As a proud resident of a state whose temperatures can stay below freezing for up to half the year, I am very well-versed in the art of keeping warm. I suspect you are too, for the simple reason that nobody likes to freeze to death?
The Importance of Gear
We all have our industrial winter gear, our down jackets and our heavy boots and such. But those are just the outermost lines of protection. After them come layers upon layers upon layers—on the coldest days here in Maine, I’ve counted up to 15 articles of clothing on my body. (I’ve counted this, I should add, while walking quite comfortably to my coffee shop.)
The simplest solution is not to expose yourself to the cold. Stay indoors until spring. Obviously, unless you have an underground city at your disposal, this isn’t a practical solution. Not to mention the fact that getting outside, breathing the fresh air, moving your body, and interacting with other people is good for you. It’s key to my own mental health, and I can’t give that up for six months of the year just because it’s 12 degrees outside.
The answer is really quite easy: wool and layers. I realize I’m preaching to the choir on this one, but it’s important to note that a properly attired human body can be quite comfortable in the coldest, most seemingly inhospitable conditions. For the sake of our conversation today, the layer in question is the cowl.
Cowls differ from scarves in one very crucial way: they have no ends. Not only is this convenient for the wearer (no fussing with ends that keep coming untied), but it’s also a public service for those around you. If you’ve ever been in a crowded hallway being thwacked in the face repeatedly by people’s scarves as they’re being tossed around people’s necks, you’ll agree with me.
A cowl seems like a no-brainer. In many ways it is. With a circular needle, cast on a nice number of stitches for a fabric that’ll go around your neck once or twice, depending on what you like. Knit in whatever stitch pattern you fancy until it’s as tall as you’d like it to be, then bind off and wear.
But there’s more to a cowl than just a fashion statement. It’s part of a complex clothing ecosystem that, when applied in a balanced manner, will keep you warm and comfortable all winter long. The cowl oeuvre is rather like a mountain. Mount Cowlius, if you will. It has three distinct terrains, each with its own purpose.
At the base-camp of Mt. Cowlius you’ll find the mega-cowl, that enormous knitted masterpiece that doubles as a neck brace and/or shelter if you get lost in the wilderness. It’s knit in the bulkiest of the bulky, and you tend to see it coming before you do the person wearing it. This is the first line of defense against winter. (Here I’m trying on my own mega-cowl doodle, a voluminous ribbed Cormo that threatened to eat me alive.)
I’m thinking of Jen Geigley’s GAP-tastic Cowl or Abi Gregorio’s Drop Stitch Cowl or Jane Richmond’s Marian or Purl Soho’s Fluted Cowl as four classic examples. The Fluted Cowl uses a gigantic Super Soft Merino yarn that’s as close to burying your face in heaven as you can get. Quince & Co. Puffin begs to become a mega-cowl—and right now they’re featuring Natural Hand-Dyes that were dyed by none other than Kristine Vejar of A Verb for Keeping Warm. (We’ll return to her in a minute.)
Another ideal mega-cowl yarn is Quarry from Brooklyn Tweed. Normally you’d want some degree of twist to hold fibers together in a yarn and, consequently, in your garment. But mega-cowls are an exception. Unless your daily routine involves vigorously rubbing yourself against things for hours at a time, you won’t need an extraordinarily well-twisted, abrasion-resistant yarn for your mega-cowl. These cowls tend to be tall, poofy, somewhat theatrical in nature, almost like a chef’s toque. In the case of Quarry, it’s made from unspun, carded fibers that would become Shelter or Loft if drawn and twisted. Instead, they’ve been gently rubbed and/or twisted together into a chunky stream of softness.
Mega-cowls are, by default, superb ecosystems for winter. But the bulky nature of the yarn and resulting stitches can sometimes allow air to sneak through.
For more protection, we continue climbing Mt. Cowlius until we reach the treeline, which is the preferred habitat for the standard cowl, the “cowl-cowl.” In the cowl-cowl we go from knitted house to a comfortable living room for your upper torso.
Usually knit in some variant of worsted-to-DK-weight yarn, the cowl-cowl still has heft and volume but with the possibility for far greater stitch definition and fabric cohesion. Colorwork, texture, plain old stockinette, all are fair game.
