Balaclava "ninja hood" Technique

          The technique of using plastic canvas or foam for a base isn't the only way to make a costume's head. Another technique involves using a balaclava (pronounced bal-uh-klaw-vuh) and foam. A balaclava is a fabric hood, often made of cotton or polyester (or other fabrics), it entirely covers a person's head except for their eyes. When trying out this technique I felt incredibly silly, every time I put the balaclava hood on it reminded me of ninjas (thus it aquired the name "ninja hood" technique).

          To the left is a picture of myself wearing a balaclava. I ordered this one from a sportsman's site for around $5, and it was designed to "wick" sweat away from the face and forehead to keep a person cool. You can also find these at motorcycle specialty stores, or sporting goods stores. (Don't get the heavy ski masks or anything designed for keeping warm!). You can also sew your own. The one I used is about the thickness of a t-shirt, and was made from a polyester blend.

          The first thing I did was turn it inside out, so the seams and the tag were on the outside, and the smooth part of the seams was the part that was against my head. (You can see the top seam sticking up in the picture to the left.) I took chalk, and drew a line where my mouth was and cut a hole, so my breathing was unrestricted. (I turned over the edge and edge stitched the hole so it wouldn't get any larger.) 

          Next, I consulted Jax's technique for placing the elastic for jaw movement. I assembled the elastic together, I just used 1/2 inch elastic which I sewed to itself, and then I positioned it over my head, pinned it, and then sewn it to the balaclava (at the places I marked in green). Note, you'll want to use wider elastic than 1/2 inch! Using a thin elastic was a mistake on my part, which made it difficult later on when I was tweaking the jaw movement.

          Then I just used carved foam, and 1-inch foam (that I simply shaped with scissors) and then hot glued it directly to my balaclava. You can also use Super 77 spray adhesive to adhere your foam, it won't leave hard parts like hot glue does. At this point, it helpes to have a sketch of the character that you want to go from. I used a mannequin head (you can get them online, or you can make your own by getting a styrofoam wig head and adding foam to bulk it up to the size of your own head) during my hot glue sessions, and tried it on after each new addition of the features, such as the muzzle, eyebrows, cheeks, ears, jaw, etc. to make sure that it still fit, lined up and looked right.


     When creating your mask, it always helps to have some sort of drawing to help you map out where you want your markings to be. Applying the fur to a balaclava mask is a little different than doing it with a rigid mask that was created out of plastic canvas, for example. And its very easy to make the head WAY smaller than it should be. 

     This is when it helps to have a mannequin head (accurate to a human's head-size). You can purchase them online, or you can make your own by purchasing a styrofoam wig head from a beauty supply or wig store. Keep in mind most of the Styrofoam heads that you will find will be considerably smaller than an actual person's head. Take measurements around your forehead and vertically under your chin, then apply any leftover upholstery foam/batting/etc to your Styrofoam head (with pins at least) to build it up to at least the same measurements that you took of your own head. You can tie a plastic bag around your head, so you balaclava slips on and off the Styrofoam head easier. 

     There's several techniques to applying faux fur to masks, and there is really no right or wrong way as long as it looks good in the end. I personally use hot glue to attach mine, even at the seams. So my masks are prettymuch "no sew" when it comes to major needle-and-thread work. Some people just use hot glue to tack down the fur and then sew all the seam's edges. Its really up to you, as the maskmaker, to decide on what works best for your time. 

     Keep in mind that the direction the fur lays is important. Having a mask that gives off the illusion that it could be a real animal (even if you are doing a 'toony mask) is enhanced when the fur lays properly. The fur almost always lays away from the nose and towards the tips of the ears. It is extremely helpful to look at close-up photographs of the real animal you are trying to make your mask of to determine what direction the fur goes.

     When furring, I start at the ears, then go to the jaw, snout, cheeks, eye/forehead area, and then finally the back of the head and around to the front of the neck. To give the mask an appearance of actually having a neck, sometimes I have installed (hand sew) a zipper to the back so it is more form fitting, but if you haven't ever installed a zipper before, I'd suggest just keeping a flap to tuck into the neck of a shirt or a costume's bodysuit (you can install a zipper later). Make sure there's not too much material around your character's neck, though or it may look lumpy with extra fabric folds.

