Designer's sweaters set shop apart

March 04, 1994|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,Sun Staff Writer

Visit Lee Andersen and she'll show you a thousand ways to keep warm. She's done it for Phylicia Rashad, Joan Lunden, the Crown Prince of Thailand and the Queen of Spain -- just to name a few.

Ms. Andersen designs hand-knitted sweaters in a shop she co-owns in the Historic Savage Mill, called Vibrant Handknits.

The 37-year-old Wellington, New Zealand, native has spent her life developing the craft of knitting into an art. She is writing her sixth book about knitting.

"It had been a form of torture that mothers had forced upon their daughters," said Ms. Andersen, now a Columbia resident. "I felt that it was enjoyable. It's just for fun."

Ms. Andersen said part of what attracted her to knitting were the resources in New Zealand. "There are 3 million people and 17 million sheep," she said.

In September, she opened the sweater shop in the Mill with co-owner Joan Becker, giving it the name she had given to the stores she operated in New Zealand.

In her shop, you'll find lamb's wool sweaters, goat hair sweaters and cotton sweaters; long coat sweaters, crew-neck sweaters and turtleneck sweaters; one-of-a-kind sweaters and copies of other sweaters.

Ms. Andersen keeps at least 1,000 sweaters in stock -- mostly her designs. She sells about 1,000 a year and has sold 400 since she opened the Mill shop.

Prices range from $95 for a basic wool crew-neck sweater to $1,000 for a full-length sweater coat, hand-knitted from mohair in a unique artistic design.

They are not everyday sweaters, particularly because of the prices, she says.

"If you are looking for something kind of special you come here -- like for a gift," Ms. Andersen said.

Most of the sweaters in the shop are originals that Ms. Andersen designs herself and then has knitted in New Zealand, Bolivia and other places across the globe.

Customers can request specific designs by placing their names on a "wish list" that she keeps at the store's counter. In addition to sweaters, she also sells hand-painted ties, for $44 each.

When she started knitting, Ms. Andersen never followed patterns and became a master of technique, lecturing throughout the world.

"My mother always knitted when I was a child," she said. "There were no patterns. I just grew up believing that this was normal."

She would mix and match colors and designs. Her first book in 1985, "You Knit Unique," reflected the creative, no-pattern style she had grown up with.

She later wrote four other books with themes ranging from casual wear for the family to designs for full-figured women.

The book she is now finishing, "Abstracts and Images," will focus on wool and cotton designs for the entire family.

"Lee is the creative genius," said partner Ms. Becker said, who also has helped Ms. Andersen with her last three books. "People say to me, 'Oh, wow! Aren't you lucky? You work with Lee.' We are both knit-a-holics."

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