Here we have tons of design examples, everything from Antonia Shankland’s Honey Cowl (with 22,588 projects on Ravelry) and her Breton Cowl to Hilary Smith Callis’ Starshower. This weight is also a favorite for brioche, including Stephen West’s masterful technicolor Briochevon Cowl or Syncopation Adoration.
In colorwork, Ysolda’s Pyukkleen presents a wall of color that borders on mega; while her Suloinen, shown here, straddles mega-cowl and cowl-cowl by being “big” yet only wrapping once. (The yarn was Clara Yarn Cormo 3.0, which also straddles heavy worsted and bulky depending on the function of the fabric.) For knit and purl texture, Leila Raabe’s Sweetgrass Cowl gives lovely detail, while Jared Flood’s tilting welts in Setzer are mesmerizing. To show off the nuanced perfection of hand-dyeds in just 200 to 400 yards of yarn, Jane Cochran’s Persimmon fits the bill perfectly. For extraordinarily simple garter-stitch shaping at a worsted weight, check out Bethany Hendrickson’s aptly named Straightforward Cowl.
For yarns, the classics would be the semi worsted offerings from Quince & Co., or Brooklyn Tweed‘s woolen and worsted counterparts, or perhaps the tender delicacy of Woolfolk, the easygoing machine-washability of Ewe Ewe. In the undyed world, Ysolda’s Blend No. 1 is a perfectly succulent choice.
If it’s hand-dyed color you seek, the world is yours. Obvious choices would be Madelinetosh, Hedgehog, and La Bien Aimée, as well as Briar Rose, Spirit Trail Fiberworks, Miss Babs, Indigodragonfly, SweetGeorgia Yarns, or Sweet Fiber Yarns, to name a very few.
If you like stranding two or three yarns together, consider any of the Shibui offerings. Last but very much not least, consider the masterfully chosen, subtly dyed bases of Kristine Vejar’s A Verb for Keeping Warm—the majority of which fall comfortably in the cowl-cowl level.
Most of us stop here for the winter. There’s a pleasant camp, comfortable cabins, and fine company. But if you really want to summit Mt. Cowlius, you’ll need one more layer.
At the snow-capped peaks of Mt. Cowlius you will discover, at last, the undercowl. The undercowl is like an undershirt, it’s a base layer for the neck. Think of it like a turtleneck that never got attached to the body, with a little length to anchor it in your clothing—but not so much length that it becomes the delightfully named “dickie.”
The undercowl is for humans what cashmere and qiviut are for animals, that fine undercoat of insulation that, when combined with a bulky outer layer, allows us to roam freely in the high Himalayas of suburbia.
An undercowl is also our opportunity to use a small amount of the finest, most luxurious fibers you can afford. I’m talking the fibers that are far too expensive for a full-sized garment, or perhaps you just don’t have the patience to knit a sweater at 12 stitches to the inch? These yarns are often too fine and delicate to stand up and greet you in a bigger cowl. But here, in a tightly fitting base layer that hugs the body, they’re perfect. My dream undercowl can be squeezed into a legal-size envelope and mailed anywhere in the United States using just one stamp.
One of the original undercowls is Stephanie Pearl-McPhee’s Pretty Thing, which uses a mere 164 yards of your finest fibers. Other examples are Suzanne Middlebrooks’ Everything Nice Cowl (shown here in Shibui Knits Silk Cloud), Hannah Fettig’s Tricolor Cowl, Evelyn Clark’s Estonian Leaf Lace Cowl, Churchmouse Yarns’ Inside Outside Cowl, or Ann Hanson’s Spiralucious or Cité.
I’m not seeing a ton of recent design innovation in the undercowl (yet?), possibly because of its slightly limited real-estate. One very important exception being Joji Locatelli’s 3 Color Cashmere Cowl. I consider this an undercowl on steroids, with enough substance to give a mega-layer while also giving that essential base of softness and warmth.
