Hats and Scarves for Cold Weather Cycling: What to Look For

This Fall I've been sick a lot, so I am using the downtime to knit. After making a couple of skirts, I moved on to a special project: hats and scarves specifically designed to resist the cold and wind while cycling.

While it may seem that any hat and scarf should be sufficient for this, last winter I discovered that this wasn't so. Store-bought knits can be a mixed bag in terms of how well they work, even if they "look" warm and cozy. So while making my own, here are some criteria I've come up with that may help as you're winter shopping.

1. Adequate coverage

This may be obvious, but a hat is most effective if it covers your ears. It should also be tight enough around the opening so that it does not slide while cycling - especially if it's windy. For me, hats that are "slouchy" are often too loose and quickly slide off my ears - or off my head entirely - when I cycle. I solved this problem by making the openings on mine extra tight, and you can watch for that factor in store-bought hats as well.

As for scarves, they can often come loose and unravel, or at least slip in a way that exposes your throat to the wind while cycling. If you have found this to be a problem, consider getting what is called a cowl neck, or a neck warmer instead. This is basically a thick, knitted turtleneck, without a sweater attached to it. You slip it on over your head and tuck the bottom under the collar of your coat. Unlike a scarf, it stays put and provides adequate coverage - even when cycling against the wind.

2. 100% wool

Assuming that you are looking for knit hats and not for sporty high-tech fleece, pay close attention to the material. I have been amazed to discover just how much better 100% wool is at keeping out the chill than a blend that includes even a small percentage of cotton, acrylic, or other materials. It can be convincing to see a fluffy knit hat with fair isle patterns of reindeer on it - but if it's even partly acrylic or cotton, it just won't work as well as wool.

Some might worry about wool feeling scratchy agains their heads or necks, but today it is easy to find wool with soft textures - wool that feels cotton-like or silk-like. While cashmere is nice, it is not necessary if you can't afford it. To me, peruvian alpaca has a very pleasant feel to it, and it is fairly affordable.

Even a gauze-thin wool hat can be surprisingly effective against the cold and wind while cycling. I made this one when it was still summer-ish, but it works well even in November.

2. Dense stitching

It is easier, less time consuming, and requires less wool to make a loosely-knit piece than a tightly-knit one. Chunky, loose stitching also "looks" warmer. But in actuality, it means that the knit is more porous - making it easier for the wind and the cold air to pierce right through it. If you want a hat or scarf that will really provide an impenetrable border against the frost and wind, look for one with dense stitching, and not necessarily in the chunkiest wool possible. It will be more functional.

Cycling in the cold is a special challenge for knitted hats and scarves, because they need to remain effective when you are moving against the wind at 10-20 miles per hour. I own lots of knitted accessories, but when the temperatures fell to below freezing last winter, I discovered that only a few of them truly kept me warm. Pieces that provide full coverage of the ears and throat, are 100% wool, and are densely knit, will be up for the job where others fall short.

{all hats and scarves pictured here made by me}


  1. Sounds like you are on the road to a - BALACLAVA. In wool. A neck warmer can either be integral or separate. Mine tend to be in High Vis navy blue or black.

  2. Are you going to reveal the patterns?!

  3. Definitely a fan of this posts. Hand knits and bicycling complement each other very well in my opinion. I think your knitting theories are spot on. It is about a dense knit fabric for sure. And cowl necks are a great cycling solution.

    BTW...your collection of hand knit hats is shaping up fabulously.

  4. Wool wool wool! I avoid synthetics like the plague. Cotton is natural but not warm or insulating. I recommend that you check out www.sartoria.ca. The artist is a cyclist and discovered she needed some woolies so started making recycled merino and cashmere longjohns and underwear out of old damaged sweaters that she collects. If you look around Etsy you will find many artisans making similar things out of upcycled wool.
    I have an icebreaker addiction, but get it on ebay or craigslist. Once in awhile I will find merino sweaters at second hand shops that have been shrunk so fit me! Cashmere can be found on the cheap too. If you have cashmere/merino on the brain you will find it. Silk is also super warm. I have a silk scarf that is shredding like crazy because I have worn it so much, it gets caught on my bike etc.. So, I'd recommend a silk scarf you can wrap around your neck that stays tucked into your coat. I quite enjoy having my scarves flutter in the wind, but it can get annoying especially if a scarf starts unravelling because it wasn't wound around tight enough. So one has to do the chic scarf wrap thing.
    Due to bike helmet laws I am obliged to wear a helmet so I have a wonderful merino 2 layered(so you have 2 colour choices) hat that is very basic and thin so fits under the styrofoam but is INCREDIBLY warm. I have a silk/wool hat that I like but it doesn't fit under my helmet. grumble grumble helmets!
    I can't knit for the life of me, so I admire your ability to knit.

