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Flannel and plaid, that's a long story. Often confused, these two terms designate two very different realities. The confusion comes from the fact that these two notions are very often associated: flannel shirts often have a plaid pattern and clothes with plaid patterns are most often flannel shirts.
Confused? Simply put, flannel is a material while plaid is a type of pattern. In this article, we'll take a look at the history of these two concepts so you'll never be confused again.
What is flannel?
Flannel is a woven fabric of different fineness, most often made of cotton, carded wool or as today of synthetic fibers offering a very particular texture. This texture can be obtained thanks to a unique brushing technique (sometimes on both sides), giving the flannel its softness and unique characteristics. This brushing is done with a wire brush that rubs the fabric to lift the fine fibers of the fabric to form a unique down (and this on one or both sides). It is recognized mainly by three characteristics:
- softness: flannel is incredibly soft
- texture: flannel has two textures: brushed and unbrushed
- the material used: not all materials are suitable for making flannel, some are too thin, not soft enough or not insulating enough. Wool and cotton remain the two most popular materials.
This unique design not only offers a distinctive and recognizable style, but also plays a large role in the fabric's thermal capabilities, as the brushing of the threads allows for better heat retention. This explains why flannel has been a popular material for centuries to design winter clothing, blankets and accessories to keep people warm.
So yes, when you think of flannel, you think of shirts. This is indeed its main use nowadays but it is also widely used to design suits or pajamas, its warming power having quickly conquered the heart of the chilly people under the comforter. In general, flannel is a material of choice for winter clothing and blankets to be cozy by the fire.
Where does flannel come from?
The origin of the term is still uncertain even if many sources agree that its most probable origin is in Wales where a material, commonly called "Welsh cotton" and having characteristics similar to flannel was known as early as the 16th century. It is assumed that these early fabrics were used by Welsh shepherds to make blankets for the sheep in their flocks.
What is certain is that this material quickly made the tour of Europe, writings were found containing the words "flannel" in France in the 17th century and others containing the German "flanell" in the 18th century.
In Wales, its expansion took place during the 17th century where it gradually replaced other textiles made from wool and cotton, whose manufacturing processes were more rudimentary and the finishes more coarse. The automation and the diffusion of carding mills led to the expansion of its production to several towns in the country, its marketing being almost a monopoly of the Drapers Company of Shrewsbury.
It was then exported to neighboring regions and flannel quickly became popular in the design of Scottish kilts, forever forging a link between this garment and this material.
If we find today different flannels and that they have a local cultural anchorage, it is because at that time, the productions were localized and presented differences of colors, quality or softness. During the 20th century, silk and cotton were gradually introduced in the manufacturing process of flannel to make it more flexible, appealable and breathable, entering new segments and markets, such as flannel sports pants, especially for cricket.
Flannel crossed the Atlantic in the 18th century and quickly became a material used by the working class, as its rugged and thermal properties were appreciated on the building sites. At the beginning of the 20th century, flannel gentrified to become a national icon, notably thanks to certain fashions such as the University of Buffalo. Carried by the trend "no class-lotta style" which crossed the country until knowing its apogee ten years later, being then worn by many grunge icons like Nirvana.
What are the different types of flannel?
Many variations and imitations of this material were developed over time:
- Wool flannel: a traditional welsh wool based material, used all over Europe before cotton and synthetic fibers were introduced.
- Cotton flannel: a cotton based material that became popular during the Colonial period and that remained desired for its characteristics.
- Mixed flannel: a polyester or nylon based material, mainly used on the market today for its cheap price. Nothing compared to traditional wool flannel though.
- Flannelette: a napped cotton material imitating the original flannel but with coarser texture.
- Baby flannel: a lightweight and fine material mainly made of wool & cotton and used for children's clothes, that need the softests textures.
- Ceylon flannel: a 50/50 wool & cotton blend material developed in Ceylon (now called Sri Lanka)
- Diaper flannel : a robust two-side napped cotton material used in cloth diapers.
- Vegetable flannel: a scots pine cellulose material invented in the 1800s in Europe. It lost favor after synthetic textiles were introduced in the 20th century.
How is flannel fabric made?