Because the undercowl sits directly against tender skin, the yarn choice will be uniquely yours. For the finest of fine, of course, you would want to go with pure qiviut or qiviut and silk. Then there’s cashmere, such as the extraordinary fibers grown at Ravenwood Cashmere here in the United States, or perhaps you’d like a succulent blend of Merino, silk, and brushed cashmere? Hand Maiden has a plush, unusually plied cashmere called Helix that needs nothing more than stockinette to do the trick. How about organically dyed cashmere that can be traced to small family farms in the mountain communities of Kyrgyzstan? June Cashmere is what you want. (Tanis Gray has a gorgeous cabled cowl pattern that uses two skeins.) Are multiple colors more your thing? Consider the Lux Adorna Knits kits.
The presence of an undercowl gives you far greater leeway with your outer cowl, too. With a fine insulating layer next to your skin, you can choose a mega-cowl or cowl-cowl whose design may have a few more holes in it, fit a little more loosely, leave a few more gaps through which winter winds could whip through. Undercowls also let you use far sturdier, less expensive, more interesting wools for the outer layer—think fabulously hearty British woolens Beatrix Potter would’ve loved.
All Part of a Healthy Ecosystem
Just as we can’t live solely on a diet of kale, nor can we live on a diet of donuts. It’s all about variety, balance, and moderation. The undercowl rather depends on the presence of something bigger around it to do the bulk of the weather protection—and the bigger cowls benefit from having a little something tender underneath.
Just as the arctic muskox can survive the most rugged of extremes because of its dual coat, so, too, can the humble knitter on her way to the coffee shop. Let the megacowl or cowl-cowl be your outer coat, with a fine secret undercowl of metaphorical cashmere beneath.
One final thing to know about cowls: They make great listeners. During the coldest moments of winter, when I’ve just rounded the corner onto Portland’s Congress Street and the wind hits my face just so, fogging up my glasses and freezing my eyelashes together, I can bury my face deep into the cowl and mutter a full round of expletives nobody will hear. The thicker the cowl, the better the listener. Lean your face in and tell it your problems, and before you know it, spring is here.
vi herron | December 11, 2016
you know, i wear two cowls going out to the duck pens in winter…one inner one that is turtle neck like with a broad bottom that extends out to my shoulders (my shoulders are always cold)…..that goes on under my down coat, then another one over it and on top of the zipped/buttoned up down coat, that usually has either some mohair (azknitter gave me some bearfoot long ago and i made a cowl) or some cashmere (that one is from jen at spirit trail)…
those usually work very well for me…..
now, in really bad sub zero with wind, and carrying waterbuckets, i put a HUGE doubled up king cole mohair cowl over everything including my wool hat.
Susan | December 11, 2016
I never knew there were so many kinds of cowls. I feel fortunate to live in a place where I have no need for them…
Evelyn | December 11, 2016
First cowl is a fine gauge merino base layer from Endura. Purchased as cycling gear, it has moved into exactly the realm you describe. When I started shopping for other similar cowls I realized that 1) I could knit something similar and 2) I already had the yarn. Completed that cowl from vacation yarn last week and wore it all week long in Minneapolis. My MIL happily receives and wears cowl-cowls every year as gifts and that helps me move through my travel-acquired 1 and 2 skein collection. SO much tidier and less annoying than a traditional skarf!
Catherine McClarey | December 11, 2016
The layered cowls discussed here made me think of how I’ve been layering mitts and gloves to keep my hands warm last winter & this winter. With a pair of cheap “magic gloves”, I layer a snug-fitting pair of fingerless mitts underneath and a looser-fitting pair of mitts on the outside. (Both pairs of mitts are handknits acquired via Ravelry swaps.) Granted, my fingertips don’t stay as warm as I’d like, but my palms are toasty, the backs of my hands don’t dry out as quickly in the wind and cold, and my fingers retain the dexterity they need for operating the car on winter drives.
Karen Dewillers | December 11, 2016
When my grandchildren lived in Rochester,NY I made all 4 of them child sized bulky knit cowls. Scarfs were way too dangerous for them to play on any playground equipment. And Rochester is a snow haven.
