Flannel is a soft woven fabric, of various fineness. Flannel was originally made from carded wool or worsted yarn, but is now often made from eitherwool, cotton, or synthetic fibre. Flannel may be brushed to create extra softness or remain unbrushed. The brushing process is a mechanical process where a fine metal brush rubs the fabric to create fine fibers from the loosely spun yarns. Typically, flannel has either a single- or double-sided nap. Double-napped flannel refers to a fabric that has been brushed on both sides. If the flannel is not napped, it gains its softness through the loosely spun yarn in its woven form. Flannel is commonly used to make tartan clothing, blankets, bed sheets, and sleepwear.
The origin of the word is uncertain, but a Welsh origin has been suggested as fabric similar to flannel can be traced back to Wales, where it was well known as early as the 16th century. The French term flanelle was used in the late 17th century, and the German Flanell was used in the early 18th century.
Flannel has been made since the 17th century, gradually replacing the older Welsh plains, some of which were finished as “cottons” or friezes, which was the local textile product. In the 19th century, flannel was made particularly in towns such as Newtown, Montgomeryshire, Hay on Wye, and Llanidloes. The expansion of its production is closely associated with the spread ofcarding mills, which prepared the wool for spinning, this being the first aspect of the production of woollen cloth to be mechanised (apart from fulling). The marketing of these Welsh woollen clothes was largely controlled by the Drapers Company of Shrewsbury.
At one time Welsh, Yorkshire, Lancashire and Irish flannels differed slightly in character due largely to the grade of raw wool used in the several localities, some being softer and finer than others. While nowadays, the colour of flannel is determined by dyes, originally this was achieved through mixing white, blue, brown and black wools in varying proportions. Lighter shades were achieved by bleaching with sulphur dioxide.
Originally it was made of fine, short staple wool, but by the 20th century mixtures of silk and cotton had become common. It was at this time that flannel trousers became popular in sports, especially cricket, in which it was used extensively until the late 1970s.
After that woven polyester proved more economical than traditional flannel had been. Only a handful of companies are now able to supply traditional cricket whites now, which provides a challenge for the organisers of Flannels For Heroes, a London based event in which four cricket teams compete wearing traditional clothing in aid of charity.
The use of flannel plaid shirts was at peak in the 1990s with popular grunge bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam using them as one of their trademarks of their shaggy look.