Flannel shirts and Oxford shirts are two very popular yet distinctive variations of shirts. But while many believe they are simply different types of shirts, more accurately, they are distinctive types of fabric. Let’s take a quick look at both:
Flannel is a light, soft woven fabric traditionally made of wool, but also commonly combined with cotton. The fabric can be woven in either a plain weave or a twill weave, but the weave is typically hidden by brushing or “napping.” The brushing process involves rubbing the fabric with a fine metal brush to raise the fibers from the loosely spun yarn; this forms the trademark nap and softness everyone loves about flannel shirts.
Oxford material is defined by the unique weave of its fabric, and the Oxford shirt has its own unique history as well. Oxfords use a variation of a basketweave, bundling two threads together and woven as one vertically and a heavier yarn horizontally (or vice versa), and often in different colors. This method gives the fabric a distinctively “Oxford” texture and look.
Flannel can be traced back to 17th century Wales where it was a popular local textile. The spread of its use is closely tied to the expansion of carding mills -- which makes sense, as carding mills prepared the wool for spinning, and this is one of the first steps in the production of wool fabric. While the colors of modern flannel are determined by dyes, historically this was achieved by mixing black, brown, blue, and white wools in varying proportions. In centuries past, flannel was recognized simply as a textile used in various applications. In present-day North America, flannel shirts are often associated with woodsmen, lumberjacks, and farmers, likely due to the fabric’s popularity among workers who spend much of their time outdoors. But we can thank the grunge bands of the ’90s for thrusting plaid flannel shirts into their peak of popularity, solidifying flannel’s “plaid shirt” association that remains to this day.
The Oxford shirt was originally made in the 19th century by Scottish fabric mills. Interestingly, it’s actually one of four shirt fabrics named after universities. (The others were Yale, Harvard, and Cambridge; but only the Oxford remains.) Another distinctive feature is the button-down collar. Because of its comfort and breathability, Polo players would wear long sleeve Oxford shirts during their matches -- and the spectators would too. To keep the wind from blowing their collars up, spectators and players would button their collars down to their shirts. The modern-day Oxford shirt still commonly (but not always) includes that trademark button-down collar.