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The History of Flannel: A Timeline History of this Timeless Fabric

9/25/17 by RootsRated

Flannel is one of the most popular American fashion icons, equally beloved by everyone from hardcore adventurists to rugged tradesmen to style-savvy hipsters. It’s versatile and comfortable, warm and fashionable, showing up in rugged work shirts, athletic and outdoor wear, cozy pajamas, and even bed sheets.

Dig a little deeper, and you’ll find this fabric has a fascinating history to match its popularity, with humble roots that go all the way back to 16th-century Wales. With the rise of the Industrial Revolution, the fabric eventually made its way Stateside, and thanks to the likes of Eddie Vedder and hipster culture, remains as popular today as it was back then. Here, we take a look back at how the fashion phenomenon has evolved over the years—and why it isn’t going away anytime soon.

16th Century : Historians suggest that a fabric similar to flannel has been traced to Wales, where it became popular as a warmer, sturdier alternative to wool garments. It was made out of a type of fine, smooth yarn called worsted yarn and featured a finishing process on one or both sides called napping, which raises the fiber ends to the surface of the fabric to create a softer, warmer, and heavier material. As a result, it provided excellent protection against the notoriously cold, drizzly Welsh winters. The French called this fabric flanelle; the Germans, Flanell.

The plaid pattern of flannel, meanwhile, goes back a bit farther, tracing its origins to Celtic tartans to the 6th and 8th centuries. Today, flannel is often used interchangeably with plaid or tartan, even though the word flannel refers to the actual fabric, instead of its associated pattern.

1869 : According to some accounts, flannel shows up in the United States for the first time this year, making its way across the Atlantic as the Industrial Revolution gears up across the world. At the time, the United States was in the midst of rapidly expanding its railway system, which came with harsh, long hours of labor that required tough garments that could stand up to the task. Flannel was also used in underwear called long johns, and it became a staple fabric for bedding and other household uses.

Early 20th century : Logging, railroad building, and construction continued to dominate the American workforce, and flannel shirts and overalls become entrenched in the image of the blue-collar laborer. The fabric became even more commonplace during the Great Depression, when the economic downturn forced white-collar men to trade in their suits and ties for blue-collar garments.

1939 : Red Flannel Day marks its first year in Cedar Springs, Michigan, after the town became famous for its "drop-seaters"—flannel garments with a buttoned flap over the backside. To honor this history, the town still holds a popular Red Flannel Festival in the fall. Despite a rift between the city council and festival organizers in recent years that threatened its future, the festival is still going strong—just like its namesake fabric.

1950 : Flannel remains entrenched as a staple of the American laborer and increasingly is associated with a rugged, hardworking man. The symbol of masculinity of the day? Folklore legend Paul Bunyan, sporting his signature red tartan flannel shirt, with an ax resting on his shoulder and his trusty blue ox, Babe, at his side.

1978 : With his eye on becoming governor of Tennessee, now U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander walked 1,000 miles across the state wearing his signature red and black flannel shirt. The publicity stunt helped the avid outdoorsman win the office, where he remained for eight years. Meanwhile, throughout the 1970s, flannel shows up in the sports arena, especially in cricket as flannel trousers.

The Marmot Fall 1979-1980 catalog perfectly captured flannel’s changing nature.
The Marmot Fall 1979-1980 catalog perfectly captured flannel’s changing nature. Courtesy of Marmot

Early 1990s : Sparked by popular bands like Pearl Jam and Nirvana wearing flannel shirts as trademarks of their low-key looks, flannel catches on as the fashion staple of the grunge frenzy that swept across the country. Eager fans channeled their inner Eddie Vedder by sporting flannel in record numbers, and the trend eventually hit the mainstream, with flannel shirts showing up on runways and in the pages of glossy fashion magazines.

2010 : With the rise of hipsters and their love of maker culture, the cozy fabric hits new heights of coolness. Beloved by the demographic almost as much as artisan coffee (well, artisan anything) and ironic T-shirts, flannel makes a big-time comeback—worn fastened to the very top button, along with thick glasses, a knit cap, and work-style boots.

Flannels easily translate from trail to drinks, any day of the week. 
    Adam McKibben
Flannels easily translate from trail to drinks, any day of the week. Adam McKibben

2016-Beyond : Outdoor brands like Marmot take flannel to a whole new level with their line of stylish, multi-functional shirts and hoodies for men and women. Featuring COOLMAX® moisture-managing fabric, which is quick to wick and dry, these stylish wardrobe staples are as ideal for a hardcore hike as they are for happy hour.

Marmot has taken flannel to new heights with their line of Forge Flannel. On the men’s side, the classic Bodega Flannel LS features thoughtful touches like flat-felled seams and a double-brushed finish; for women, the Reagan Flannel blends the style of a hoodie with the timeless comfort of flannel. The Forge Flannel’s superior comfort and insulation makes you want to extend Flannel Fridays to everyday of the week.

As the popularity of outdoor adventure continues to rise, flannel’s place in American culture remains steadfast—just like the fabric itself.

Originally written by RootsRated for Marmot.