You know the fabric, but what exactly is flannel?
We all own some flannel clothing. Whether it’s a comfy shirt, lined pants, or your bed sheets, 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?
The cloth has an impressive ability to hold in heat and insulate. 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 bed sheet 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 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.
That cozy brushed finish
Now, the flannel that your grandfather wore was made from either carded wool or worsted yarn. 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.
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 are pre-washed so this is nothing to worry about, but it’s worth checking. Also, the cloth 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.
This might come as a surprise, but suits can also be made of flannel. While they won’t normally have the thickness of your casual dress shirt, the softness and fuzzy feel remains. Consequently, they are a great option for winter-weight suiting.
The takeaway here is that flannel fabrics are napped to create that soft texture that we love so much. Beyond that, the fiber 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.
Seamwork: The secret life of flannel
Our BE Learn article: All about worsted wool