They now live outside Atlanta, GA and snow is rarely a problem…..very rarely. So now for the holidays I have had yo give up on hats, mittens, cowls and the like. Nut have been working hard on Mermaid blankets. I much prefer knitting cowls and smaller, quicker items than 5 circular tubes 50 or so inches long. Nut that is the most appropriate thing I could come up with this year.
Any cowls or hats I make from now on with be for charity purposes.
Karen Dewillers | December 11, 2016
I made my grandchildren cowls last year because they lived in Rochester, NY. And that is right on the Great Lakes and snow is a constant there during the winter. My daughter in law requested the cowls because scarfs are not safe to wear when the children were playing on play ground equipment.
Now they live in the south and snow is rarely an event. So I have been asked to make the children mermaid blankets to be cozy in when they are reading. It is a lot more boring to do 54 inch long tubes big enough for each child to crawl into. Cowls are a lot more fun and faster.
Any more cowls I will make will be donated to the homeless and other charities.
Mary | December 11, 2016
On the cold, windy days, I wear an inner cowl that is a dickie. Actually, being a fan of the Big Bang Theory, I named it the Howard Cowl. It keeps my neck, chest, shoulders and upper back nice and toasty. And I came up with the idea of it during a Cat Bordhi class at a KR Retreat several years ago! I’ve liked it so much, I’m now knitting myself a second one.
Becca | December 12, 2016
I grew up in MN and once I became a knitter I wrapped myself in two cowls most days of the winter. Now I use cowls a bit differently. I live in Glasgow and here the winters are not bitterly cold but rather damp and chill. I use one cowl on its own most winter days. An undercowl is really perfect because many buildings here (especially the older ones) are not heated as much as I was used to in a really cold environment. A light, soft cowl is perfect for time spent in the slight chill.
When a storm comes in off the sea however I go back to double layers. I use an undercowl and then I wrap a sturdy hap made from Shetland wool around my neck and shoulders, over my coat. It does a good job keeping out the wind and rain. Those sheep grow the perfect barrier for this environment.
Connie Streitz | December 12, 2016
Lots of sports yarn around. My Daughter teaches in a special education school with the temperature on the chilly side. Like to know the # of stitches to cast on and length.
Anticipating someone’s reply. Sport Yarn & fingering type yarn.
Amy Pemberton | December 12, 2016
Sorry, number of stitches for what?
Amy Pemberton | December 12, 2016
Sorry again, early for me. I just realized that you meant “a cowl in a sport-weight yarn”. Unfortunately, that depends on the pattern and somewhat on your gauge, but cowls are almost as forgiving as scarfs in that regard.
One possible cheat – find a narrow-ish scarf you like, about 4-5″ wide. It could even be a plain garter stitch scarf. Knit it to about twice the distance between your daughter’s shoulders and her hips and then splice the ends together and voila – an infinity scarf! Loop it twice around your neck and it becomes a cowl. Or my favorite, put it around your neck, twist it and then loop it over your head, covering your ears and the top of your head.
Connie Streitz | December 12, 2016
Help! Cast on and length for Sport Yarn as well as lighter weight yarn.
Live in NJ.
Clara Parkes | Author | December 12, 2016
Hi Connie! Here’s the cowl pattern search results on Ravelry, filtered just to show patterns for DK-weight yarn. Loads to choose from. Happy knitting! http://www.ravelry.com/patterns/search#view=captioned_thumbs&weight=sport&pc=cowl&sort=popularity
Connie Streitz | December 12, 2016
Cast on ………sts. Length …………..
Sport weight yarn.
Judy Malone | December 12, 2016
I love knitting cowls, giving them as gifts, and most especially wearing them for all the reasons you mention. Thank you for the wonderful list of patterns and yarns for a variety of weights and yarns.
Patricia | December 12, 2016
Didn’t know about undercowls, so I referred to the small cowl I knit for my daughter as a neck muffler or gaiter as in neck gaiters worn by skiers. Now I know it has another name.
I used “Glamour Bunny” a silk, merino, angora yarn that I purchased at Rhinebeck from a small custom fiber process In Maine. It is wonderfully soft and warm. I used 31 grams (~104 yds) in the pattern, Burnished Leaves.
It fits easily and stylishly under a woolen coat and keeps her warm while walking to work in the canyons of NYC.