    Leather cashmere lined gloves are excellent for cycling although not in the rain. I was so thrilled when I got my first pair a few years ago. Elegant, dressy and practical. I normally have to wear arctic frigid grade mittens which make reaching the brakes and shifters properly difficult. Yay for natural materials.
    My biggest problem is that my feet get so cold while biking. Even with thick wool socks my feet end up as blocks of ice. Short of wearing my oversized, not waterproof(so only good for rare pacific northwest dry days) feather down winter boots in cold weather I am at a loss. I've tried those toe warmers used for winter outdoor outings but they are weird!

  5. Silk scarves are super wonderful for winter warmth.

  6. knit nurse - I have been mostly experimenting, so each of the hats I've made so far (7 in total) has been different. In the end, I think I will narrow it down to 2 basic styles (a beret and a "structured beanie"), and will post pattens for those. Same for the cowl neck/ neckwarmer; I am trying to decide whether it's best in the round or stitched up in the back.

  7. I'm loving this post. Can't wait for you to post the patterns! I love the solid brown hat and the blue stripe is too cute. I have been busy knitting wool socks and mittens for my winter cycling. Cowls and hats are next on the list.

  8. I bought a possum wool hat from Rivendell. I love it. It is light but very cosy, has a brim, covers my ears and fits under my helmet.

  9. Wool is definitely the way to go. My wife knit me a very functional hat for winter cycling here in Chicago. It's a traditional beanie type except it has ear flaps with long knit strings coming down at the ends that I can tie under my chin. It makes me think of an old aviator-style hat except made of thin wool. It's thin enough to fit under a helmet, and is all I need, even in the coldest (& windiest) of weather and longest of rides.

  10. Can't wait for the patterns. I've been looking for that exact beret pattern and can't find one I'm really happy with. Holiday gifts of knitted hats are becoming a tradition - leave it to this wonderful blog to full the void of not only great writting but now knitting patterns as well. Thanks for another great post:)

  11. Re patterns: One reason I am having a hard time formulating mine, is because a lot would depend on head size - Not just the width of the opening, but how many rows you knit for the various stages. Since fit is important for these hats, I want to get the sizing right.

  12. The bike in the striped-hat pictures, is that the Betty Foy at Harris?

  13. Enough about balaclavas! I refuse to wear one unless I'm robbing a bank.

  14. mayamocha - Yes. I've decided to make a new hat to match each bike I test-ride from now on : )

    Herzog - What kind do you wear when you do rob banks? (Maybe I can make you a nice wool one for those occasions.)

  15. So excited to see those patterns! I have found that 100% wool is the only way to go for cold weather (cycling and otherwise). I have several wool hats and just made myself a wool-silk blend Dr Who scarf. Looking forward to the berets, beanies, and neck warmers in my future!!! - P

  16. I don't get on quite so well with the smaller cowls, as I find if I overheat a bit (I'm in a warmer part of the world), it can feel a little stiffling. I do, however, tend to knit shorter scarves for cycling that I can just double and stick the ends through the loop, then I can loosen them if I'm building up steam (literally).

    I avoid tassles and always use wool, not blends. With regard to wool/alpaca/cashmere etc. although they commonly have characteristics you will expect, it's important to assess a commercial/handspun yarn individually before assuming that it's what you want. Processing of the fleece, type of spinning/plying and the chemical effects of the dying process can all have a really marked effect on the yarn. Yarns of the same thickness, made from the same raw fibre can differ so much.

    I also like fingerless mitts in Winter. My fingers are still exposed so they don't slip on the brake levers, but, my hands are kept from aching (once again, I don't know as they would suffice in horrid winters).

