Dress Tips

You know the fabric, but what exactly is flannel?

By on December 9th, 2016

We all own some flannel clothing. Whether it’s a comfy shirt, flannel lined pants, sheets maybe – flannel is that super comfortable fabric that makes us think of mountain adventures and cozy evenings at home. But what exactly is flannel? What makes it different from “ordinary” fabrics?

Flannel has an impressive ability to hold in heat and insulate and yet it can still be breathable enough to wick moisture away. But what most people don’t understand 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 a flannel bedsheet in a solid hue isn’t a real flannel.

Here’s a little history: A fabric very similar in nature to today’s flannel dates back to sometime around the sixteenth century in Wales. The sturdy and warm fabric grew in popularity in subsequent centuries and with the advent of the Industrial Revolution, it really took off. It crossed the pond sometime in 1869 when flannel long johns were introduced in America. Similar to the story of denim, the fabric gained in popularity among blue collar workers as they worked to build the railroads and industry that came to define the twentieth century.

what exactly is flannel

Now, the flannel that your grandfather wore was made from either carded wool or worsted yarn, but modern versions can be manufactured from wool, cotton, or even synthetic fiber. This really surprised me when I learned it because I had always believed that flannel had to be cotton. But regardless of the fiber, the fabric is then napped or brushed to give it that level of softness that we all like. What happens during brushing is that a fine metal brush gently rubs the fabric to raise fine fibres from the loosely spun yarns, this creates what we call a nap.

what exactly is flannel

Practically speaking, there are some things you’ll want to bear in mind if you’re shopping for flannel clothes. Because it’s a loose weave, it can shrink in the wash. Most fabrics (and certainly ours) are pre-washed so this is nothing to worry about, but if you’re shopping anywhere else, be sure to ask. 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 wool weights. 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.

The takeaway here is that flannel fabrics are napped to create that soft texture that we love so much. Beyond that, flannel can be wool, cotton, synthetic, or even a vegetable fibre.

Ready to learn about all the other shirt styles out there? Here’s our rundown on the different shirt genres.

Further reading

Seamwork: The secret life of flannel

Gear Patrol: The history of flannel

Our BE Learn article: All about worsted wool