By Rosie Wolf Williams
IT CAN BE BURLY, like the shirts worn by Paul
Bunyan or the lumberjack on those paper towels. It
might be as businesslike as a gray flannel suit, or as
sweet and soft as a baby’s blanket. Flannel is timeless
and timely—and always trendy.
The facts about flannel
Originally, flannel was made
from carded wool in the 17th century; its name may have been
derived from gwlan, the Welsh
word for wool. Carded wool is
raw wool that has been brushed
between two surfaces embedded with pins that break up
clumps and align the fibers, to
make it ready for spinning. The
wool is combed similarly to the
way we comb out tangled hair.
Wool is still prepared for spinning in the same way today.
Although flannel’s origins
are not certain, its versatility is
undisputed: It is used to create
blankets, shirts, underwear
and suiting fabric.
The term “flannel” de-
scribes not only a specific
weave of cloth, but also how it
is milled (washed with water
using wooden rollers). It is
often mistakenly interchanged
with the word “plaid.” However,
Today, flannel may be
made of wool, cotton or combinations of fibers.
Karen Herbaugh, curator of the American Textile
History Museum in Lowell, Massachusetts, explains that no matter the type of thread, the woven
fabric is always napped (brushed), raising the
surface of the fibers and creating pockets that trap
air. The result is a warmer, softer fabric that still
Flannel in America
Flannel eventually made the voyage to America
and was commonly used for bedding and petticoats.
Herbaugh cites museum archival records verifying
that American mills made flannel as early as 1823.
The one-piece flannel union suit was created in New
York in 1868 to offer an alternative to uncomfortable
women’s undergarments. But the underwear, tradi-
tionally made of red flannel, quickly became popular
with men. These “long johns” are still worn by
both men and women as winter undercloth-
ing or as pajamas.
Flannel goes to work
As industry flourished and the railroads began to move across the United
States, workers needed hard-wearing
clothes that could withstand harsh
weather conditions. In 1889,
Hamilton Carhartt created a clothing line that targeted the working
man, and by the 1900s his catalog
listed a blue flannel shirt that was lightweight and gave ease of movement.
Flannel shirts became a symbol of
the rugged American man. During the
Depression era, businessmen hung up
their gray flannel suits and donned flannel
shirts to take on laborious work. In 1936,
during a winter of subzero temperatures, a
New York writer stated that they were in
an “old-fashioned winter—and there are
no red flannels to go with it.” The Cedar
Springs, Michigan, newspaper answered
the writer with an editorial stating its city
had plenty of red flannel, and orders
started pouring in. The city has celebrated
with a Red Flannel Festival since 1939.
Flannel fans out, gets friendly
Today, flannel is manufactured all over
the world. J. Pereira Fernandes II SA is a
family-owned textile mill in Portugal that
supplies flannel bedding to Costco. The
mill creates flannel goods from 100 percent raw cot-
ton, using environmentally friendly methods. “We
are concerned with environmental protection, and
we are always trying to use products that are environ-
ment friendly,” says J.P. Fernandes, president of the
company. “More than 50 percent of our water is
recycled to be reused, and the other 50 percent is
then cleaned and treated before sending to local
No matter how it is used, flannel works hard,
plays hard, keeps you warm—and helps you stay
Rosie Wolf Williams is a freelance writer and voice
artist ( www.alwaysrosie.com).
From Gaelic to grunge —weaving
through flannel’s 400-year history
American folk hero
Paul Bunyan wore
flannel shirts (both
solid and plaid).
Pro baseball uniforms
were made of wool flan-
nel until the mid-1940s.
Kurt Cobain of the
band Nirvana led the
1990s “grunge” fashion
trend by wearing
plaid flannel shirts
regardless of the season.
SHUTTERSTOCK: PAUL BUNYAN / STECKFIGURES; FLANNEL / YELNAMI
Costco warehouses will be
carrying a variety of flannel shirts and bed sheets.
Colors and patterns may
vary by location.