The production of flannel is based on ancient techniques and has evolved very little over time, ensuring a homogeneous and high quality finish throughout the ages. The manufacture of flannel can be broken down into 4 major stages:
- Production of the basic material: depending on the period, the producer and the desired finish, the basic material can be wool, cotton or a synthetic textile. Some will prefer to get closer to the original material by using wool while others will look for a low-cost imitation by favouring synthetic fabrics
- Spinning the yarn: this process is similar if not identical to most spinning techniques. It is not at this stage that the distinctive characteristics of flannel appear.
- Yarn weaving: Flannel offers a very specific weaving. It can be woven in a twill or plain weave. The weave can be hidden by napping one or both sides depending on the desired feel. The napping process gives the fiber an appearance of unspun fiber.
- Fabric treatments: After being weaved and napped, the fabric is then bleached, dyed and then napped a second time. Natural cotton is naturally flame-resistant but it's not uncommon to find toxic flame-resistant coating on synthetic flannel.
What are the main uses of flannel?
As we have already discovered, flannel is a relatively warm and sturdy material. It is used to withstand harsh conditions and low temperatures. As a result, its main uses are in clothing, accessories and some household items.
- Clothing: we find the essential flannel plaid shirt, long prized by workers and lumberjacks, it has become an icon of the outdoor wanderlust look. It is easily declined in sweaters, jackets and other clothing prized by cold weather
- Accessories: to a lesser extent, flannel is used in the design of bags, purses and travel bags, as well as belts and other small leather goods.
- Household items: the warming power of flannel makes it a popular material for the design of sheets, comforters and blankets, while its association with plaid makes it a choice covering for decorative items.
📷 Credit: Carl Murawski's Youtube Channel
Why wear flannel?
Today, there seem to be 2 main reasons why I would wear flannel:
- It is a quality material, extremely efficient, which is more so if you opt for a merino wool flannel. Wearing a wool flannel shirt guarantees you comfort but also an efficient thermal regulation, wool being naturally insulating but also breathable.
- It is a material that has a rich and diverse history and is now anchored in the outdoor culture, at least as opposed to the suits of the city. It is a symbol of nature, freedom and wide open spaces (not for nothing a festival is dedicated to it in Michigan)
How to wear flannel?
Even though flannel is a material used overwhelmingly by the working class and blue collars, you don't have to be part of it to wear flannel in style. More and more, this material is gentrifying to be worn by the masses. This is especially true with monochrome flannel shirts with a slightly oversized waist.
It is suitable for all the events of your daily life and will easily match your outfits. You can also opt for plaid patterns, which are more connotative, less original and less versatile but bring structure and color to your outfits.
In any case, wear flannel only in cooler seasons, otherwise you may regret it and get a hot flash!
📷 Credit: Frugal Aesthetic's Youtube Channel
How to maintain flannel?
Like leather that develops a beautiful patina over time, flannel is a material that evolves, notably by becoming softer over time. It is extremely easy to care for, especially if it is made of wool or cotton.
We recommend washing in cold water and drying ideally in the open air or in a tumble dryer at low temperature.
📷 Credit: TSI Apparel's Youtube Channel
What is plaid?
Let's be clear again before we start this second part: plaid is not a fabric, it's a pattern. It was consecrated in Scotland a few centuries ago and is originally referred to as "tartan".
And yes, still different terms you will say. But the difference here is a bit more subtle. The term "plaid" was used by the Scots to designate a way to wear tartan. It referred to a long piece of tartan cloth worn on the shoulder as part of a tartan dress with a kilt.
Conversely, the "tartan" pattern is commonly known as plaid in North America. For the sake of readability, we will use the word plaid to refer to tartan patterns in the rest of this article.
These patterns are designed with dyed yarns of different colors that intersect vertically and horizontally at right angles to each other to create a variety of check patterns. Some of these patterns are recognizable. Scottish clans have their own patterns as do 21 American states that now have their own official plaid.
These patterns can be made with different fabrics, including the famous flannel we just examined. And it is precisely this love story of several hundred years between flannel and plaid that has created the confusion between the two terms.
Scottish mercenaries, assumed to be men of Mackay's Regiment landing in the Baltic port of Stettin in 1630 or 1631, Georg Cöler (1600-1638), Public Domain
Where does plaid come from?
While many people believe that plaid and flannel have a common discovery, they did not appear at the same time or place. It is however admitted that the plaid (thus the "tartan") was used since the 1700s in Scotland. Moreover, it is always associated in the collective imagination with Scotland because kilts almost always have plaid patterns.
