Why Flannel Makes For Exceptional Trousers
While the origins of flannel remain shrouded in mystery, references appear to point to Wales, where it was adopted in shirt form by sheep farmers in the 17th century to protect them from the elements. The word “flannel” most likely emanates from the Welsh term gwlanen, meaning “woollen article.” In its original incarnation flannel was produced from carded wool or worsted yarn, but nowadays is often made from either wool, cotton or synthetic fibre.
But to coincide with our impending new launch, we’re here to wax lyrical about flannel trousers, the sartorial elan of the cooler clime. The ABC of Men’s Fashion, penned by the great couturier Hardy Amies in 1964, defines flannel as ‘an open-textured soft woollen cloth with a fine nap finish, usually of plain weave, but it can be twilled’. To us mere mortals the term nap, put simply, is the texture of the fabric and refers specifically to the way in which the fibres align. The nap is created when it's brushed with a fine metal comb. It's these raised features which give flannel its softness and texture. There are both carded (woollen) and worsted flannels made of fine Merino wool.
Combed versus Carded yarns. Which one is the best?
There are two types of flannel yarns. According to Jean-Paul Ismael Samson, owner of De Oost Bespoke Tailors in Amsterdam, “Genuine flannel is always made of carded yarns, but you can also find flannels made of combed yarns. In order to give a worsted cloth with combed yarns the hairy surface of a true carded flannel cloth, the surface must be roughed up in a special way. Just as combed yarns are generally stronger and more resistant to rubbing, a carded flannel is weaker than a combed flannel. It is not advisable to wear carded flannel trousers for daily wear, because they will wear out faster in high friction areas.”
The style came to prominence long before Amies had published his iconic tome, and for a period of thirty years flannels and sports jackets were de-rigueur throughout our green and pleasant land, whether it was for a stroll along the promenade or on a packed terrace at a football match - you saw little else. The Hollywood elite, who made no secret of shopping escapades across the pond to Savile Row, were equally smitten.
Hallmark of quality flannel
So what hallmark of quality should we be looking for when investing in flannel? Premium flannel possesses a unique ‘mélange’ colour, which is achieved long before the actual yarn has been spun. In normal circumstances, fabrics are what’s known as yarn dyed, which lends the woven fabric uniformity of colour. Whereas with flannel the unspun wool, referred to as ‘woollen silver’, is printed with the desired colours. The mélange printing method, named after its French inventor Vigoureux, refers to the mix of fibres that are cross dyed to create a heathered effect. The word mélange also has French origins meaning a "mix" - which describes both the fibre content and the inherent colours of the fabric.
Once the woollen silver is printed, the wool is then spun into yarn with a mixed colour. Once this yarn is woven, the mottled mélange colour effect is achieved. The resulting effect is what the French refer to as a trompe l’oeil (a trick of the eye) because when the fabric is viewed from afar it appears to be a solid colour, but on closer inspection the Vigoureux printing process creates a certain depth of colour not seen in a plain solid fabric. Connoisseurs of the cloth are drawn to this unique mélange effect, which lends a less formal and nonchalant touch to the cloth.
Flannel through the ages
The pairing of contrasting jackets and trousers was a regular feature of menswear during Victorian times - indeed the smart casual teaming of darker jackets - as well as eye-popping candy-striped boating blazers - with pale-coloured trousers propagated into a summer trend well into Edwardian times. It was seen as an affront to the more mundane restrictions of the demure office suit. At weekends it was all about letting go of the confines of the working week. Jackets and trousers were accordingly more loosely tailored, the kind you could easily throw your arms up in the air and pirouette to channel your inner Fred Astaire, resulting in a cozy, comfortable louche aesthetic.
Flannel trousers were popularised in sporting circles too, particularly cricket where it was the fabric du jour for white flannel trousers right up until the 1970s. While it has sadly long been replaced in the modern game (WG Grace would surely be turning in his grave if he saw the modern day elasticated waist polyester versions) the original cloth is still available to the discerning connoisseur from the English Woollen Mill Fox Bros in Somerset - who are credited as the originator of fine woollen and worsted flannels over the last century and remain the standard bearer for quality to this day. Fox Bros first developed flannel in 1803 - a wonderfully soft cloth so beloved of tailors ever since, who’ve appreciated the way scissors glide through it like a knife through butter on the cutting table.
The seasonal trouser
Flannel is one of the fundamentals of a man’s wardrobe, and an attractive proposition all year round. When writing on the subject of flannel in The Rake several years ago, eminent tailoring commentator James Sherwood ascertained that flannel is among the least “obnoxious” of cloths. “Flannel has texture, depth and a richness of tones within the base colour that absorbs rather than reflects light. It lacks ostentation,” Sherwood observed. The milled, somewhat fuzzy texture of flannel trousers marks them out from the standard suit trouser. They are equally at home worn with a sports jacket for dress-down Fridays as they are on the weekend with a polo neck sweater or sleeveless cardigan.
While I wouldn’t even think twice about donning a full flannel suit or trousers in autumn/winter or spring, the majority of men in business suits tend to opt for Worsted fabric instead - a smooth compact yarn garnered from long wool fibres used especially for firm napless fabrics. It’s not until they’re introduced to the intrinsic comforting qualities of flannel - and their more dressed-down appeal - that they become converts, usually pairing them with a navy or single-coloured blazer initially, before experimenting with more daring patterned jackets as they gain the confidence to do so.
