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The balaclava has made quite the comeback since the onset of the pandemic. The Wall Street Journal reported that in December 2020, the outdoor superstore REI saw year-over-year sales of the fitted winter headwear rise 40 percent. Retailers and craftspeople responded by churning out small-batch versions of them, and now, the selection of balaclavas across web retailers is ripe for the picking.
Perhaps this is because a face mask can only do so much when it comes to keeping you warm. The balaclava covers the head but leaves openings for the eyes and, sometimes, the mouth. It does a great job of keeping you warm—that is, after all, its original raison d’être—and can serve as a face mask in an emergency. (Though, research has shown that knitted balaclavas offer less protection from airborne viruses than the more conventional options, like a surgical mask, an N95 mask, or even a tight cloth mask. Should you take on this trend, it’d be wise to wear a proper face mask under your balaclava in most circumstances.)
It is also, of course, a fashion statement. “A great balaclava elevates your style, which is important during a season when you're mostly going to be wearing a big coat and boots,” fashion writer and influencer Elizabeth Tamkin tells Byrdie. “I prefer balaclavas that are solid colors, or with minimal pattern or print. I think they look more classic, and a great backdrop to [a pair of] sunglasses.”
Here, we’ve rounded up the best balaclavas on the market, based on material, design, and rave reviews.
Best Overall: Cecilie Bahnsen Gaia Balaclava
The Cecilie Bahnsen Gaia balaclava is made from a mohair-and-silk-based knit that makes for a rich texture without the weight of other chunkier materials. Fitting like a snug hood, it exposes the face for less fuss. Plus, we love that the grey, black, or ecru hues are versatile enough to pair well with most of your coats.
Colors: Grey, Black, Ecru | Material: 70% mohair, 30% silk | Care: Hand wash
Best Budget: H&M Knit Balaclava
This soft knit balaclava is the perfect piece to keep you warm on your daily errands. It has a collar with a drawstring at the opening for easy layering under a sweater and hooded jacket. Reviewers rate it highly for warmth and general comfort and given that it’s under $20, it’s the perfect option for first-time balaclava wearers who aren’t ready to invest more just yet.
Colors: Red | Material: 53% recycled polyester, 25% acrylic, and 22% polyamide
Best Splurge: Loro Piana Argyle Cashmere Balaclava
Italian luxury brand Loro Piana is world-renowned for producing some of the finest knitwear, using strict standards to complete each step of the production process. This balaclava is made from super-soft cashmere spun in a modern argyle motif. At over $1,000, the price certainly is steep; though, given that you can team it with everything from tailored toppers to skiwear, it could perhaps be worth your while.
Colors: Fantasy Fair Grey | Material: 100% cashmere | Care: Dry clean only
Most Innovative: Jacquemus La Casquette Cagoule Cap
Part baseball cap, part balaclava is what Jacquemus was going for with its La Casquette Cagoule hybrid design. With it, wearers are shielded from not one, but two elements: cancer-causing UV rays and biting wind.
Colors: Black, Green, Orange | Material: 64% cotton, 36% polyamide
Most Detailed: Cecilie Bahnsen Gigi Wool Knit Balaclava
Cecilie Bahnsen’s knight-evoking balaclava is full of small and unusual details we love, from the bib-like ruffle hem to the varied grains of rib knitting. It’s also made entirely from merino wool, so it’s sure to keep your head warm all winter long.
Colors: Grey | Material: 100% wool | Care: Dry clean
Best Wool: L’Envers SIMONE Wool Balaclava
A top pick of Tamkin’s, this style functions more like a hood because it goes under the chin, which makes wearing a mask easier. Material-wise, it’s crafted from warm, chunky wool so you feel no wind chill. “I have it in charcoal gray, and I love pairing it with dark moody sunglasses,” Tamkin says.
Colors: Brown, Black | Material: 50% yak wool, 50% merino wool | Care: Hand wash cold; Lay flat to dry
Best Crocheted: The Series Rainbow Balaclava
Looking for something one-of-a-kind? The Series’ balaclava is hand-crocheted from vintage and recycled materials sourced in New York. Founder Ella Wiznia has committed to solely wearing and working with pre-existing material, so you can feel even better about your purchase. Since they're handmade, it's produced slowly and in small amounts, so keep checking back for restocks!
Colors: Black and White, Rainbow | Material: 85% recycled cotton, 15% other recycled fibers
Best Cashmere: The Row Everest Cashmere Balaclava
Despite the name, we wouldn’t recommend climbing Everest in this hood-like balaclava, as it might not give you the coverage you’d require for such a feat. However, the heavyweight ribbed-knit cashmere piece is perfect for errands on a brisk day or any après-ski affair.
