A good flannel shirt should keep you dry in rain and snow, warm and comfortable in cooler weather and even last you for a decade or more — making the iconic flannel shirt ideal for wearing outdoors. Because flannel is warm and soft to the touch, it’s typically a cold-weather fabric perfect for things like bundling up around a campfire with a cup of hot chocolate, fall hiking, fishing and more.
But don’t be fooled by the term “flannel shirt.” Often, what looks like a flannel shirt on an outdoor website isn’t actually made of flannel.
What is flannel?
Flannel is a material, not a pattern. Which means flannel isn’t always plaid or tartan (patterns that can be displayed on flannel fabric). Flannel is a loosely woven fabric most commonly woven with cotton or wool that’s brushed or napped to make it soft and cozy. Napping is a raised surface on a textile that is a result of brushing loose staple fibers out of the fabric structure. The nap makes the fabric feel softer and traps air that serves as insulation.
History of flannel
Clothiers have designed and produced flannel shirts since the 17th century, and flannel fabric can be traced to that era in Wales. But historically, flannel shirts were made of worsted yarn (a fine smooth yarn spun from combed long-staple wool) or carded wool (brushed wool fibers in a continuous line).
Over time, clothing makers began producing flannel from both cotton (known as cotton flannel) and wool (known as wool flannel). Flannel fabric eventually made its way to England and France, where it blossomed into the working class fabric of choice during the Industrial Revolution. And, flannel eventually made its way across the seas, spreading in popularity in the 20th century during World War I, when the United States included a flannel layer in soldiers’ uniforms to provide extra warmth.
The rise of the plaid flannel shirt came in during the 1990s and by the 2000s — plaid flannel shirts became a fashion statement as well as a popular piece of clothing for outdoors and camping looks. The flannel shirt is an American iconic fall/winter shirt still today.
Although flannel can be woven with wool, the softest and coziest flannel is 100 percent cotton.
Here are 7 of the best flannel shirt recommendations for you — 6 cotton flannel and 1 wool flannel:
1. L.L. Bean Scotch Plaid Flannel Shirt
The Scotch Plaid Flannel Shirt by L.L. Bean (available for both men and women) is a classic tried and true flannel shirt made of high-quality Portuguese cotton flannel. Their flannel fabric is meticulously woven with longer-staple cotton, which means the individual cotton fibers are about one-quarter inch longer than short-staple fibers, making a huge difference in fabric strength and quality. Then, it’s meticulously brushed eight times on each side and given a “touch test” by a master weaver to declare it soft enough. The collar also buttons down to keep your look sleek and clean.
You can purchase this flannel shirt in a variety of plaid patterns and colors. The men’s version is looser and fits like other L.L. Bean shirts (running a little bigger). The women’s version is slightly fitted for a more figure-flattering fit, but you can also find this classic flannel shirt in a relaxed fit or even with a hood.
2. MuskOx The Grand Flannel Heavy-Weight Shirt
The men’s MuskOx Grand Flannel heavy-weight long sleeve shirt is made of a heavy duty cotton twill with a soft brush finish, making it strong enough for outdoor adventures while still being comfortable. With two chest pockets, you can easily stow your small valuables and it comes with a locker loop so you can hang it just about anywhere you have access to a small hook.
This button-down heavy-weight flannel is ideal for fall and winter outdoor wear, and can also be worn as a light jacket or as a mid-layer under a winter coat. It’s also versatile enough to wear to more formal events like Thanksgiving dinner.
3. Patagonia Fjord Flannel Shirt
This no-frills men’s and women’s Patagonia Fjord Flannel shirt is made of 100 percent virgin organic cotton flannel and is buttery soft! According to Patagonia, less than 1 percent of the cotton grown worldwide is organic. You can find it in a variety of plaid color blends or even fashion-forward modern solid colors like Jaspe Twist Birch White for women and Reworked Fjord Heathered Gray for men. You can even match your adventure mini as Patagonia also offers the Fjord Flannel shirt in baby and child sizes ranging from 3 Months to 5T.
This Fjord Flannel shirt is made to be worn across a broad temperature range as it’s medium weight (not meant to be a jacket or a “shacket”). It’s also a great choice to wear skiing (as a mid layer) and versatile enough to wear on it’s own outside for social gatherings — from summer nights to fall picnics, it’ll keep you cozy. The dual front button pockets are great for stowing away small valuables.
4. Women’s Duluth Trading Co. Free Swingin’ Flannel Tunic Shirt
The women’s Duluth Trading Co. Free Swingin’ Flannel Tunic shirt is made of plush 100 percent cotton flannel fabric and is the perfect shirt to pair with any outdoor leggings. The longer cut and drop-tail hem give you extra coverage and doesn’t restrict your movement.
You can wear this plaid pattern flannel shirt for work-heavy weeks and fun-packed weekends. It’s comfy and has a shirt-collar neckline and hidden underarm gussets allowing you to easily complete tasks like chopping wood. It also has convertible (roll-up) sleeves to keep your wrists cool. And, there is a built-in Shirttail Shammy so you can polish your glasses or electronics when you’re outside. This flannel shirt is also available in plus sizes, is machine washable, has two buttons on each cuff for extra adjustability and an easy hand locker loop.
5. Men’s Carhartt Original Fit Flannel Shirt
Carhartt’s Original Fit Flannel shirt is made of 100 percent cotton ringspun flannel and is a go-to everyday flannel for working or adventuring outside. Ringspun is made by twisting and thinning the cotton strands to make a very fine, strong, soft rope of cotton fibers.
This Carhartt shirt is also triple stitched for extra durability (meaning it’s not going to tear easily or rip when snagged). This flannel will also keep you warm and had shoulder pleats to your movement won’t be restricted while moving, climbing, lifting, etc.
6. Pendleton Double-Brushed Flannel Shirt
The Pendleton brand has been around for more than 100 years (founded in 1909). This classic Pendleton Flannel shirt is made of 100 percent cotton flannel, is extremely soft and comes in both plaid and solid colors. Pendleton’s double-brushed flannel is “double brushed,” meaning it’s brushed on the outside and the inside — making this flannel extra soft on the skin and to the touch.
The men’s Burnside flannel is named after Portland Oregon’s hardworking, historic street, which speaks to the rugged woven fabric of this flannel. It also comes pre-washed and broken in for comfort, has two chest pockets and the beloved pen slot built in.
The women’s Pendleton Double-Brushed flannel has a classic elbow patch and is extremely soft with two chest pockets.
7. Icebreaker Merino Lodge Long Sleeve Flannel Shirt
The men’s Merino Lodge Flannel shirt by Icebreaker is made of 100 percent Merino wool flannel in a winter weight. It’s surprisingly light, comfortable, warm and incredibly soft. If you’re looking for a flannel shirt that will be soft and keep you warm in cold weather, this high-end Icebreaker shirt will do the job.
Another benefit is the fabric’s ability to resist odor. And, the Merino wool fiber is naturally renewable, recyclable and biodegradable. Cuffs have button closure, there are two chest pockets to stow away small items and it’s machine washable, which is somewhat rare for wool fabrics — making this shirt easy to take care.
Suzanne Downing is an outdoor writer and photographer in Montana with an environmental science journalism background. Her work can be found in Outdoors Unlimited, Bugle Magazine, Missoulian, Byline Magazine, Communique, MTPR online, UM Native News, National Wildlife Federation campaigns and more.
Feature image by MuskOx
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