When she was in her early 20s, Laura Pearson went to Brazil to visit her brother. The opportunity arose to take a little side trip to Ecuador - and that's where she found her future.

In the shadow of the snow-capped Andes, she discovered a cooperative the Peace Corps had started. She strolled along the dusty streets, fascinated by the primitive living conditions and watching native women knitting sweaters. Often these sweaters, fashioned with simple, handmade tools, came complete with chicken feathers and bits of bark still clinging to the yarn. But no matter. Pearson was intrigued and eventually launched her own sweater line, hiring the Ecuadoreans to knit the designs she dreamed up.The line, called Tijuca, gained attention in the world of fashion almost immediately. Sweaters like Pearson's - highly textured, boldly knitted and laden with South American Indian motifs - simply didn't exist in the market. Her product was unique and brought industry acclaim: the Coty and Cutty Sark Awards.

Laura Pearson commuted back and forth from her life in New York to the tiny settlement in South America. She grew to appreciate and respect the rugged world that had changed so little since ancient times. And her experiences, which often were harrowing and involved such things as tidal waves, tropical parasites and such, would probably make a thriller-diller novel.

But writing never occurred to the pretty young woman. She was too busy falling in love with fashion. Although she'd never taken classes in the subject, designing seemed to come naturally to her, and collaboration with the skilled native artisans worked out very well. The list of stores carrying her Tijuca handknits for men and women got longer and longer. Her profit margin slowly but steadily increased.

Most young women would have been content to sit back, relax and let the money and prestige roll in. But that isn't the curly haired designer's nature. She started doing socks. And then Signal Apparel Corp., aware of her unique way with sweaters, offered an opportunity to design a collection of graphic knits. Creating the new line involved learning how to handle machinery and new materials. With Tijuca, it had been a far more arty process. Little if any modern technology was utilized. The new knits, primarily done in cotton and carrying the "Laura Pearson USA" label, brought modern mass production to the forefront.

With the USA collection, the young designer had to find ways to mechanically interpret the bold graphics that are her signatures. Some things, she found, were possible with the knitting equipment. Others just weren't. But through persistence, she says, a satisfactory compromise was finally reached and costs, the consumer will be happy to hear, were kept within reason. (At retail, the knits carry price tags of around $70 to $150.)

The cotton knits designed by Pearson for the Signal Corp. (production takes place in South Carolina and New Jersey) are classic styles. You don't find gimmicky ruffles, flounces and flourishes in her line. Instead, there are familiar shapes: long, oversized cardigans; pullovers with a variety of necklines; sweater jackets that can be belted for a sleek and sophisticated look; smart knit pants, pedal pushers and skirts that are meant to combine and recombine with these tops.

Primarily, it's a sweater collection, explains the designer. The tops are meant to work with a variety of sportswear pieces, and they're meant to be worn and enjoyed for a long time. These aren't things that are going to go out of fashion overnight. They're basics.

Basics, perhaps. But definitely not boring.

Texture plays an important role in the distinctive appearance of the knits, as does color. And the graphic patterns are eye-catchers that make the sweaters look far more expensive than they are.

Pearson gets inspiration for her graphic designs almost everywhere. On trips. Walking down the street. Just sitting around the backyard at her home in Sag Harbor, Long Island. One pattern in the fall collection, in fact, is called "Laura's Backyard," while another is titled "Falling Leaves," and still others are "Garden Path," "Trellis" and "Barn Door."

"I get the ideas. Then I sketch my thoughts," the young designer explains.

The walls and desk in her sunny office and showroom in New York's garment district are papered with drawings of graphics and designs that are being considered.

"This is my creative world," says Pearson. "I put my sketches up on the wall, sit in my wicker chair and study them. It takes a lot of reflection to decide if something's great or totally crazy, but if I look at the designs long enough I usually can decide. Then I start pulling out the things that seem right for the different collections - Tijuca and USA. If I have questions about the feasibility of adapting some design to the machines, I talk to the experts at the mills. They're wonderful craftsmen . . . very helpful."

No matter what designs she does, Pearson focuses on comfort. She's adamant about that - clothes have to be comfortable or they just aren't right for today's busy and demanding lifestyles.

She also believes that sweater dressing adapts well to these modern times and will continue to increase in popularity.

"I've traveled a great deal, and I know how important it is to have clothes that don't wrinkle or require special care," she says. "A sturdy sweater can be rolled up and put in a tote bag or suitcase, and it always comes out looking just fine. You can't do that with a silk blouse! The same thing applies to knits. They're very packable, virtually seasonless and work in almost all climates. I'm convinced that most people today just don't have time to fool around with clothes. They need things that are easy, versatile and indestructible."

Knits and sweaters, therefore, will always be Laura Pearson's No. 1 designing priority. But even more important to her than promoting the practicality of such fashions is making them memorable.

"We like to think we've taken sweater dressing into the art-to-wear realm," stresses the designer. "I could be expressing the world I see and the things I feel on canvas but, instead, I've chosen apparel. It's the medium that works best for me."

Even those who are critical of her very basic styles and wish she would try more innovative silhouettes have to admit she has no peer, artistically speaking. Whether the apparel's handmade with infinite care by Ecuadoreans or interpreted by the latest sleek and whirring American knitting machines, Laura Pearson has contributed something special to fashion.

That contribution: Sweater collectibles.