Flannels have gained notoriety largely because the durability of the fabric and its propensity to drape and retain its shape so well - the only caveat to this, as touched upon earlier, is to ensure you don’t over wear them. Be sure to rotate flannels with other trousers in your wardrobe otherwise the knees and seat will sag or start to show signs of wear. The fabric keeps you warm in the colder months and cooler in the warmer ones - and on the whole is crease resistant.
Iconic images from recent history show gentlemen of great style repute sporting flannel to great effect: Henry Poole & Co, Sir Winston Churchill’s favourite Savile Row tailor loved a chalk stripe; Hollywood legend Cary Grant often appeared on the silver screen bedecked in flannel whilst not forgetting Gregory Peck, who popularised the fabric in the incredibly successful film, ‘The Man In The Grey Flannel Suit’ in 1956.
Flannel trousers - the devil is in the detail:
Turn ups: The turn-up, believe it or not, has quite a rich and illustrious history. Their inventor, and initial pioneer, was King Edward VII. As many men did, he was known to roll up the legs of his trouser to prevent the hems from dragging in the mud, eventually deciding to instruct his tailor to make the temporary roll up a permanent one . Being the international dandy he was, the style took off around the globe and has phased in and out of fashion ever since.
The reason tailoring houses and fashion designers are so keen on turn-ups, is because contrary to popular belief, turn-ups really can flatter any figure - you only have to go to a winter edition of Pitti Uomo to see this in evidence. They look equally at home when worn with a pair of tassel loafers as they do with a buttery soft suede Oxford.
Side adjusters vs belt loops: side adjusters champion the cause for uninterrupted lines and a clean more formal silhouette - which most sartorially savvy gents prefer over belt loops. Side adjusters are usually small buckles, one on each hip, attached to a cloth tab which enable the wearer to cinch the waist an inch or so on each side for a more exacting fit. I look upon side adjusters as a neat bespoke touch on made-to-measure.
Belts, as nice as they are, should be reserved for jeans and chinos only. This is because a belt tends to draw the eye towards your waistline, so if you have what the Italians affectionately refer to as a balconetta (it really needs no translation), trousers with side adjusters have the effect of drawing attention away from your belly and not slicing you in two as a belt tends to do. Our trousers feature a fly zip and off-centre button closure on the front of the waistband.
Flannel pairings: what jacket to wear with each of our flannel colourways:
The options are truly endless when considering how to accessorise a pair of flannel trousers. The great thing about flannel as opposed to a shinier, more silky fabric is that it lends itself so well to be broken up. Of course, there’s the option of popping on a navy double-breasted blazer - which some might say is rather conservative, the type of ensemble your grandfather would have worn complete with gold buttons - but if you happen to have had the good fortune of stylish genes passed on from your Grandfather as I did, it’s very much the style to aspire to. It’s what us sartorial nerds deem ‘the menswear uniform’ - if executed correctly, it’s as sharp as a tack.
If you want to stand out from the crowd (in a good way of course) then a beautifully textured, more colourful Tweed sports jacket is another stylish partner to flannel. Almost any iteration works with neutral flannel, from a more muted olive puppy tooth green and terracotta check through to Forest Green Windowpane and on to a more flamboyant red, navy and beige bolder Glen Check. Flannels are versatile enough to be worn more casually too. Try a premium white t-shirt under a leather biker jacket with Agnelli-like dark brown lace-up suede boots. Equally, in the cooler months a textured chunky roll neck and black penny loafers cut quite a dash.
What flannel means to me: Andreas Klow of @flannels_and_tweed
To me flannel is a fundamental part of my wardrobe for a number of reasons:
- It’s cozy, warm, soft and comfortable.
- It looks great. Especially a woollen flannel. Both as trousers paired with tweed jackets as well as a full suit. Nothing beats a heavy chalk stripe flannel suit in winter.
- It can be both casual and dressy. A cashmere roll neck with a silk pocket square tied at the neck and pair of woollen flannel trousers for relaxing. A charcoal worsted flannel suit with a white shirt and a silk tie and pocket square for work. Of course I’m biased. My IG name is a bit of a giveaway as to what my favourite fabrics are.
The timeless appeal of flannel continues to transcend the decades and is as attractive a proposition now as it was from its humble beginnings on a Welsh mountainside farm. Advocates of the style will point towards its unique ability to straddle the formal and casual divide seamlessly, as Luxury vintage clothier for men Simon James Cathcart cites, “They are a blank canvas upon which an outfit can be painted: A loud patterned jacket can look splendidly striking when worn above plain flannels, whereas a full suit made from vivid checked fabric might just appear vulgar.”
The other great thing about flannel, in all its neutral shades, is that it can be combined with virtually any outfit. Besides, flannel is heavy enough to stave off the cold in winter yet can be cut in a loose enough fit to keep you cool in the warmer months. “They are simply a logical choice”, continues Cathcart.“The flannel trouser will always be in style” and I couldn’t agree more. I’m secretly hoping those sartorial genes passed down from my grandfather will soon start to rub off on my own son