Flannel’s Law(s)

Every man, regardless of where they live, where they work or what their “ideal aesthetic”is, should own at least one flannel. It’s the workhorse of the modern-man’s wardrobe, being accessible in so many cuts and finishes that it would be impossible to have a men’s blog and fail to mention the myriad of options that flannels are presented to us. But first, an understanding the material itself.

Flannel itself can be traced back to Wales, where the textile was well known as early as the 17th century. It gradually replaced friezes (one of the most common textile types in Wales) to become an incredibly versatile fabric. Flannel (again, commonly) is napped on either one or both sides. Napping is a process where the rough flannel is brushed with metal “teeth” to create the soft feel that so many people come to associate with the textile. Wales quickly became the foundational home of the flannel textile, though it spread to Yorkshire, Lancashire and Ireland. Each one of these early “proto-flannels” had different softness’s and colors, primarily due to the subtle differences in the sheep that the wool was harvested from.

An absolute banger of a movie, with a fantastic depiction of Welsh flannel in traditional dress

Now flannels that are made of pure wool are common (and sought after) for those living in colder climates, but when it was discovered that wool could be mixed with silk, flannel garments became accessible to the rest of the world (leading to the flannel trousers that would be used in cricket and many other sports up until the 1970’s, most notably in the tennis world, which has a remarkably intense fashion scene).

(Quick side note, the story behind the last image is has to be one of my favorite sports stories of all time. Go check it out here.)

Flannel shirts in particular hit a peak during the grunge era in the 1990’s, when bands like Nirvana integrated the signature textile into their “shaggy” looks. However, not all of the shirts that had the then-traditional “flannel” pattern, were actually made of wool. The pattern is called plaid or tartan, and recently has become incorrectly synonymous with “flannel”. Where flannel refers to the fabric (i.e. made of wool or a wool/silk blend), plaid refers to a pattern which is commonly believed to have originated in Scotland, and refers to stripes of color in a repeating pattern over a solid color background).

Nothing screamed “grunge” more than a loose-fitting tartan flannel in 1990’s America

I can’t really do justice to tartan (the pattern) here, so I’ll consider writing another history piece about it in the future. If you want to see that, please comment under this blog and let me know your thoughts!

Now we have a somewhat firm grasp on the very basic origin of flannel as a textile, which means I can dive a bit more into the specifics. It is either made of 100% wool or otherwise from some proportion of wool and other materials (silk and synthetics are common additions). We know that it is napped either on one side or both, and we know that it has a history that is easily longer than that of the United States. We also understand the different between flannel and tartan (plaid). But how are we supposed to wear it? What sort of occasions is flannel appropriate for?

Flannel is a specific weave, meaning that unlike other wool garments, it is much more efficient at trapping heat and stopping wind. This makes it ideal for colder climates (seriously, everyone in Michigan seems to have a closet of the stuff when fall comes around), and it layers incredibly well over shirts, sweatshirts and sweaters with equal ease. It can be worn in almost any situation (save for maybe white/black tie events and large business meetings), and should be a staple in every man’s wardrobe for this reason. Below I’ll include some of my favorite examples of flannel garments that I’ve found hidden around random corners of the internet, and give a brief explanation for why I chose them.

Well, we all knew it would happen. I work at REI in Grand Rapids, and one of the most popular items (by far) is this flannel, or at least, one of the many iterations of it that Patagonia offer. It’s 100% virgin wool and it napped on both sides, creating a soft and supple feel between the fingers that it absolutely worth the hefty price tag.

The reason Patagonia seems to be seen is such a favorable light by nearly everyone is that, as far as large companies go, it is one of the few which has consistently prioritized sustainability when it comes to the production of their products. From the very first day, the owner (Yvon Chouinard) has made it clear that his company cares about the environment first, and trends and fashion statements second.

When – if – we ever make it to the end of this pandemic, we might finally have social events which require us to dress up again. As an extrovert, this pandemic has been ridiculously hard on my mental health and my friendships, but these pants are the first pair I’m going to break out when we finally get the all-clear to see friends and family again. These pants are 18% virgin wool (meaning wool that hasn’t been reworked from a previous garment) and 2% elastane, which grants a certain level of freedom when circumstances require the wearer to do something other than casually lean against a brick wall looking like a snack.

A new brand for the blog, Madewell is certainly very popular with the college-age crowd that I tend to run along with. The prices are certainly a bit more acheivable than some other brands out there, and the clothing is made to a standard outside of almost anything else I’ve seen.

In terms of shirts, this flannel features a cool that feels soft to the touch – and holding that touch through several washes – as well as a slim fit that isn’t too tight around the torso, a well-designed top button to keep the shirt looking classy and well thought-out, and a small scooped hem at the bottom to keep it looking good even when untucked.

I’ve saved – potentially – the most well-known flannel brand for last. Obviously, with the word “flannel” in the company name, you’d hope that they know a thing or several about it. In fact, they do, being widely recognized as some of the best flannel shirts in the world. Though their website isn’t by any means limited to flannel, this is an exemplary show of what a well designed flannel should look and feel like. At 100% flannel, you know this piece will last for the rest of your life, so long as you take care of it.

Also I’m just a huge fan of the non-traditional pattern across the chest. Plaid flannels have been done for centuries, and I love the way that this shirt grabs the attention and holds onto it. It’s a conversation piece, and I’m a huge fan of conversations.

The Gold Rush gave us many things. It gave us the “ideal” American man (yes, that’s sarcasm), an obsession with geology and natural resources – though we’ve always had that – and possibly my favorite, all-American brand to ever lay stitches through fabric.

Filson started out as an outfitting company for miners/prospectors mining in California and quickly started making gear themselves, becoming the go-to name for people who wanted quality and weren’t afraid to pay for it. This shirt pays homage to that initial ethos being made out of a midweight wool twill which allows for a more wind-resistant garment than other ways of processing wool. Really, of all the shirts I’ve shown (and pair of pants), this would be the one I’d pull out of the closet to go do some work in the yard. The durability of this shirt (and the rest of their products) is next-to-perfect.

A while back I published a post about thrifted flannels called “Vintage Wool“, where I went through some of my favorite secondhand options for buying nice winter-weight flannels. This is along the same vein, but with new clothing instead of pre-owned pieces.

As always, let me know what you think! Thank you for reading to the very bottom, and I look forward to exploring what the next post will be about! If you have any suggestions, please feel free to contact me on Instagram, Facebook or my email address and I’ll do my best to get back to you.

(Another shout-out to both the Smithsonian and The Guardian for being amazing references and inspiration for some of the stories I’ve included)

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