     Don't forget to try your mask on periodically to make sure you are still able to see and that it still fits you. If it starts to be too restrictive in either area, make sure to find out your problem now and fix it before you get any further with your mask. Because it ultimately may mean dissatisfaction later if you can't see and it doesn't fit.

     After I have the mask fully furred is when I begin to add the other final details and features. This is when I install the nose and teeth (I build mine from Super Sculpey, then paint them), the eyes (which I build from white plastic bowls with sheer material for the pupils and painted-on irises), and the inner mouth details (which on this particular mask are vinyl, avoid using felt).

And here is the final product!
 
Hopefully these tips will help give you ideas on how to start your own costume mask. Thanks for looking!
For more images of this completed mask, click here


Some notes on the moving jaw with a Balaclava mask

The moving jaw with the balaclava technique seems to be done a little bit differently depending on the person. When I did mine, I have to be honest with you -- I HATED IT, it drove me nuts (enough where I'll probably not use a balaclava for a moving jaw mask again because it was a lot of trouble for me), but eventually I got it, and it did work reasonably well.

The technique I used sort followed Jax's design (mentioned above) with the elastic straps. But I did not have wide enough straps (I should have used at least an inch, but I'd even say, get the widest ones you can). In his design the elastic strap is supposed to rest on the front of your chin, below your lower lip, so when you move the jaw it just fits snug when your mouth opens and closes.

But I was unable to get mine to work that way, and I had to move it more to a spot where it would behave more like it did when I built a plastic canvas mask, where the bottom of my chin pushes down on it to make the mouth open. But it seems even with this way, if the jaw was too heavy, it would just hang open. In the end, I was forced to compromise ... I was able to make the "bite" of the jaw fit better with a little wire that I ran through the foam. That way you could bend the jaw to curve up or down and minimize the appearance of a slightly open mouth, but still get enough movement to appear like the costume mask was talking. 

The result wasn't dramatic, but it worked reasonably well. But you'll have to weigh your options and try it and see if it works for you, be sure to use wider elastic, but keep in mind: It may be difficult and might not be worth the frustration unless you like a challenge.


          Below is a chart which bases my experiences of making a mask using plastic canvas construction techniques, foam construction techniques and with the experience of the balaclava "ninja hood" construction technique. Please be aware that there are other techniques waiting to be explored, the charts below will be based on my experiences, so your experiences may be different from mine. But, in short, maybe this chart will help those only wanting to make their first mask decide on which technique they'd like to invest in.

 

Pros

Grey Area
(depends on personal preference)

Cons

B
A
L
A
C
L
A
V
A
  • More like a stuffed animal, not many hard parts.
  • Doesn't require "extra padding."
  • Easy to start right away with foaming.
  • Snug/tight fitting.
  • Seams tend to need greater reinforcement, due to flexibility. (often need to be hand sewn)
  • Hot, no real space to place additional fans.
  • (in my experience) Working jaw not as sensitive, tends to hang open.
 

Pros

Grey Area

Cons

A
L
L

F
O
A
M
  • More like a stuffed animal, not many hard parts.
  • Already in the foaming stage, so you can easily trim things down.
  • Very lightweight construction.
  • Medium fit, depending on construction.
  • May not be able to have a moving jaw, unfortunately.
  • May be more expensive due to more foam used.
  • Foam is the only structure.
 

Pros

Grey Area

Cons

P
L
A
S
T
I
C
 
C
A
N
V
A
S
  • Plenty of space for battery operated fans.
  • More rigid structure, not "floppy"
  • Easy to reinforce.
  • Can do entire mask with no fine sewing.
  • Loose fitting, more room, may need to be padded on the inside.
  • Sometimes requires extra interior padding.
  • Can easily get "boxy" or large if not careful with planning.
  • Have to build understructure before foaming begins.

 

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Sara Howard, 2004. (top)