The History of Flannel

October 10, 2014

The flannel shirt is an American icon. There is a reason why it is loved by both blue and white collar professionals. It’s comfortable, warm; it’s perfect for work and for leisure. There are a few things everyman should know about his flannel shirts and where they came from, however.

The Old World’s Flannel
Flannel fabric has been around since the 17th century. While it is common nowadays to call anything with a plaid or tartan pattern “flannel”, in truth flannel is a soft woven fabric that was originally made from carded wool and worsted yarn. In today’s machine driven world, it is now mostly constructed from wool, cotton, or synthetic fibers.

The tartan pattern originated in Celtic cultures sometime between the 6th and 8th centuries BC and is, of course, still famous as an emblem of Scottish culture. It was around the 17th and 18th centuries AD that plaid kilts as we would recognize them, became the norm for Scottish clansmen.

Flannel was first made in Wales and South West England. A cheap and warm fabric, it became wildly popular in Europe when the Industrial Revolution allowed for mass quantities to be produced in factories.

Early Flannel in America
The first huge success of the fabric in America came in 1869 when one piece long john flannels were invented in New York. Around this time is when it also became widespread as a go-to fabric for general household uses and bedding.

By the turn of the 20th century, flannel was a huge staple in men’s clothing all over the world. It was solidified as the working man’s shirt as the country expanded west, particularly among those who worked on the railroad and logged the wild forests of the Northwest.

The Last 100 Years of Flannel
During WWI, soldiers’ uniforms and bandages were both made of the sturdy fabric, making it even more commonplace among the American populace.  A short time later, The Great Depression of the 1930’s broke down class barriers and put many men out of suits and into the general laborer’s flannel shirts.

In the 1950’s the American Dream was a concept that had taken root in our culture. Men worked from the bottom up and were proud of their achievements—being a working class man was not something of which to be ashamed. Popular culture found a hero in Paul Bunyan, who was always depicted in red tartan flannel, axe in hand and blue ox by his side.

It was in this period that the flannel with a tartan pattern became a symbol of the American man. Bold and distinctive in appearance, it was perfect for active work outdoors and also practical for keeping warm. It was worn by men who could chop their own wood and build their own fires. It represented independence and manly pride.

And then Kurt Cobain came along in the 1970’s. Although he came from a logging town in the Northwest where flannel is a staple because of its history with the working man, this celebrity introduced the fabric to the fashion world. Today’s hipsters of the 21st century have also made the flannel a statement about their appearance, but one thing is still certain:

There is no one garment that is as universally appreciated and valued as a symbol of the American outdoorsman as the flannel shirt. The more it gains in popularity, the easier it is to find cheaper versions that significantly lack in quality. But there will always be those who know and need the value of a solid flannel shirt as long as there are those who understand the history and tradition of this garment.



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