All about flannel (including suits)

By on November 16th, 2022

You probably know it as the uber-cozy fabric that is both warm as it is sturdy. We all seem to have something flannel in our closets, whether it’s a hat, scarf, button down dress shirt, or maybe even flannel-lined pants that will help keep us warm on the coldest winter days. But what exactly is flannel? How is it different from other fabrics?

For many of us, flannel evokes thoughts of lumberjacks and the 1990s Seattle grunge period. Or maybe thoughts of mountain adventures and warm evenings on the couch.

You may already know that flannel has an impressive ability to trap in heat and yet it is still breathable enough to wick moisture away, but what most people don’t know is that flannel is a fabric, not a pattern. For instance, it’s very common to think that all plaid shirts are flannel shirts. Or that something that feels soft like flannel, but is in a solid hue, isn’t a real flannel.

With this article, we are going to take a close look at this beloved fabric. The history, the production, and yes, the clothes.

Red buffalo check flannel shirt

The history of flannel

A fabric very similar to today’s version of flannel dates back to sometime around the seventeenth century in Wales. It was made of worsted wool and then napped (we’ll explain this later) to create a very warm fabric, one that could stand up to the wet and cold weather notoriously common in Wales.

As far as we know, there isn’t one particular person who invented the fabric. Or why. After all, the Welsh were already wearing woolen clothes with all the sheep around. Eventually the French called it flanelle and the Germans, flanell.

Before long, most of Europe was discovering how wonderful this new fabric was. It was warm, durable, and best of all, inexpensive. By the time the Industrial Revolution was in full swing, wool mills were popping up all over the place. Flannel crossed the ocean sometime in 1869 when flannel long johns were introduced in the United States. And in 1889, Hamilton Carhartt started his company selling durable flannel garments, like the iconic work overalls, to railroad workers.

It wasn’t long before flannel, specifically the flannel shirt, became a symbol for tough and rugged men. The American folklore hero Paul Bunyan helped to solidify this reputation.

Mid-century America saw prominence of flannel extend into the business world with the rise in popularity of flannel suits. Then the 1990’s grunge movement pushed flannel button-up shirts into the limelight as a counterculture fabric.

How it’s made

The flannel of yesteryear was made from either carded wool or worsted yarn, but modern versions can be manufactured from wool, cotton, or even synthetic fiber. But regardless of the fiber, the fabric is then brushed to give it that softness that we all love. What happens during brushing is that a fine metal brush gently rubs the fabric to raise the fine fibers from the yarns, this is called napping.

As you can imagine, this is what helps the fabric to feel nice and soft. In addition, these lifted fibers help to trap air, thereby enhancing the insulatory capability of the garment. And the weave can be disguised after napping. I think this is one of the reasons that it’s easy to think that flannel is its own fiber altogether.

In the early days, our friends from Wales were using teasels to create this napping effect. Teasels are the prickly heads of thistle-like plants that have a whole lot of sharp, hook-like ends. So, you can imagine that the original woolen flannel was haphazard in appearance based on who was wielding the teasel! Today, standard napping in industrial manufacturing will brush the fabric in one direction, for the sake of uniformity. Just as when you mow your lawn and you can see the lines, you can see which direction you napped a fabric.

Flannel shirt with rubber buttons

Flannel today

Today, we find flannel just about everywhere. But what’s interesting is that much of today’s flannel garments are not like our grandfathers’ flannel. It’s not as sturdy and durable, but softer and far less Paul Bunyan than we probably like to admit.

Also, flannels come in a range of different weights, from about 5 oz./sq yd for medium quality cotton fabrics to upwards of 10 – 20 oz./sq yd for the heavier winter weight wool. Your intended use will dictate the weight. And you can tell a lot about the fabric by holding it up to the light and seeing how transparent it is.

Slate River check flannel

A good example of the versatility of flannel, and how it has permeated into every level of style, even bespoke menswear, is to look at one of our former featured shirts.

Our goal was to create a flannel dress shirt that was a nod to the fabric origins as a working man’s staple. We built the shirt with one of our heaviest weight fabrics and added rubber buttons to enhance the shirt’s durability. Two chest pockets, one pleated for bulky items, ensured that this was a shirt to work in. And yet we threw in a bespoke detail that is usually found on more elegant shirts – the envelope style cuff (see detail in image above).

While wearing a flannel suit was relatively mainstream during mid-century America, today it is a sign of a particularly stylish man. And if you live in a cooler climate, a flannel suit is an excellent alternative to tweed.

Something that makes a flannel suit very unique is that the wool is printed with a desired color hue versus a more traditional dying method. This technique was originated in France and called vigoureux printing. So, when the wool is spun into a yarn, it has a bit of a mixed color, which provides a depth to the finished fabric.

When it comes to the yarn, there are two types:

Combed yarns
Manufacturing processes align the long wool fibers and discard short, staple fibers. This leaves behind a strong yarn with a somewhat glossy finish.

Carded yarns
Manufacturing processes brush the long wool fibers, but also retain the short fibers. This provides a more textured flannel.

Most men’s suits will be made with a combed yarn and in general, this fabric will be more durable. However, carded flannel suits are still popular, but they tend to wear out faster. While we like to see stress marks in our selvedge jeans – our nice suits, not so much.

And we should note, that although flannel can be made from any fabric these days, for suiting, stick to wool. You’ll get the best drape available.

The takeaway

Flannel has been around for a long time. From the wet and cold winters of the Wales countryside to the railroads of America during the industrial revolution, flannel has been keeping men and women warm and cozy for a long time now. Wool, cotton, synthetic? The fabric doesn’t matter so long as it’s napped into a nice and soft garment that’s a pleasure to wear.