My new favourite winter accessory — the balaclava

No, I don’t mean the delicious snack baklava, I mean balaclava

If you’re anything like me, then you’ve also noticed the revival of a knit ski mask-like accessory in the fashion scene. The balaclava, a fun, multi-purpose scarf/hat hybrid, has quickly made its way onto the heads of all the cool kids around Montreal, New York and Copenhagen.

If you aren’t familiar with what a Balaclava looks like, picture a ski mask, tight around the top of your head with an opening for your eyes or face that extends down around your neck like a neckwarmer. Unlike your typical ski mask, a balaclava is knit and can adopt many different styles — thicker or thinner, soft yarn or thick cotton, sometimes even mohair to give it an airy look, or the all-important devil horns and bunny ears if you want to stick out.

Balaclavas were first invented in the 1800s when soldiers fought in the Crimean war, specifically the battle of Balaklava — a port of support for the British, French and Turkish against the Russians during an indecisive battle. The tightly-knit wool hats would help keep soldiers warm and slowly made their way into popular culture and fashion. By the 1970s, fashionable balaclavas with fur trimmings and opulent details started popping up.

Today, the resurgence of the warm winter accessory is attributed to the avant-garde and high fashion community, with most of the viral balaclavas coming from designers like Miu Miu, Rick Owens or Isa Boulder — most retailing for more than $400.

Funny enough, the current resurgence of the northern hood came hand-in-hand with the uptick in knitting and crochet as hobbies. During the 2020 and 2021 lockdowns, many started to pick up needles and yarn and make all sorts of creations. We saw the rise of granny squares, hand-knit blankets, and even checkered bags all driven by our favourite guilty pleasure: social media, and TikTok in particular. I’ll admit, I too fell victim to each trend.

This is an accessory with many functions — warmth, fashion, and even anonymity. Historically, many protest groups have worn ski mask like hoods to disguise their identities from the police. However, these efforts have been criticized due to the intimidating nature of the all-black look.

One example of balaclava’s cultural impact is their specific protest aesthetic, rocked by many anti-fascist and anti-white-supremacy groups. The balaclava, combined with the head-to-toe black outwear, and military accessories like gas masks, represents activism and protesting against fascism and racist ideals. While the look can be intimidating, the safety in anonymity it gives to protesters is an important use of the balaclava.

But you don’t have to look intimidating in a cagoule — I would argue many look very endearing in them. The variety of colours and shapes we are seeing emerge in fashion create a sea of wandering specks of colour walking around in the cold, grey weather, and I’m here for it.

I have recently started knitting my own balaclavas and, as with all crochet projects I take on, I recommend everyone try and learn how to make their own — it’s so rewarding! 

When considering what kind of balaclava you should make or buy, ask yourself: what kind of feel do I want on my face? What colour scheme is my wardrobe, and what balaclava could best compliment that? And lastly, what type of shape am I looking for?

Finding the right yarn for your skin is important, because no matter the style, the balaclava will touch and brush against your face. I know that I have acne-prone skin, so wearing balaclavas can be a big risk factor in making my skin act up if I don’t pick the correct material.

When thinking of what colour balaclava to make or purchase, it’s important to consider your wardrobe: do you wear a lot of neutrals? Or more bright colours? Are you the type to only wear black, grey and white?

If you wear neutrals, maybe pick one that stands out slightly more — like burnt orange or khaki green to bring in a pop of muted colour. If you wear lots of colours, stick with a staple: yellow, blue, red, white or black. You want something that will complement any outfit without clashing.

Finally, the shape. The main consideration is how tight you want it — think of your hair and skin again. Do you have a tendency to get frizzy? Do you lose volume easily? If so, maybe a little looser.

If you want a specific cone shape or specialty ears, it’s pretty straightforward. Find someone who can do that on Etsy, or even try it out yourself! You can always knit stand-alone customizations that can be woven in and out of your balaclava.

No need to freeze for fashion — you can now stay fashionably warm all winter long. You’re welcome! 


Feature graphic by James Fay

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