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What is Flannel Fabric: Properties, How its Made and Where

by Boris Hodakel  • December 11, 2019 • 6 min read

Fabric name Flannel
Fabric also known as Flannelle, flanell
Fabric composition Various soft fibers that are either brushed or unbrushed
Fabric possible thread count variations Up to 1,000+
Fabric breathability Varies depending on the constituent fabrics
Moisture-wicking abilities Varies depending on the constituent fabrics - generally high
Heat retention abilities Varies depending on the constituent fabrics - generally medium to high
Stretchability (give) Medium
Prone to pilling/bubbling Medium
Country where fabric was first produced Wales (most likely)
Biggest exporting/producing country today Varies depending on the constituent fabrics - China, Australia, or India
Recommended washing temperatures Varies depending on the constituent fabrics
Commonly used in Shirts, button-downs, blouses, cardigans, sweaters, vests, bedsheets, blankets, upholstery

What is flannel fabric?

Essentially, “flannel” simply refers to any cotton, wool, or synthetic fabric that fulfills a few basic criteria:

  • Softness: Fabric must be incredibly soft to be considered flannel.
  • Texture: Flannel has either a brushed or unbrushed texture, and both textures are equally iconic.
  • Material: While many materials can be used to make flannel, not all materials are suitable for this fabric. Silk, for instance, is too fine to be made into flannel, which is supposed to be both soft and insulative.

Flannel in history

It’s believed that the word“flannel” emerged in Wales, but we know for a fact that the term was in common usage in France in the form “flannelle” as early as the 17th century. While flannel was periodically popular among the French and other European peoples throughout the Enlightenment era, interest has waned elsewhere while Welsh flannel use has only increased.

Flannel today

These days, types of flannel are often known by their association with certain Welsh towns or regions. Llanidloes flannel is very different from Newtown flannel, for instance, and Welsh flannel varieties vary significantly from all other European flannel types.

As plaid experienced a brief resurgence in popularity in the 1990s, flannel also became in higher demand. Over the years, however, the definition of “flannel” has loosened and separated from the original Welsh meaning. Nowadays, fabrics made with artificial fibers are considered to be in the same general category as traditional Welsh flannel garments that have been passed down through the generations.

Flannel vs. plaid

Flannel is not the same thing as plaid. While plaid refers to a particular pattern that can be reproduced on any fabric or interior surface, flannel is a type of fabric that has been created with softness in mind. While some plaid shirts and other types of plaid apparel are made from flannel, not all plaid garments are flannel.

How is flannel fabric made?

There are a few stages in the production of flannel fabric:

Base material production

First, the base material for flannel is acquired. Depending on the type of end product desired, this material may be cotton, wool, or a synthetic textile. Finer fabrics like silk are not suitable for flannel production.

Yarn spinning

Next, the textile yarn is spun in much the same way that other fabric yarn is constructed. Some considerations may be made for yarn that’s intended for use in flannel, but the main distinguishing marks of this fabric appear during the weaving stage.

Fabric weaving

A twill or plain weave is usually used to make flannel, and the woven fabric may be napped on one or both sides to create a soft texture that hides the weave. Napping is a process that distresses the spun fiber and makes it take on the appearance of unspun fiber. Naturally, the fiber stays together since it has been woven into a matrix, but napping does decrease the durability of fabric somewhat.

Final treatments

Synthetic flannel is often provided with a flame-retardant coating that may be toxic. Wool is naturally flame-resistant, and any number of treatments may be applied to cotton flannel. If you’re looking for the safest, most organic flannel on the market, merino wool flannel is probably a good choice.

How is flannel fabric used?

Flannel fabric is used in a variety of market categories including:

Apparel

The plaid flannel button-down is iconic of the outdoors lifestyle, and this look has been repeated countless times with fabrics other than the original wool. In addition to shirts, flannel is often used in sweaters, cardigans, and other cold-weather layering garments.

Essentially, any cotton, wool, or synthetic garment that has been napped on one or both sides can be considered to be flannel. Further distinctions are generally only made by professionals in the apparel or textile industries.

Accessories

Flannel is sometimes used in bags, purses, and belts, often with a plaid color pattern.

Homewares

Due to its association with plaid, many decor items and other homewares feature flannel napping. This fabric type is especially popular in bedsheets; many consumers prefer flannel sheets during the winter due to their increased softness, moisture wicking, and perceived coziness.

Where is flannel fabric produced?

