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As Dressing for Men and Women Softens Up, Knit Picks Weave Warm Magic, from Sweater Vests and Tunics to Cozy Cardigans and Playful Pullovers : Dream Weavers


Those who treasure things that are warm, handmade and one-of-a-kind are getting hooked on sweaters.

They're forgoing plain, run-of-the-mill cardigans and seeking out winter's plentiful assortment of unusual knits that are like woven works of art.

Whether hand-knit or hand-loomed (both of which involve machine-knitting), these sweaters look like they could have been made by Grandma's knitting needles. Yet, thanks to innovative styling, they're anything but old-fashioned.

Women are finding sweaters with romantic crocheted details and vintage-looking buttons in contemporary tunic, vest and crop-top styles. Men can relax in simple cashmere Polo-style shirts or show some personality with novelty sweaters that have woven motifs illustrating a favorite interest such as golf or antique autos.

Knit cardigans, pullovers and vests are part of the layered, easy dressing that is taking hold in men's and women's fashions. For spring, designers showed layer upon layer of soft garments made from natural materials such as cotton, linen and silk dyed the colors of the earth. Sweaters woven by hand from organic fibers are the perfect spin-off to these natural, comfortable clothes.

"Dressing is getting much softer, and whenever it gets less structured, people gravitate to sweaters," says Laura Downing, owner of the Laura Downing boutique for men and women in Laguna Beach. "Plus, people want to be comfortable. It's part of all that pajama dressing--the palazzo pants and (flowing) tops."

Downing carries a large collection of one-of-a-kind sweaters made by hand from organic fibers. Most come in muted earth tones such as sand, taupe, ivory and brown. One company called Eggplant makes sweaters out of undyed, recycled cotton, including a long tunic that falls to the knees with a ribbed turtleneck and hem ($290).

Many hand-knit sweaters have a vintage look thanks to crocheted details and antique-style buttons. Designer Lianne Barnes' pale peach cardigan has a romantic crocheted front and cameo buttons ($275), while Annie M's terra-cotta-colored vest has buttons made of terra-cotta clay adorned with angel faces ($170). Laguna Beach designer Suzette Merrill found wooden buttons to adorn her taupe-colored crocheted cardigan ($210).

"These sweaters are really feminine," Downing says.

Men, too, are wearing comfortable sweaters spun from natural fibers. Laura Downing has a Polo-style shirt made of luxurious heather-colored cashmere by Raffi ($150), a ribbed cable knit pull-over in black and taupe linen and cotton by Mackinaw ($100), and an indigo-dyed cotton vest by Michael Ross ($190) guaranteed to fade like a pair of jeans.

"Sweaters are easy to wear. They're not complicated," says Flora Hills, owner of the Flora Hills women's boutique in Corona del Mar.

Among the easy pieces in the boutique's sweater collection: a velvety chenille cardigan in burnt brown with a floppy crocheted collar and cuffs and vintage-looking portrait buttons ($269), a charcoal-colored tunic made of a patchwork of knits, raw silk and thermal materials ($134) and a waffle-weave cotton cardigan ($226) layered over a longer matching tunic ($160), both hand-painted with flowers, chairs and other whimsical designs.

"People appreciate the novelty of the handmade item," Hills says.

Appreciation for sweaters grows during hard times, and people turn to sweaters for comfort, according to Tom Fuller, owner of Fuller's For Men & Women in Dana Point.

"Sweaters are warm and homey. They have a nice feel to them," he says.

Novelty sweaters that reflect the wearer's personality have been especially hot, Fuller says.

Fuller's hand-knit cotton sweaters have colorful motifs to fit all kinds of fetishes. Men can choose from a line of hand-knitted sweaters from Polo with motifs such as antique trucks and teddy bears (about $300), while women can find sweaters adorned with everything from sailboats and seashells ($500 to $600) to a teddy bear sporting a tartan kilt ($130).

Valentine hearts, Americana, dogs, sunflowers and gardening are among the many themes found on novelty sweaters for women and children at Ducks & Co. in South Coast Plaza, Costa Mesa. The vests, cardigans and pullovers range from $70 to $500.

"They play off what people like or identify with, either through a profession or hobby," says Mariann Reynolds, owner and buyer for Ducks & Co.

The uneven quality of the hand-knit sweaters only adds to their charm, she says.

"You can tell hand-knit stitches because they're more irregular. It adds to the sweater's appeal."

Those who can't find the perfect sweater on store racks can have one custom-made. Hare's to Ewe in Orange not only knits sweaters according to one's specifications, they'll also spin the yarn out of any fiber. A basic custom sweater costs about $250.

Some customers grow their own cotton or brush the fur off of their pet rabbits and have it spun into a sweater, says Hare's to Ewe owner Sharon Bernheimer. She has knit sweaters out of dog hair, cat fur, musk ox, camel and even yak hair.

"You don't see that too often," she says.

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