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Don't fear the sweater The basic silhouette of this winter staple has lost its boxiness and is more flattering form-fitting

It took its sweet time getting here, but winter has arrived in Western New York, which means we can finally consider the winter wardrobe mainstay, the sweater.

Ironically, in this, one of the more temperate winters in recent memory, sweaters held a bigger place in designer collections than they have in years.

Belted cardigans, drapy cowl necks, sleek tunics, menswear-inspired sweater vests and versatile sweater dresses all turned up on the runways -- and in more moderately priced lines as well -- for this season.

Fine-gauge V-necks are everywhere, as are argyles, stripes and abstract prints. Even the trusty turtleneck turns up again for the first time in quite a while. And, with ramped-up overseas production, cashmere sweaters have become more affordable, in some cases even for women with acrylic budgets.

Basic silhouettes have changed; sweaters have lost their boxiness and are more form-fitting, according to Lou Schrieber, owner of LU Modern Classics on Elmwood Avenue.

Hems fall anywhere from the waist to the knee, with hip-length and midthigh the most prevalent. And sleeves have become a major focal point. Dolman and bat-wing sleeves have made a comeback, as have bell sleeves, kimono treatments and sleeves designed to hit at either three-quarter length or almost to the fingertips, says Darlene Breidenstein, owner of In Style Boutique in Orchard Park.

At BeYoutiful Boutique on Elmwood Avenue, owner Jetaun Jones has a cashmere sweater with snug crocheted sleeves. And the Newport News catalog offers sweaters with chiffon and pointelle-knit sleeves.

While there are hints of color here and there, a Starbucks-inspired color palette dominates sweaters across the price spectrum, with shades of coffee, chocolate, caramel and cream among the most popular.

The neutral color story allows texture and details to come to the forefront. Many up-to-the-minute styles have a handmade look, done in bulky yarns or on large-gauge needles. Cables and mixed ribs are big, as are intricate intarsia patterns inspired by traditional ski sweaters.

Interesting closures are also big the season. At Chico's in Williamsville, many sweaters close together with a single showcase button. Hardware closures are turning up in sweaters that transition from winter to spring, according to assistant manager Donna Lojacono. Stores like the Gap and Old Navy offer several styles with tie-fronts, and Armani XChange, available at Macy's, offered a cardigan with leather piping along the placket and hem.

>Balance your body

The downside of all this variety is that many of these new interpretations have silhouettes that are what fashionistas would call, "voluminous."

Or, as we say around these parts, HUGE.

Bulky cardigans, knee-length tunics and other oversized sweaters can be a challenge to wear, especially since another key trend is to wear them layered. A spread in Glamour magazine's December 2006 issue shows a model wearing a cropped sweater vest over a hip-length cardigan and knit miniskirt, along with leggings, arm warmers, gloves and a scarf. Even the size 0 model has trouble pulling off that look.

So how do regular women know which sweater will be most flattering to their body types?

There are two main points to keep in mind.

The first is to strive to balance the top and bottom halves of your body, and to pick those that draw attention -- with color, silhouette and details -- to the part of your body you like best.

The second is not to think of layering in terms of those three-sweatshirt outfits you wore during the October Surprise. Regardless of what size you wear, layer subtly. Build upon lightweight knits, and make the heaviest layer the top one, unless you want to look like the Michelin Man.

It is still OK to wear a light-weight V-neck over a crisp white blouse with the shirt tales out, but wearing the new slimmer silhouttes over bare skin under a suit is fine, as well, says Schrieber.

Another important caveat: Don't mistake silhouette for size. Petite women should not wear clothes that are a size too big, and plus-sized women should not wear styles that are too small. Proper fit is crucial, no matter what the sweater's shape.

A sweater should always hit above the hip bones or at the top of the thighs or lower -- a sweater that cuts across the backside will not flatter anyone.

Anyone can wear a shape-skimming tunic, as long as it is balanced with a slimmer pant or pencil skirt, and is accessorized to maximize your good points.

"Longer styles add height and elongate the body," says Michele Ripa, manager of Cache in the Walden Galleria Mall. Belts can help harness a bigger sweater's volume. Slimmer women can carry off a wide belt at the waist, say Breidenstein. Fuller-figured women might want to drape a leather or chain belt on the hips, says Michele Boncore of Voluptuous Diva Boutique on Hertel Avenue.

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The right fit

Here are some specifics, as suggested by Trinny Woodall and Susannah Constantine, hosts of the British version of "What Not to Wear" in their book by the same name; and by Clinton Kelly and Stacy London, hosts of the American version of the show, in their book, "Dress Your Best."

*Bigger on top: If you are, shall we say, "bodacious," steer clear of the chunky knit styles in favor of a wrap cardigan, a regular cardigan unbuttoned to show (some) cleavage, or a deep V in a fine-gauge knit. The idea is to skim over your curves, not to hide them under too much bulk. Darker colors will help balance your figure, as well, though that doesn't mean dressing exclusively in black.

*Smallish on top: If you have a somewhat boyish figure, you can opt for bulky knits; steer clear of sweaters that are too thin or too low-cut. Lighter and brighter colors will attract the eye; matching top and bottom colors will create a long line.

*Bigger on bottom: Draw attention toward your face with a great color and an interesting neckline. Fight the inclination to try to cover up with a long, belted sweater. It sounds counterintuitive, but a sweater that hits at the top of your hips will call less attention to your bottom.

*"Apple" shaped: Sweaters that hit at the hip and have a V-neck will flatter women whose waists have gone by the wayside.

*Hourglass shaped: Look for sweaters that draw attention to the waist with texture or color. A sweater or dress that wraps slightly higher than your natural waist will be especially flattering, as it will draw attention to what is normally the smallest part of a woman's torso.

*Petite: Light colors, bulky (but not loose) knits and horizontal stripes will provide "presence" and keep you from looking like a little girl.

*Plus-sized: Look for sweaters that have ease around the neck but fitted arms and torso. Asymetrical styles and wraps will flatter; vertical ribs or cable might create strange lines on your torso.

e-mail: bsullivan@buffnews.com

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Prolonging the life of your sweaters

1. Remove jewelry, let deodorant dry and tie a scarf around your madeup face before putting on a sweater.

2. Avoid applying perfume while wearing cashmere; it can stain.

3. Empty pockets and fasten buttons and zippers before cleaning or storing.

4. Shake sweaters after wearing to remove fluff and dust.

5. Brush cashmere, wool and acrylic sweaters with a baby?s hairbrush or lint roller to remove hairs, dandruff and fuzz.

6. Air out sweaters on a dry cotton towel overnight to remove moisture and odors.

7. Blot stains immediately and take to the dry cleaner as soon as possible.

8. Use manicure scissors to remove pills. Do not try to yank or shave them off.

9. Pull loose ends through to the inside of the sweater with a crochet hook or small safety pin. Do not cut loose threads.

10. Do not hang sweaters by the shoulders. Fold them over the padded bar of a hanger or fold flat to store.

11. Make sure sweaters are free of food particles or stains to protect them from moths.

12. Don?t wash or dry clean after every wearing unless there are obvious stains. Every six to seven wearings is about right. Too frequent dry cleaning can dull the fibers, and too much exposure to water can cause stretching.

? from Internet sources

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