"The ready-to-wear trend in sweaters is so hot it has inspired a raft of people who can't afford the real thing to start to knit," says Nora O'Leary, fashion editor of Family Circle.

"Many things that women do are undone . . . like cooking and cleaning. But if you knit something, it is permanent," says Pauline (Polly) Curtis, owner of The Yarn Shop in College Park.

"There are more exciting and beautiful yarns available today which make up into unusual sweaters than ever before," says Estelle Steiner of yarn importer William Unger & Co.

Some women have always knit. But following a tremendous interest in knitted items about eight years ago, the interest in single-needle stitchery (such as needlepoint) was on the upswing.

But now it's back to two needles and lots of fancy yarns, with sweaters knit and shaped in the image of Perry Ellis, Joan Vass and other designers. A skilled knitter with instruction from a pattern -- or even by copying a design -- just may have more success in knit-wear than in fabric. Besides, knits are forgiving and may be blocked and stretched to fit.

Whatever the reason -- and it is undoubtedly a combination of all the above -- women (and some men) are knitting more than ever before. The interest is reflected in booming yarn and pattern sales and attendance in knitting instruction classes. And undoubtedly, when the real hot weather passes, lots of handknit sweaters will be showing up in and around Washington. p

And while yarn prices are up, particularly of imported yarns (reflecting the dollar value on the world market), the price of yarns has not inhibited sales.

"As long as the yarn is unusual," says Diane Friedman, president of yarn importers Tahki Imports Ltd., "the consumer will pay any price."

Adds Beverly Ringel, owner of Yarns & Twines, 5008 Connecticut Ave. NW, "No matter what the price of the yarn, the results is only a fraction of what you might pay for the sweater in a store, so there is no price resistance at all." Even French angora at $6 for 10 grams (you need about 230 grams for a sweater) sells well because a finished sweater is many times the yarn price.

Family Circle's O'Leary figures a possible saving of 10 times: The same wool used in an Icelandic sweater (selling for $380 in stores) costs $37. But the appeal is not just with the high-ticket items. A recent story on baby knits, says O'Leary, brought a request for 150,000 mailers.

Most yarn sales and yarn instruction are now the domain of small specialty stores, owned and run by women who love to knit and have the knowledge and patience to work with individual customers. Many offer non-knitting customers the chance to buy sweaters made by their most skilled clients.

Polly Curtis, for one, took several styles to I. Magnin, which now sells her Yarn Shop sweaters. Stores all over the area are snapping up the creations of area knitters -- such as Carolyn Davis and Joyce Edwards of 4-Hands, Ltd. -- to enhance and individualize stocks of this season's most coveted purchase: the handknit sweater in novelty stiches, unusual color combinations (particularly all shades of purple) and with soft-textured (often hairy) surfaces.

Curtis, who has been knitting since age 11, thinks the energy crisis has a lot to do with the knitting craze. And not only in terms of keeping warm."The cost of gas makes going out more expensive, so I just stay home and knit."

Among the many yarn shops offering knitting instruction:

The Woolgatherer, 1502 21st St. NW, 466-3300. Beginners' knitting and crocheting, advanced knitting and a men's knitting class Each series is about $35). Also a pattern-writing class which is an all-day seminar ($30).

Yarns & Twines, 5008 Connecticut Ave. NW, 686-6464, offers six-week classes in beginning and advanced, knitting. $30.

The Yarn Shop, 7314 Baltimore Blvd., College Park, 779-8391. Series of four basic knitting lessons for $20, including all supplies. They also plan to start a knitting refresher course.

Yarn Bazaar, 714 King St., Alexandria, 548-0408. Basics of knitting and how to read patterns $20 for four weeks.

The Yarn Barn, 8954 Burke Lake Rd., Springfield, 978-6944. Beginning knitting, five classes for $25, including practice yarn.