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Design & Style

Guide to Flannel: Explore the Look, Feel, and History of Flannel

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Nov 8, 2020 • 3 min read

Cotton fabric, broadcloth, denim, and rayon—there are a wide variety of fabrics in the fashion world that all have different characteristics and uses. One fabric known for being particularly warm and comfortable is flannel.

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What Is Flannel Fabric?

Flannel is a loosely woven fabric known for being soft and warm. While originally made from worsted yarn or carded wool, flannel is now made from wool (called wool flannel), cotton (called cotton flannel fabric), or even synthetic fibers. Flannel’s characteristic softness comes from a brushing process after it is woven, where the fabric is brushed on one or both sides (called “napping”) to raise fine fibers and make it feel even softer.

A Brief History of Flannel Fabric

The origins of flannel fabric can be traced back to late seventeenth-century Wales, when Welsh textile workers began using leftover sheep’s wool to create a fabric that was comfortable, warm, and moisture-wicking. Thanks to the cool, cloudy climate, these original flannel shirts quickly became the go-to work uniform for Welsh farmers, and eventually the rest of the working class. Flannel fabric soon made its way to England and France, where it would blossom into the working class fabric of choice during the Industrial Revolution.

Flannel then made its way across the pond, spreading in popularity in the twentieth century during World War I, when the United States included a flannel layer in soldiers’ uniforms to provide extra warmth.

The rise of the now-popular plaid flannel came in the early 1990s, when grunge bands began to incorporate plaid flannels into their on-stage attire—making plaid flannel a staple of grunge fashion. In the 2000s, flannel became a fashion statement for the hipster movement, with plaid flannel shirts becoming a popular piece for outdoors and camping looks. Now, flannel is a widely worn and versatile fabric, common for grunge, outdoors, and fall/winter apparel.

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3 Characteristics of Flannel Fabric

Flannel fabric is known for being:

  1. Soft: Flannel fabric is most well-known for being comfortable and cozy, due to its soft fibers (usually wool or cotton flannel), its loose weave (whether plain or twill), and its brushed, napped texture. It’s a common choice for everything from flannel shirts to flannel sheets.
  2. Warm: Flannel is able to retain heat well, making it a popular choice for outdoor clothing, winter pajamas, and blankets.
  3. Moisture-wicking: Thanks to its loose weave, flannel is very breathable, meaning that the fabric won’t trap in moisture and can instead wick it away. In addition, high-quality flannel is most often made of wool, a natural fabric that is well-known for its moisture-wicking abilities.

What Does Flannel Fabric Feel Like?

Flannel fabric is remarkably soft to the touch, due to its loose weave and the natural fibers that it encompasses. In addition, many flannel fabrics can have a fuzzy feeling, which comes from the brushing process—in which a metal brush is pulled along the fabric to raise some of the fibers to create an even softer feel.

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Uses for Flannel Fabric

Flannel fabric has several uses in fashion:

  • Cold-weather clothing. Flannel’s softness and warmth make it a go-to choice as a fall and winter apparel fabric. While plaid flannel button-downs are by far the most popular flannel clothing items, you may also see flannel outerwear (including jackets and coats) and flannel pants.
  • Outdoor apparel. Comfortable, warm, and moisture-wicking, flannel is a popular fabric for outdoor and camping clothing, from flannel shirts to jackets.
  • Pajamas and sleepwear. Good pajamas privilege comfort over everything else, so it’s no wonder that super-soft flannel is an obvious match for pajama tops and bottoms.
  • Blankets and other home decor. In addition to fashion items, flannel is also a common fabric choice for throw blankets, drapery, upholstery, and bed sheets because of its soft woven fabric. Flannel (whether pre-cut or by-the-yard) is a popular quilting fabric among quilters.

What’s the Difference Between Flannel Fabric and Plaid?

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Flannel fabric is often manufactured with a plaid, tartan, or gingham pattern, which has led many people to believe that all plaid shirts are flannel, or that all flannel fabric is plaid. However, plaid is a pattern that can be printed on a wide range of fabrics—from cotton to polyester—and flannel fabric itself can be printed with any number of patterns (from chevron to polka dots).

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