Warm. Comfortable. Durable. Everyone loves flannel. But, not everyone knows its rich history. The flannel shirt stands alone as the most universally recognized symbol of Americana -- and specifically, of the American outdoorsman. But, flannel didn’t start here; the history of flannel actually begins in 17th century Wales.
No one is sure who named it (the Germans called it flannel; the French called it flanelle), but flannel provided superior protection against Wales’ unforgivingly wet and windy winters, and the country’s multitudes of sheep provided ample wool for this soft, woven material. The fabric was napped on one or both sides by rubbing the fabric with a fine metal brush to raise the fibers from the loosely spun yarn; this process formed the trademark nap and softness loved and recognized in flannel.
Because it was affordable, warm, and durable, flannel’s popularity quickly spread across Europe, and wool factories began popping up all over England and France. The Industrial Revolution and the expansion of carding mills (where wool is prepared for spinning) further accelerated the spread of flannel as its production became more efficient.
In its earliest days in the United States, flannel was used during the Civil War as an inexpensive, sturdy material for soldiers’ basic coats and undershirts. Although it was easily accepted as a working man’s fabric, the credit for its surge in popularity goes to Hamilton “Ham” Carhartt.
Hamilton Carhartt founded his namesake company in 1889 with the mission to improve the working man’s uniform in the United States. He opened his factory in Detroit and began producing tough flannel garments specially made for the working class. In these early years, flannel was used to make one-piece long underwear (“union suits”) for construction and railroad workers. By the turn of the century, flannel had become a global staple in men’s clothing and had secured its position as the working man’s shirt.
During WWI, flannel found itself in the military again, constructing soldiers’ uniforms, undershirts, belts, and bandages, further establishing the American people’s familiarity with the reliable and now commonplace material.
Enter: the 1930’s and The Great Depression. Class barriers now broken, men who once wore suits and ties found themselves donning the flannel shirts of the common laborer. By the 1950’s the notion of “The American Dream” had emerged in American culture and taken root. Being a working-class man was no longer a source of shame, but rather the fertile ground for a man to pull himself up by his bootstraps and work from the bottom up.
American folklore served to further solidify the flannel shirt as the iconic symbol of the rugged American man. Popular culture celebrated the heroics of Paul Bunyan, the mythical giant perpetually clad in a red plaid flannel shirt with an ax in one hand and an ox by his side. Flannel shirts symbolized manly pride and independence, chopping wood and building fires, self respect and an honest day’s work.
Interestingly, the 1950’s also saw the sophistication of flannel. As the American man began to work himself back up from the bottom, grey flannel suits became the standard for businessmen. Once again, popular culture fanned the flannel flame, featuring grey flannel suits in critically acclaimed novels and films well through the 1960’s.
The 1990’s music scene brought us Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and the resurgence of the flannel shirt. The antithesis of the crisp grey flannel suit, flannel shirts became the trademark symbol of “grunge” and non-conformity.
Even now, flannel shirts remain the symbol of easy style, warmth, and comfort. Crossing nearly all imaginable barriers, today’s flannel is worn by laborers and executives, white collar and blue collar, for work or play.
Like the rugged men who’ve always worn it, the history of flannel boasts an impressive journey of changing with the times while holding to its roots.