When it comes to fall fashion, there are few symbols of American culture that are as synonymous with the changing seasons as plaid flannel.
Known for its distinctive pattern, the once utilitarian clothing designed for comfort and warmth has since become a ubiquitous fashion icon, creating a trend that continues to live on to this day.
But where did it all begin? From lumberjacks, to rock musicians, and everyone in between, let’s take a closer look at the history of flannel, one thread at a time.
When Life Gives You Sheep, Make Flannel
Like most advancements in society, the need for flannel arose out of necessity. Faced with a chilling winter, and an over-abundance of sheep, the material was first crafted by the Welsh in the 17th century as a means to stay warm in an increasingly harsh climate.
The fabric, which was uniquely brushed on both sides, was a hit, and slowly made its way across Europe during the Industrial Revolution, as “carding” mills were able to produce the fabric cheaply and efficiently. Soon enough, the new fabric gained notoriety, and was named “flanelle” in France, and “flannell” in Germany.
As time passed, flannel slowly made its way to American shores, and in 1889, shortly after the civil war introduced the material to soldiers, Hamilton Carhartt built a factory in Detroit, MI to outfit the working man across the country with the new material.
It wouldn’t take long before the fabric’s signature plaid look was cemented in the public consciousness when the fictitious character Paul Bunyon was created in 1916 by the Red River Lumber Company, inspiring lumberjack everywhere to don the classic red-flannel look.
Let’s talk about plaid
As a quick aside, it should be noted that “plaid” and “flannel” are not interchangeable, despite their common pairing in the fashion industry. In short, “plaid” is a specific print (with its own unique history), and “flannel” is a fabric that can feature any number of prints. Moving on!
Flannel continued to weave itself into the fabric of our society throughout the remainder of the century, as the distinctive material was placed at the forefront of significant events in pop-culture.
In 1956 “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit” starring Gregory Peck was released, shifting cultural perception of the material from working class to upper class, and prompting businessmen everywhere to adopt the look as standard work attire.
Shortly thereafter, flannel shirts were appropriated by other celebrities in pop culture as well, from the Beach Boys to John Fogerty, as well as the television show “Dukes of Hazard.”
Despite flannel’s relative popularity, no one could have predicted what happened next.
With the release of their album “Nevermind” in 1991, Nirvana launched “grunge” music into mainstream popular culture, and the band’s flannel wearing rock stars sparked a resurgence in the fabric that helped define the look of a generation.
Today, flannel can be found in many shapes and forms, from bedding to pajamas — even dog blankets!
So next time you’re sporting that famous soft fabric, just remember the rich history of flannel!