Flannel is a warm, durable fabric with a long history and enduring popularity. The material is identifiable by three primary characteristics: its softness, warmth, and sweat-wicking ability.
The Welsh created flannel in the 17th century, using leftover wool from their many sheep. The material currently is made of wool, cotton, or synthetic materials.
Flannel is an affordable, warm, soft fabric that’s easy to maintain. The material is prone to shrinkage and color bleeding, however.
Flannel current production depends on which fibers are used to weave the material. Australia produces the majority of wool flannel. China manufactures the most significant amount of synthetic flannel, and India makes the most cotton flannel.
This article dives deeper into flannel’s origins and history while looking at the material’s myriad uses and varieties and providing some alternatives for those who don’t appreciate flannel.
What is Flannel?
Flannel is a soft, woven fabric used to make a wide array of products. The fabric’s soft texture makes it ideal for pajamas, blankets, and shirts.
Flannel, sometimes called flannelle or flanell, can be brushed or unbrushed. The material owes its enduring popularity to its two defining features: warmth and softness. Flannel is loosely woven, allowing it to wick away moisture.
History of Flannel
Flannel’s history reaches back to 17th century Wales. The country had an abundance of sheep, and textile workers used leftover wool to make warm, soft, moisture-wicking material. The crafters made the soft material from worsted yarn and napped it on one or both sides.
The warm, moisture-wicking shirts appealed to farmers working in the cold, rainy outdoors.
The shirts’ popularity exploded and transcended beyond outdoor workers: the working-class embraced flannel and its comfort and flexibility.
Its affordability, warmth, and durability made it an instant border crossing hit. The fabric migrated to France and England, clothing workers during the Industrial Revolution.
Britain spread flannel awareness during its colonial epoch. The fabric hopped the pond to America, instantly enchanting the citizenry. During the Civil War, Americans dressed soldiers in flannel undershirts and uniforms.
During World War One, the army included a flannel layer in soldiers’ uniforms. Hamilton Carhartt opened a flannel manufacturing company in Detroit, Michigan, in 1889. The factory produced workers’ uniforms and remains a titan of the industry today.
Grunge claimed plaid flannel as their own in the 90s. Many people still primarily associate the material with Nirvana and Pearl Jam.
Properties and Characteristics of Flannel
Three product features typify flannel fabric: softness, warmth, and moisture-wicking ability.
The softness is the result of three things:
- The fibers used-primarily cotton or wool-are soft
- The weave is loose
- Flannel is napped on one or both sides.
Flannel is a warm fabric that holds heat well. Because of this, the material is often used for bedsheets, shirts, and pajamas.
Flannel is woven loosely, allowing air to circulate through the fibers. This ventilation creates moisture wicking. This characteristic makes flannel exceptionally comfortable for pajamas and work uniforms. Flannel keeps wearers warm, which may cause a person to sweat. The fabric’s ability to wick moisture away instead of absorbing it helps keep wearers comfortable.
Weavers originally made flannel from wool, but most modern flannel is cotton.
Types of Flannel
Flannel is as multi-functional as it is popular. The fabric has many variations, determined primarily by the fibers used to weave it and the napping.
Flannel owes its popularity and longevity to wool. Welsh farmers originally wove the fabric from soft leftover woolen fibers. While a great deal of contemporary flannel is cotton, wool still holds an allure.
Most European flannels are still wool. Additionally, the material makes the best suits, benefitting from the way it hangs and its durable nature.
Cotton flannel is, as the name suggests, flannel woven from cotton fibers. This sort of flannel is exceptionally soft and warm. Cotton flannel makes excellent bedsheets and pajamas, owing to its smooth texture.
Cotton flannel’s popularity took off during Britain’s colonial epoch, particularly in America, where cotton grew readily.
Flannelette mimics flannel in design and softness. However, the fabric is cheaper, made with synthetic materials instead of cotton or wool. While flannelette makes very comfortable bedsheets and shirts, it isn’t as durable as flannel.
- Leopold Lairitz created vegetable flannel in the 1800s as a hypoallergenic alternative for people with wool allergies. The fabric uses Scots pine fibers for its weave, resulting in a hemp-like material—vegetable flannel shares traditional flannel softness but not its popularity.
