Knitwear: do-it-yourself haute couture or off-the-rack nostalgia

``Knit-picking'' may be an unpleasant characteristic in human behavior, but it's a superbonus in fashion. Every wardrobe, especially for travel and holidays, needs sweaters or cardigans, and those easygoing jersey dresses that fold up in a corner of your suitcase and flip out with barely a wrinkle. It is estimated that 57 percent of all adult French women are skilled knitters. There is versatility as well as economy in turning out a ``cottage industry'' product for you and yours. Many women commuters on the Paris metro currently demonstrate a new version of that old fable of the ant and the grasshopper. Those proverbial ``grasshoppers'' are reading paperback ``whodunits'' while the ``ants'' haul out a plastic sack and start knitting away on some mysterious garment.

The average ball of good quality yarn costs the equivalent of $2, and knitting catalogs abound with models and detailed instructions from top couture designers. Yves Saint Laurent, Pierre Cardin, Valentino, and others all have patterns available in specialized publications. As always, the fun of making something yourself is the possibility of changing a detail: adding this collar to another pullover, varying the fantasy stitching, and choosing those colors that are most becoming to you.

If do-it-yourself is not your thing, shops abound with exciting new knits. Overall trends are somewhat retrospective and definitely less nonsensical than some of Sonia Rykiel's recent flights of fancy with pullovers sporting four or six sleeves each.

The semiclassic approach assures that this year's knits are going to look just as good next year. Bulky but lightweight outerwear cardigans often stand in for a coat or topper from spring through late fall, and white and the pale hues go with everything. Sporty effects trace their origins to the throw-away chic of the Deauville boardwalk and the yacht basin. These include understated cardigans and twinsets with fanciful cables and intricate stitching bordered with club stripes, especially the ever-popular combo of navy and red on white.

Shoulders are wide and rounded over light padding and played up by very deep-set sleeves. Every variation of raglans, dolmans, and batwings angle out from the ribbed hem banding.

It's a question of more is better -- ``too big'' looks and carefully calculated sloppiness rather than those skimpy shrunken ``poor girl'' sweaters from the flea market.

Other influences come from the famous Chanel middies with a deep V-shaped yoke. The late designer was a ``perennial'' at Deauville in the 1920s and '30s, always on the lookout for any idea to adapt in her collections. From the British yachts anchored between Deauville and Trouville came sailor pants and those middy sweaters with deep squared collars.

Next on the agenda: Irish fisherman sweaters, both genuine and counterfeit. The authentic extra-long bulky styles in natural-hued wool occasionally tend to smell like a wet dog when it rains (doesn't it always in that beautiful but climatically suspect country?), but they are wonderfully warm, comfortable, and quite inexpensive.

Tennis follows right on the heels of yachting and fishing, flashbacks to the famous French star of the 1920s, Suzanne Lenglen, who leaped across the courts in her long-drawn sweaters and ankle-length pleated skirts. All told, it appears that looking back seems to be the forward look in knitwear for the coming season.

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