many stitches make up an inch of fabric.
"Before, I'd knit the same thing three times until I got it the right size.
"I still tend to make clothes that fit me," says Merrill, who has a slender frame. "People get really upset."
She began selling her sweaters at boutiques in Beverly Hills and San Juan Capistrano. She hired a couple of workers to help with the knitting, but soon found she was spending too much time supervising and correcting their mistakes and not enough time playing with the yarn.
Today she serves as business manager, designer, manufacturer, accountant and occasional model. She sells only to one boutique, Dolly et Cie in Laguna Beach, and to private customers.
Working alone, she can knit a dress in one day and piece it together the next. A simple sweater takes four to five hours to finish, "provided you make no mistakes. Stitches can fall off the machine for no reason or a knot can go through."
Customers pay designer prices because they know they're getting a garment made specially for them, she says. "They're not going to see themselves coming and going."