The material largely fell out of fashion in the 1900s. It is still worn today by vegans and those with wool allergies.
Taking its name from the former name of Sri Lanka, Ceylon flannel is incredibly soft. It’s differentiated from traditional flannel by the materials used to weave it. The fabric is equal parts cotton and wool.
Favored by parents who prefer reusable diapers, diaper flannel is napped on both sides to increase absorbency. Additionally, it is incredibly soft to protect the delicate skin of a baby’s bottom.
Flannel diapers are durable and designed to withstand multiple washes and drawings. If maintained well, flannel can diaper two children through the potty training years.
Baby flannel is napped on both sides to create the softest possible fabric. The material is woven of cotton, wool, or a blend of the two.
Baby flannel makes durable, soft clothing, bedding, and blankets. While crafters can use baby flannel for sewing anything they desire, the fabric is made in soft solid colors and covered in adorable prints to appeal to kids.
Synthetic flannels are composed of inorganic fibers like polyester and nylon. The fabric is flame, wrinkle, and stain resistant. It is also inexpensive to produce. However, it is neither as soft nor as durable as traditional flannels.
How is Flannel Made?
From grain to fabric, flannel production takes four steps: base material production, spinning the yarn, weaving the fabric, and the final treatments.
Making the Base Material
Attaining the base material means harvesting the fibers. Assuming you are making an organic flannel, the base material will be cotton or wool. The flannel producer would need to sheer the sheep or harvest the cotton.
Synthetic flannels need to manufacture the fibers they use.
Spinning the Yarn
The fibers must be spun into yarn before they can be woven. Spinning yarn requires a great deal of pulling, twisting, and stretching. Modern technology expedites the process, but the principles remain the same-twisting, pulling, stretching, and repeating. Wool is among the simplest fibers to spin.
Weaving the Fabric
Weaver uses either a twill or a plain weave to make flannel. These methods create a durable but flexible material.
- Twill Weave: Twill is executed via a series of parallel, diagonal weaves. One side of the fabric is usually darker than the other. The weave uses a high thread count, creating a strong, durable material.
- Plain Weave: Plain weave is what most of us think about when we consider weaving. Crafters alternate strands in an over and under pattern. This weave creates a balanced fabric that looks the same on the front and the back.
Once the fabric is woven, crafters nap it on one of both sides. Napping uses fine wire bristles to distress fiber, making it softer.
Applying Final Treatments
Flannel’s final treatments vary depending on the fiber used to weave the fabric. Synthetic flannels receive a flame-resistant coating, while wool and cotton varieties are treated in several different ways.
How is Flannel Used?
Flannel’s warmth and durability make it ideal for myriad uses. Among the most common are: clothing, houseware, and accessories.
Crafters can use flannel to sew any number of things. Flannel fabrics are adaptable; though many associates the material with the classic red or green plaids, flannel comes in myriad colors and patterns.
Skilled crafters can use flannel fabric for everything from quilting to making apparel.
Keep a few things in mind when planning a flannel project:
The material is thick, so be sure to use a strong needle.
Flannel is prone to shrinkage. Buy an extra yard of whatever flannel you select to ensure you have sufficient product for your crafts.
While many people associate flannel with the plaid shirts of grunge singers, the fabric features across the fashion spectrum, from haute couture to simple pajamas.
Flannel’s origins are working class, and the material still clothes many a blue-collar worker. The fabric is warm and soft, making it ideal for outdoor labor.
However, pure wool flannel also makes for a beautiful, formal suit. Early James Bonds wore flannel suits, a sure mark of poshness and style. The fabric’s loose weave drapes elegantly, creating a dapper suit for cooler weather.
Flannel is a popular option for pajamas. The material is warm, soft, and flexible, making it ideal for bedclothes. Additionally, the weave wicks away any sweat warmer sleepers may produce.
Flannel’s soft drapability makes it ideal for various homewares, including curtains and tablecloths. However, the fabric is most commonly used to make sheets and blankets.
Flannel sheets are ideal for the winter months. The bedclothes are incredibly soft and warm, but they also trap your body heat in a little cocoon, keeping it from escaping. The weave allows a certain amount of ventilation, but flannel sheets are optimal for colder conditions.