However, its origin is much more distant. Patterns similar to plaid have been found in the remains of the Hallstatt culture, linked to the ancient Celtic populations of the 8th and 6th century BC, during the Iron Age. Traces of these patterns are also found in Chinese, European and Scandinavian cultures. The first documented "plaid" is the Falkirlk tartan, dating from the 3rd century AD and discovered near the Antony Wall.
The term "tartan" is probably derived from the French "tartarin", which referred to the clothing of the Tartar, a Turkish ethnic group, or from the Scottish Gaelic "tarsainn" which meant "across".
An Incident in the Rebellion of 1745, an oil on canvas, painting by David Morier (1705 - 1770) depicting the 1746 Battle of Culloden, 1746-1765, Royal Collection Trust, Public Domain
In 1746, the government wishing to diminish the influence of Gaelic culture on English society, issued the Dress Act prohibiting the various Scottish warrior clans from wearing plaid. This law was repealed in 1782, but plaid did not regain its place in everyday dress. Instead, it was adopted as a ceremonial and symbolic garment of Scotland, especially after King George IV wore a tartan kilt during his visit to Scotland in 1822.
Two major periods formed the evolution of plaid patterns. The first period lasted until the middle of the 19th century. At that time, patterns and colors were local, and responded to issues of everyday life. Local manufacturers adapted to the tastes of the villagers and used natural dyes with materials from the region. We therefore found regionalized patterns, more by constraint and practicality than claim.
After 1850, these patterns were attributed to clans, large families and even institutions, thus becoming carriers of values, meaning and symbolism.
In the middle of the 20th century, the tartan was democratized and partly detached from this symbolic aspect to enter the industry of fashion, clothing, decoration, coatings etc… However, some patterns such as the Black Watch or Hunting Stewart tartans are still codified so that some people only can wear them. Other patterns are protected by patents like the "Burberry Check".
📷 Credit: USA Kilts & Celtic Traditions's Youtube Channel
How is plaid made?
Plaid is a special weave of two pre-dyed threads, arranged on a warp and weft, which cross at right angles. When two similar colors intersect, the same color is obtained, when two different colors intersect, a third color is obtained. The number of possibilities increases significantly with the number of basic colors (a total of 6 basic colors produces 21 different colors). To create a pattern, we create a sequence of threads, called "sett", which we repeat or reverse after each point, called "pivots". It creates either a symmetric or an asymmetric pattern.
To name and classify the plaids, we look at the number of threads and colors used. This allows us to have a practical classification as follows. If we have a plaid named "K6 R26 K26 Y6", it means that it is composed of 6 black threads, 26 red threads, 26 black threads and 6 yellow threads.
📷 Credit: Highland Titles's Youtube Channel
What are the main uses of plaid?
Plaid is a pattern that has been widely used since the 1970s. Confined to symbolic and regional uses, it is now expanding into fashion and home décor. Burberry is part of this expansion with its famous "Burberry Check", which everyone recognizes at a glance.
In fashion and clothing, plaid patterns can be found on shirts (especially in flannel, seersucker or shirting fabric), but also on sweaters, jackets, hats and scarves. A real tidal wave!
One of the main reasons for the success of plaid patterns is that they are mostly all-purpose and versatile. You can wear them for special occasions like going for a Sunday morning walk, or relaxing by the fire in front of a good movie.
How to wear plaid?
Plaid patterns are special and you can't wear them with just anything, at the risk of fashion faux pas!
The most common association is, as you probably guessed, plaid and flannel, and this on a shirt, or a jacket.
Beware of the colors and the complexity of the patterns that can quickly be too much, especially at a time when minimalism and sobriety are keys. Do not hesitate to associate it with a second monochrome garment, in a complementary color to the basic colors of the plaid and with a simple shape. This will balance with the complexity and dynamism of the plaid.
After that, you are free to opt for eccentricity and to test the combinations that you like the most. After all, the important thing is that you feel good in your outfit.
Author: Axel Hindemith, Public Domain
To make it very simple,
- Plaid is a Scottish way of wearing a tartan cloth with a kilt. However, on the other side of the Atlantic, plaid is synonymous with the tartan pattern itself.
- Tartan is a pattern woven in a very particular and geometric way, that is nowadays also referred as "plaid" .
- Flannel is a fabric, most often made of wool or cotton, on which plaid/tartan patterns are often printed.
You are professionals in the etymology of these terms, and it is now up to you to give your friends a hard time at your next get-together when they mix flannel, tartan and plaid.