A Brief History of Flannel

Dorothea-Lange---Five-members-of-Ola-self-help-sawmill-co-o
Photo by Dorothea Lange

We’d say “It’s flannel season”, but let’s face it – it’s always flannel season. Under your ski jacket, over your hiking gear, at the farmers market or in between the sheets (even the sheets themselves!), there’s always a place for flannel. So how did a cozy, brushed wool workshirt end up in nearly every American’s closet? A few good sheep and some very catchy lumber marketing.

b9b96dae800d4a99470dbcd6ecba9b7717th Century –  The first flannel fabric emerges in Welsh farmhouses where wool is hand spun and woven into fabric to supplement meager means. Flannel differs from regular wool because it’s brushed on both sides. Sturdy enough to stand up to harsh Welsh winters but soft enough to kiss the skin.

1789 – The first carding mill is set up at Dolorbran, Wales as part of the Industrial Revolution. The carding machine separates wool and turns it into yarn, allowing for quick, mass production of flannel.

1861 – US Civil War breaks out and thousands of Union soldiers are clothed in flannel undershirts. It’s a cheap, tough, lightweight material that gets a good reputation during harsh winters.

1889 – Hamilton Carhartt sets up a factory in Detroit, MI to reinvent the working man’s uniform. He produces flannel long johns and work overalls for the blue collar workers as railroads and factories expand west.

1916 – Paul Bunyan is created as the mascot for the Red River Lumber Company. In his red plaid flannel shirt and blue jeans, Paul Bunyan becomes a symbol of rugged manliness and an icon for loggers and lumberjacks everywhere.

1930s – The Great Depression leaves international economies in the dust and forces millions onto the streets. The US government hands out old military flannel to men, women and children in dire need.

1941 – The famous Parsons M1941 field jacket is sported by American GIs in WWII. The heavy wool service coat from WWI is replaced with a cotton windbreaker with wool flannel lining. The new jacket is sportier, water and wind resistant, and has women across the country swooning.

1956 – The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit starring Gregory Peck tells the story of a vet-turned-businessman navigating post-war life. Wool suits for businessmen become the norm and flannel becomes a staple in middle and upper class households.

1963 – “Surfer Girl”, by the Beach Boys hits the top of the charts. The boys are featured on the album cover holding a surfboard in matching Pendleton plaid shirts, ushering flannel into surf culture.

1980’s – “The Dukes of Hazzard” airs on CBS and follows the misadventures of Bo, Luke and Daisy Duke. The sales of red flannel shirts and cut-off jeans shorts skyrocket.

1991 – Nirvana releases their second album, “Nevermind” and solidifies the Grunge Movement in the Pacific Northwest. Plaid flannel shirts become a national symbol of the anti-establishment, raging against the idea of the man in the gray flannel suit.

2000’s – Sport coats to mini-skirts, handbags to holiday PJs, high fashion to hand-me-downs, flannel has found its way into every market. The future looks cozy and bright for flannel.

4 thoughts on “A Brief History of Flannel

  1. Also being criticized in the ’80s and ’90s for my flannel shirt regular set-up — not just anti-establishment against gray-flannel suit, but not wanting to wear the pastel pinks and teals of the miami-vice clones. “Gee whiz, how come when we go to bars to pick up chicks you wear flannel shirts?”

  2. Interesting article. Since it seems that flannel technique was traditionally used on wool, was there any specific time or movement that caused the transition to modern times where most flannel garments that are currently found are made of cotton? Or is it because wool is now more expensive than cotton is? So it’s more cost effective for manufactures to use the cotton instead of wool?

    Thank you,
    Kat

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