Flannel is a durable fabric that makes for high-quality, long-lasting accessories. Flannel hats are warm and soft, ideal for colder weather. Flannel bags endure the elements while carrying our earthly possessions.
Flannel scarves are well-sought after. The soft fabric feels pleasant against the skin and helps to insulate against the cold.
Advantages of Flannel
Flannel owes its enduring popularity to its many desirable features. The fabric is warm, soft, and adaptable.
Flannel is an incredibly warm fabric. The weave helps keep body heat in, so the warmth continues for as long as a person wears or sleeps beneath the flannel.
Flannel is made of soft fibers like cotton and wool. The fabric feels pleasant against the skin, both because of the fibers used and the napping that is done to one or both sides of the material.
While flannel’s weave effectively captures the heat, it also allows for the ventilation necessary to wick away moisture. Those wearing flannel or using flannel bedding won’t be trapped in their sweat.
Flannel uses a simple but sturdy weave. The structure is strong and can endure a great deal of abuse. Flannel’s durability makes it a good investment; clothes, sheets, and accessories made from the material will last for a considerable amount of time.
Easy to Care For
Flannel is easily maintained, a huge perk for any fabric used to make clothes and sheets. You don’t need to dry clean flannel; regular washing machines suffice. The steps for care are simple and easily followed:
- Machine wash using warm, not hot, water
- Use a mild detergent to avoid fading. While regular detergent won’t destroy the fabric, it will dull the color.
- Use either the permanent press or gentle cycles.
- Add a fabric softener to avoid lint accumulation. If you intend to dry your flannel in a machine, you can wait until then to add the softener. However, if you plan to air dry your flannel, add the fabric softener during the rinse cycle.
- Line or machine dry. Use low heat for machine drying, as it will help maintain the flannel’s integrity.
Proper care is essential to the longevity of your flannel.
Flannel hasn’t abandoned its working-class roots. Customers can buy flannel fabric at a reasonable price, depending on the type and fibers used to weave the material.
Disadvantages of Flannel
Flannel’s pros far outweigh its cons; however, users must be aware of the fabric’s drawbacks and how to combat them.
Pilling is the formation of little balls on a fabric. The occurrence is a direct result of the flannel’s napping; the brushed fibers form the small orbs, which lessen the fabric’s softness. The following measures counteract pilling:
- Choose your flannel carefully: synthetic blends are more likely to pill than organic flannels. One hundred percent cotton flannel is unlikely to pill at all.
- Add some vinegar to your wash cycle: Include a half cup of vinegar in your wash cycle.
- Stick to warm water when you wash your flannel.
- Air dry: When brushed fabrics rub against other materials, it often causes pilling. Hanging flannel to dry protects the fabric from pushing up against other materials that may create pills.
- Use a fabric shaver: These little devices are explicitly designed to remove pilling.
Bleeding and Running Colors
Flannel fabric is prone to bleeding. The top means of prevention is proper cleaning. Try these tricks to prevent flannel material’s colors from running:
- Add one cup of vinegar to the rinse cycle.
- Add half a cup of salt to the wash cycle.
- Add color catcher sheets to your wash cycle.
Flannel is prone to shrinking. Nobody wants their favorite shirt or sheets to lose necessary inches suddenly. Heat is the most common cause of shrinkage. To avoid this occurrence, follow careful cleaning rules.
- Use warm or cool water for the washing.
- Use low heat in drying machines.
- Air drying is the best way to ensure your flannel maintains the correct size.
Read flannel’s tags carefully. They should indicate whether or not the piece has been pre-shrunk. Keep in mind, that even pre-shrunk flannel can reduce its size if exposed to too much heat.
For many, flannel’s warmth is an asset, but for some, it’s a liability. Whether flannel’s heating ability is a boon or a bane depends entirely on the individual. Determine whether you run hot or cold, and don’t be seduced by flannel’s softness. The fabric may simply be too toasty for your taste.
Alternatives to Flannel
Flannel doesn’t appeal to everyone. Those looking for an alternative warm, durable fabric shouldn’t despair; other options are available.
Denim is an easily recognizable twill fabric, well-suited to keep out the cold. It is sturdy but soft. Like flannel, denim has blue-collar roots and is designed to endure whatever abuse a wearer puts them through.