Depending on which material it’s made from, the world’s biggest flannel producer may be any of the following three countries:

Largest producer of wool

The world’s largest producer of wool is Australia. This country/continent has many more sheep than it has people, and the majority of these sheep are merino.

Largest producer of cotton

India is the world’s biggest producer of cotton. This country has long been a major textile producer, but it has recently supplanted its main competitor, China, in certain natural textile categories.

Largest producer of synthetic textiles

The title of largest synthetic textile manufacturer goes to China. While most of the world has moved largely away from synthetic fabrics as part of the “green boom,” this communist country continues producing large quantities of polyester, nylon, and other common synthetic fabrics that are sometimes used to make flannel.

How much does flannel fabric cost?

The price of flannel fabric depends on a variety of factors:

The textiles used

Cotton is often more expensive than polyester or other textiles used to make flannel. High-grade wool costs more than either, so take the nature of your fabric into consideration as you work out pricing.

The quality of the weave

Some flannel weavers are masters of their craft, and other factories mass-produce cheap bolts of sub-par fabric. Companies that focus on sustainability and organic, natural fibers are also, as a general rule, more likely to create high-quality flannel fabric.

Additional treatments or dyes

Flannel that is flame-retardant or waterproof may be somewhat more expensive.

What different types of flannel fabric are there?

There are quite a few distinctive sub-types of flannel fabric:

1. Wool flannel

Welsh flannel was traditionally made from wool, and most European flannel types are also woolen. Until recent centuries, cotton was not as commonly used in Europe since it was primarily produced in India.

2. Cotton flannel

Cotton flannel became more popular during the Colonial expansionist period, and this material remains highly sought after for soft, rich flannel garments or bedsheets with napping on both sides.

3. Synthetic or mixed flannel

Many types of flannel on the market today are made with synthetic materials like polyester or nylon instead of natural fibers. Artificial textiles are more flammable, and they are harder on the environment.

4. Ceylon flannel

Originally developed in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), this type of flannel consists of a 50/50 blend of cotton and wool.

5. Baby flannel

This flannel is napped on both sides and prized for its fineness. It can be made from any material that is usually used to make flannel, but wool and cotton provide the softests textures against sensitive baby skin.

6. Diaper flannel

While many parents wouldn’t think of their cotton, reusable baby diapers as being made of the same fabric as their winter bedsheets, the textile used to make these disposable diaper alternatives is technically a type of flannel. This fabric is napped on both sides to aid absorbency and comfort.

7. Vegetable flannel

Briefly, a type of flannel made from cellulose became popular in Europe during the 19th century. Vegetable flannel lost favor after petrochemical-based fabrics became available in the 20th century.

8. Flannelette

Flannelette is woven slightly differently than true flannel, which may result in a coarser texture. It can be made with any of the materials commonly used to weave flannel.

How does flannel fabric impact the environment?

There are a few factors that come into play when determining the environmental impact of flannel:

Types of materials used

Cotton pollutes less than synthetic textiles, but wool pollutes the least of all. Avoid perpetuating the use of toxic chemicals and pesticides by choosing natural fabrics that were produced with sustainable and organic practices.

Manufacturing processes

Depending on the dyes and other treatments used, the production of flannel fabric may have a greater or lesser negative impact on the environment. Sustainable companies that use ethical production processes are more likely to only use safe materials when making their fabric.

Fair trade marketing

Product dumping, non-tariff barriers, and other tricks of the trade can support certain unethical companies while stifling rightful competitors. Economic strife breeds ecological chaos, so we have to make an effort to uplift the communities that make our textile products.

Flannel fabric certifications available

Depending on the material that was used to make flannel fabric, a few different certifications may be applicable:

Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS)

GOTS is widely respected as the foremost authority on safe, sustainable, and ethical natural fabric manufacturing. Any product with the GOTS seal of approval is guaranteed to be produced in accordance with the highest possible quality standards.

Global Recycled Standard (GRS)

Synthetic materials don’t have to harm the environment. GRS helps companies that make an effort to use recycled materials in their textile products. Even natural fibers like wool can be recycled, so GRS has a wide purview.

Woolmark

This organization is one of the world’s biggest wool producers, but it’s also a highly respected certifying agency for other wool manufacturers around the world. Wool with the Woolmark logo was sourced with care and produced with ethical practices.

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About the author:

Boris Hodakel is the founder and CEO of Sewport - an online marketplace connecting brands and manufacturers, former founder of various clothing manufacturing services. He is passionate about e-commerce, marketing and production digitisation. Connect with Boris on LinkedIn.