Colors: Navy, Ivory, Charcoal | Material: 100% cashmere
Best for Skiing: REI Co-op Power Wool Balaclava
This unisex balaclava will keep you comfortable on the slopes, according to enthusiastic reviewers. The merino wool interior is warm yet breathable, while a synthetic fiber exterior provides some stretch and, thus, durability. It’s also water-repellent and odor-resistant—both must-haves when it comes to skiwear.
Colors: Asphalt | Material: 45% nylon, 40% wool, 15% spandex | Care: Machine wash cold on gentle cycle; Lay flat to dry
Best for Hiking: Smartwool Merino 200 Balaclava
Adventure with abandon in this unisex merino wool balaclava by Smartwool. A blend of merino wool and polyester, the piece is engineered to shield your face from harsh weather without making you feel stuffy inside.
Colors: Forged Iron/Golden Olive, Black/Forged Iron | Material: 54% wool, 43% polyester, 2% elastane, 1% polyamide | Care: Machine wash cold on gentle cycle; Lay flat to dry
Best Colorful: Kule The Moritz
This is the one that Tamkin says she’s owned for years. “I love it because it matches my outerwear and is very classic-chic,” she says. “It's really good when it's windy out because you can cover the entire bottom half of your face with it.”
If you’re looking for extra warmth and softness, see Kule’s cashmere version.
Colors: Rainbow, Royal, Navy, Cream, Camel/Navy | Material: 41% cotton, 27% nylon, 24% rayon, 7% wool, 1% elastane
Best Bouclé: Acne Studios Blue Wool Balaclava
Bouclé is all the rage right now. This tricolor balaclava by Acne Studios’ combines the warmth of wool with a rich terry towel-like texture for a luxe retro look. Wear it with any of your casual, neutral-colored coats to let it be the focal point of your cold-weather ensemble.
Colors: Sapphire Blue/Multi | Material: 100% wool | Care: Hand wash
Best Eco-Friendly: Pangaia Recycled Cashmere Balaclava
For a sustainable answer to your balaclava craving, there’s Pangaia’s recycled cashmere style. Cozy and plush, it’s made with a thick fisherman ribbed knit material, a thin opening for the eyes, and a pom-pom on top. Wear yours in the city and on ski trips.
Colors: Camel | Material: 97% recycled cashmere, 3% recycled wool | Care: Hand wash inside out
What to Look for in a Balaclava
Generally speaking, the best knitwear is made from wool or cashmere. The first is a very eco-friendly fabric because it’s biodegradable; plus, it uses 20 to 70 percent less energy and water than polyester and cotton in production, according to The Woolmark Company, a nonprofit organization that represents Australian woolgrowers. Tightly wound merino wool is snug yet strong, thus easy to maintain compared to fuzzy cashmere, another natural fiber that’s more prone to pilling.
A lot can be said on why these materials vary price-wise, but to put it simply, how they’re harvested seems to have much impact on a given knit’s overall value. Longer fibers are known to come from traditional, labor-intensive harvesting methods, and they’re also stronger than shorter fibers that have been machine-sheared from farmed animals. Conservatively priced wool and cashmere sweaters that are rated highly for softness and color vibrancy may have been treated with softeners, bleach, and other chemicals in production. This is perhaps something to consider when deciding which balaclava is the better investment, as such chemicals can damage fibers and shorten the lifespan of the material.
On top of that, you should be aware that knitted and woven fabrics that combine natural and synthetic fibers like acrylic, nylon, and polyester are more likely to pill, and that woven fabrics pill less than knitted ones because of a smaller distance between yarn crossings.
While there’s a certain cool factor to the balaclava these days, there’s also a case for practicality. In deciding which balaclava is right for you, let your needs guide you to the appropriate design. Do you live in a sub-zero climate, plan to take up running in cold weather, or both? If so, you should seek out a thick, mouth-concealing balaclava. On the other hand, if you’re simply looking for an added layer with a zeitgeisty appeal, then you can perhaps afford to experiment with loosely knitted and hood-like styles.
What is the difference between a balaclava and a ski mask?
There’s really no difference between a balaclava and a ski mask. Though, some balaclavas are more appropriate for skiing than others. For the latter, look for balaclavas that keep your mouth and nose shielded; this will provide the most protection against wind and snow.
What are the different ways to wear or style a balaclava?
“I like to wear mine with my hair sticking out, sort of like a hood,” says Tamkin. “They're fun to style with a collar or turtleneck, or necklace layered over the neck of the balaclava.”
Why Trust Byrdie?
This shopping guide was written by Byrdie contributor Hayley Prokos. A seasoned commerce writer and discerning editor, she’s passionate about sourcing fashion items that are equal parts chic and practical. Her work has appeared in SELF Magazine, Newsweek, and the daily Greek newspaper Ekathimerini, and she holds a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University. For this roundup, she spent roughly 8 hours researching the best balaclavas on the market and tapped fashion expert Elizabeth Tamkin for styling advice.
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