Kristina McGrath | December 12, 2016
So inspired! Thank you! You’re my fave, Clara!
Sarah Turnbull | December 12, 2016
Which pattern is the lovely brown/bronze cowl in the third photo down the page?
Clara | December 14, 2016
Hi Sarah! That’s Suloinen by Ysolda Teague.
Sarah Turnbull | December 14, 2016
Thank you, Clara, I thought it looked familiar!
Connie Streitz | December 13, 2016
Thanks for the info and the site, Clara.
Patty in NC | December 13, 2016
Very enjoyable article. I clicked and looked at each cowl and I am inspired to get busy! Thank you!
Would like to mention the möbius cowl (or moebius). I am now making my 5th one, since doing the möbius cowl class on Craftsy with Cat Bordhi. What is really different is you cast on in the center(equator) and work outward. This equatorial cast on does not show. Because of this working outward, I can keep right on knitting until it is wide enough, and I will have a symmetrical garment no matter what! Good way to use up my scrap yarns, as stripes.
For the first time, I now have möbius cowls with both edges of the “bind off” looking the same and pretty, because the entire outer edge is both the upper and lower edge. Contrasting that edge to my regular cowl, which has a German twisted cast on and a Russian bind off, and those two edges do look passable together, but they are not the same.
Additionally, with the möbius, you have a half twist built right in, so it sits nicely in place when worn. (My regular cowls flop to one side, in contrast). With the half twist built in, I noticed that my shorter more delicate cowls are also extra snuggly, as they tend to hug the neck more.
Anyway, thanks for the ones you shared, I like them all! Just wanted to share this particular method in case anybody wants to try more!
lois | December 14, 2016
Love the cowl you’re wearing outside with fogged glasses. Did you mention which pattern it was knit from?
Ann | January 10, 2017
Also wondering about that pattern – please share, Clara. Lois, have you found out since your original post? Was inspired by the post to pull some Jo Sharp DK wool from my stash and knit two strands of it into the Gaptastic cowl. With the extreme temps this winter, it has been my everyday outdoor choice. I can so relate to the foggy glasses.
Gail Thorpe | December 16, 2016
I would like to make the Under Cowl that is featured at the top of the section Under Cowl. The model is wearing a plaid shirt.
Does anyone know where to find the pattern and does anyone know what the yarn is?
Clara | December 16, 2016
Hi Gail! That pattern is Suzanne Middlebrooks’ Everything Nice Cowl, knit in Shibui Knits Silk Cloud. http://www.ravelry.com/patterns/library/everything-nice-cowl
Gail Thorpe | December 16, 2016
Thanks, Clara. I sent you an email also which you can ignore…unless you want to chat! 🙂
Kristine Peterson | December 19, 2016
Love your sharing of experiences! Such excellent pattern and yarn ideas…I am only beginning to get into cowls. Back in my International Falls, MN days, my Mother knit us cast iron Norwegian sweaters and we thacked kids with our scarves and wrapped them around our necks several times. I will never ‘thwack’ again.
Joss | December 19, 2016
Love this article. Imagine me never finding this Knitter’s Review when I have your books. Wonderful reading just in time for the holidays
Kathy Costello | January 11, 2017
I have knit Zuzu’s Petals and think it deserves a shout out as well in the under cowl category!
Erika T | January 12, 2017
I love cowls and knit several up for presents! Great article Clara, I didn’t realize there were different types!
R K Ripperger | January 13, 2017
What is the name of the gold cowl, opposite the Cowl Cowl text? LV this st patt!
Clara Parkes | Author | January 16, 2017
Isn’t it pretty? It’s Suloinen by Ysolda Teague. http://www.ravelry.com/patterns/library/suloinen Quite a pleasant knit.
Tamara | March 16, 2017
Oh my gosh, that was funny! Thank you!
Claudia Linke | July 15, 2020
Wow, this really helped me. But one question remains: How do I plan the circumference of a cowl? I know how to do this for a hat but not for a cowl: I want to knit a cowl that is in between the cowl-cowl and the undercowl (knit with medium-thick yarn, but with a double layer). It should have volume and not “cave in” or “hang”.