  17. BB - I like fingerless gloves as well, though I don't have the patience to knit something so detailed. With the hats and cowls, I can pretty much be making them without paying any attention to my hands, while browsing the internet or reading or watching a film - but with more detailed work I would need to start counting and being more careful.

    Re cowls and overheating: You could try making them wider, or using a more gauzy/lacy type of knit? But of course it depends on what you like. And I agree about assessing wool in person!

  18. So sorry you've been ill this autumn. I hope you'll feel better, wrap up in some of those great hats and scarves, and enjoy the brisk air and deep golds and russet hues while they last.

    Thanks as always for your wonderful reflections and perspectives.

  19. Aw, I can't believe my "I can see your face" comment didn't make the cut. I think I'll just drop it. BTW: I love my thin merino wool Tee-shirts. Goes on in Nov and comes of in Apr.(w/ gentle washings here and there.)

  20. Thanks Andy. The last few months haven't been great for me, but thankfully I have a crazy bicycle blog to distract me from reality.

    Chris - The one time I come out of the house without a burka you all had to comment!

    I've recently taken the "merino plunge" as well, esp when it comes to road cycling. The rumors were true, it's fantastic.

  21. Also looking forward to seeing the patterns, I particularly like that ridged one, although I've found in the end that my peaked waxed cotton cap is the best thing for riding in as it keeps the low winter sun out of my eyes (I add in earwarmers when it gets really cold). I've just knitted my first pair of socks and they are also surprisingly warm - may help the cold feet brigade? (of which I am the founder member)

  22. You mentioned that slouchy hats tend to come off of your head easily in the wind. Try weaving some elastic thread into the inside of the headband. I knit a cabled beret last year and made it slouchier than I really needed, mostly b/c it allowed me to be able to pull it down past my ears. I added the elastic thread to make it fit tighter and it's work out great! Also, for fingerless mitts, you can cheat and not do individual fingers-lets, just knit them as a tube with a thumb.

  23. Nice goods!

    I agree about density for hats and about using wool, though I personally prefer to make lighter, thinner cowls.

    Re fingerless gloves, I agree -- way too fiddly. I do an arm warmer w a hole for the thumb, which I prefer anyway because they allow for more mobility. Couldn't be easier, just a tube. I make it even lazier by doing it on a super short Japanese circular needle and do not bother with double pointeds. Like these:


  24. Great suggestions! I just finished knitting the "Carnaby" pattern skirt on the Knitty site. It turned out well (I went a bit longer in length, however, for obvious cycling-related reasons) but it is extremely versitile either way and the pattern hides pilling which has been a problem for me with knitted skirts and cycling.

    For mittens, I love the long, fingerless gloves in wool. If the weather is REALLY cold, I opt for boiled wool which seems to be one of the very best ways to keep out both wind and rain/snow.

    As for scarves, I've always double-knitted them ridiculously long to wrap around my face when the wind is particularly cold. Again, I've found that 100% wool is the most attractive option in both price and warmth although I have a few lovely scarves made with cashmere blends.

  25. Have you tried a merino wool buff? I love mine and wouldn't trade it for anything. Much more versatile and comfortable than a scarf, in my experience, and much MUCH more versatile (as well as far more stylish) than a balaclava.

  26. I totally agree with this - wool has been my greatest friend ever since living in Lithuania :)

    For scarves, I just fold them in half, wrap them around my neck, and then stick the "loose" end through the loop on the other end and pull it tight. Basically a very simple slip knot. I find that usually stays put pretty well when tucked into my coat, as long as the scarf is long enough.

    I would love to get a nice cowl like the one you show here too, that seems like it would work really well.

    You've knit some really nice stuff - very handy skill to have :)

  27. Amazing handiwork - very impressive! My experiences with 100% wool has been the same.

  28. I am not much of a knitter, but have been struggling to find a 100% closely knitted wool hat that fit in the shops.

    I found the easiest way to make one for myself was to buy a cheap wool jumper from a thirft shop, wash it on a hot wash so it felted and then cut it up. No need to worry about fraying as the felting keeps the threads together, you can customise the shape as much as you desire (I like a beanie with a cloche shaping at the back). The felting makes the hat really dense and warm, and it only took a couple of hours.

    p.s Thanks for all the bicycle inspiration, I doubt I would be trying to work out how I could keep warm whilst cycling my bike this winter if I hadn't started reading your blog a few months ago!


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