Corduroy is an incredibly soft, warm fabric. The thick material is ribbed velour, creating a secure barrier between the wearer and external conditions.
While Crafters can use cotton to weave flannel, it can also be woven into a material all its own. Cotton fabric is soft but less warm than flannel. Those looking for a lightweight alternative to flannel while maintaining the buttery texture may prefer cotton.
Fleece is one of the softest, warmest fabrics available. While it lacks flannel’s breathability, the material maintains its shape and integrity better. Made of synthetic materials, fleece thoroughly retains heat.
Where is Flannel Produced?
While flannel originated in Wales, it’s spread widely over the globe. Flannel’s current production depends a great deal on where the most significant quantities of the materials used to weave it are produced: China, Australia, and India.
China corners the market on synthetic fibers. While synthetic fibers are less durable, warm, and soft than their organic counterparts are, they are remarkably cheaper, upping their popularity.
Many nations have moved away from synthetic fiber production to be more environmentally sound. China, however, still produced massive quantities of the materials, making them the most prolific manufacturer of synthetic flannel.
Australia produces more wool than any other country. The country’s sheep far outnumber its citizens. Merino wool, used to make the softest flannel, comes from Merino sheep, an animal Australia has in abundance. Their abundance of wool allows Australia to follow in Wales’s footsteps, producing the largest supply of wool flannel.
India takes the title for cotton flannel production. The country produces 40 percent of the world’s cotton, giving them an obvious edge in the cotton flannel production field.
How Much Does Flannel Cost?
Hearkening back to its working-class roots, flannel is a relatively inexpensive fabric. Precisely how inexpensive depends on a few determining factors:
- The Fiber Used: Each of the three primary textiles used to make flannel carries its own price tag. Synthetic materials are always cheaper than organic ones, so polyester or nylon blends are the cheapest, followed by cotton. Wool is the most expensive flannel option.
- Weaving Quality: Put simply, customers pay for quality. Mass-produced flannel is cheaper but less durable. While masterfully woven flannel is more expensive initially, it lasts longer and will save a customer money in the long run.
- Extras: Any dyes or treatments added to the fabric after production adds a nominal expense.
Taking into account these considerations, flannel is, for the most part, an affordable material.
Flannel suits are couture and will undoubtedly cost a great deal. However, that expense owes more to the designers than the fabric.
What Certifications are Available for Flannel?
Flannel is eligible for certain certifications, depending on the materials used to produce the fabric and the means of weaving. These include:
- Woolmark: The Woolmark certification is only available for wool flannel. This label indicates that the fabric adheres to Australian Wool Innovation’s (AWI) standards and that the material is comprised of 100 percent real wool.
- Global Recycle Standard: This certification can apply to flannel made of any fibers, provided they’re recycled.
- Global Organic Textile Standard: The Global Organic Textile Standard applies only to organic flannel. This certification indicates that the material was made sustainably and supports environmentally and socially responsible production.
- OEKO-TEX Standard 100: The OEKO-TEX Standard 100 is the most prestigious and meaningful textile certification. It ensures that fabric is made responsibly and to the highest standards.
What is the Environmental Impact of Flannel?
Flannel production can be sustainable, but its precise environmental impact depends on a few variables, the most telling of which is the fibers used to make the fabric.
Synthetic fibers impact the environment negatively. They are made in pollution-producing factories. Additionally, producing synthetics requires fossil fuels and chemicals that harm the environment.
Wool can be harvested sustainably. However, any process reliant on raising animals risks environmental damage. Introducing more of a species than the ecosystem is adapted to throws the food chain out of balance.
Cotton production is the most ecologically sound, provided it is performed using fair trade practices.
Additives such as dyes or flame retarders can harm the environment.
Wool and cotton are both biodegradable, so flannel made of 100 percent organic materials will eventually deteriorate naturally.
Flannel remains a beloved material, embraced for its softness, warmth, and durability. The fabric has come a long way from its humble beginnings in Wales, where weavers used extra wool to craft the fabric to protect them from the cold, wet environment.
Currently, China, India, and Australia produce the world’s most significant supply of flannel. The thick material is a timeless fabric used to make high-quality shirts, sheets, and pajamas.