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The History of Flannel – The Welsh Winter Fabric

This is the time of year when certain things are much more welcome than usual…a dissection of the cultural significance of Starbucks’ paper cups, special elections in Alabama, and all manner of cozy clothes made from flannel, a chilly day’s worst enemy. Be it a traditional plaid shirt, a classic gray suit or some red footed jammies, flannel is a fabric with a storied past, fashionable present and bright future.

The Welsh Wellspring

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Late 19th century Welsh flannel mills. Image via Holywell.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it was the Welsh who first started weaving flannel from wool, as their wet, windy weather and abundance of sheep made the marriage a no-brainer. But rather than just weaving wool as it had been done for centuries, the earliest Welsh weavers used worsted yarns and then napped the finished fabric on one or both sides, giving it the fuzzy texture that was as appreciated for its softness and warmth then as it is today.

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Early 20th century Welsh flannel shop. Image via Pinterest.

And while Wales and that part of the United Kingdom has always been known for its plaids (early Celts, we’re looking at you), not all plaids are flannel, just as not all flannel is plaid. No one’s entirely sure where the name came from–historically, the French called it flanelle, and the Germans, Flanell.

Flannel as Workwear

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Flannel as it entered workwear. Image via Pinterest.

No matter what they called it, Europe would have this simple, sturdy fabric all to itself until the late 1800s when Hamilton Carhartt (yes, that Carhartt–read more about the history of the brand) saw an opportunity to reinvent the workingman’s “uniform.”

The Industrial Revolution had given Britain mechanized “carding” machines, making the production of flannel faster and easier, and the fabric had already found success (thanks to yardage likely provided by the French) as Civil War Union soldiers’ coats and undershirts. Carhartt rightly understood that laborers and the men building the railroads would need clothes suited to the task, and he knew flannel was the right fabric for the job.

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Parson’s ODM41 Field Jacket in Flannel. Image via Library of Congress.

Soon, everyone from frontiersmen to lumberjacks to even WWI soldiers found flannel on their backs (and backsides) and liked it.

The Grey Flannel Suit Emerges

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The men in the grey flannel suits. Image via Life.

By the 1950s, another breed or worker, the “businessman” would embrace a more refined version of the material, popularizing the iconic, “man in the gray flannel suit.” (It was substantial, held a crease beautifully, and reeked of stature and responsibility.) And from that point forward, flannel has been welcome in both the sawmill and boardroom alike, and these days it’s come to hold a place as perhaps the ultimate in casual ware.

Nothing says, “leave me alone to drink my IPA and update my Instagram story” quite like doing so in a flannel shirt. (God only knows if I’m using that reference right–I’m 48, which in social media-time means I’ve been dead for six years.)

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The flannel of Nirvana and frontman Kurt Cobain. Image via Rolling Stone.

Flannel Today

As textile technology (texnology?) has progressed, a “flannel” feeling fabric can be made from things other than wool…cotton, blends, recycled soda bottles…so you can find flannel examples from across the cost and style spectrum. (Flannel certainly had it’s heyday alongside the Grunge movement, a pop culture phenomenon that ended everywhere in the early 90’s except Hot Topic stores, where it lives a full and healthy life to this very day.)

All your major outdoor outfitters, from American Eagle to L.L.Bean to REI, will sell you all the entry-level flannel you can stand, but we aim to aim a bit higher, so below are some of my favorite flannel offerings from the best of the best (make that mostly the “best of the East”–Japan does flannel as well as they do leather. And denim. And everything. It’s amazing how giving a damn can lead to success.)

Pendleton Burnside Flannel

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Pendleton Burnside Flannel Shirt

Pendleton and Woolrich have managed to stay relevant by changing as little as possible, still offering classic wool and cotton flannel shirts in timeless plaids and generous cuts that allows for equally generous helpings of post-wood chopping pancakes! Pendleton’s Burnside Flannel comes garment washed and broken-in for just $79.50.

Woolrich Buffalo Plaid Flannel

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Woolrich Flannel in Red Buffalo Plaid

The classic Trout Run Old Red Buffalo Plaid Woolrich is just $55, and that includes the pen slot in the pocket!

Iron Heart Flannel Western

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Iron Heart weaves their Flannel Western Shirt ($345) with indigo-dyed yarn, so it will fade as only true indigo does. (You can also upgrade the snaps to custom options for an extra $20.

Nine Lives B-Sides Flannel

Nine Lives offers their B-Sides Flannel Workshirt in a retro shadow plaid at a very contemporary price of $265.

The Flat Head Winter Heavy Flannel

The Flat Head skips the wool for a slightly less toasty cotton number with their Winter Heavy Flannel Snap Shirt. Mother of pearl buttons provide some high/low appeal, the fit is slim, and the finishing is especially fine. $290 at Self Edge.

Filson Vintage Flannel Workshirt

My favorite is the Filson Vintage Flannel Work Shirt, and not just because it’s a relative bargain at $145. No, it’s because you can get it in five plaids and eleven sizes–big and tall guys, this is the shirt for you (us).

The J.Press Grey Flannel Suit

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And just in case you ever need to apply for a loan or impress the boss, a gray flannel suit still impresses, few more than this classic-yet-modern example from the wonderfully WASPy J. Press, on sale online at $671.


Lead image via Gear Patrol.