I was eighteen when I saw a flannel suit for the first time, in a $.99 thrift store in a mini mall in Escondido.
It was a double-breasted grey-blue, with a cobalt and ice overcheck. I was both awestruck and enamored: the fabric was soft, like my favorite sweatshirt that had been washed a million times, and yet here it was cut in Superman’s mold. Could this be the culmination of the brightest minds in the history of textiles? Did I finally find a comfortable suit? Was this the ultimate endpoint in menswear?
Turns out, it was. And still is.
Flannel didn’t always have ties with fine livery – the New York Times reports its usage as material for lowly chonies. A little weird, maybe, but now that I think about it, I can’t imagine a more comfy fabric swathed around my loins. Unclickable encyclopedic history claims flannel was being used as far back as the 16th century, and many records point to Wales as the fabric’s birthplace, where it enjoyed a thriving woolen industry. However, British mills were the ones to spearhead factories with machinery for the carding and spinning of wool. Documents reveal that as early as 1620 a mill in Wellington by the name of Were and Co. was in business, trading flannel and other cloth to both sides of the English Civil War of 1642-1651. Later, that company changed its name to Fox Brothers and Company.
Operating continuously since 1772, Fox Brothers is probably the most famous producer of flannel. Douglas Cordeaux, who serves as Managing Director of the company, describes flannel as the stuff of true connoisseurs. “Every contemporary menswear wardrobe needs a heavy flannel,” he says. “It’s a collector’s cloth, for someone who has done their research.”
Which is true: most of the “flannel” suits sold in department stores are rubbish, made with wimpy weight wool that bears little resemblance to the real deal. “Classic weight is 12/13 ounces,” says Cordeaux. “Although we have the Grand Cru of flannel coming in at a substantial 18/19 ounces, proper British cloth. People often just write it off as too heavy, but actually when it’s cut well with the right balance, it drapes well and is really wearable. Bespoke suits in this weight are elegant, relevant, and age beautifully.”
Douglas is speaking of woolen flannel, the soft, cozy, fuzzy stuff immortalized by glamorous screen actors and well-known politicians. Images of Winston Churchill in his navy chalkstripes, the Prince of Wales in his namesake check, Fred Astaire dancing in his light trousers, and Cary Grant in the classic grey suit; all are Fox flannels. Of the latter, Douglas notes that this is a singular shade. “’The West of England grey flannel has a particular color, a dulled down warm vintage grey. Instantly recognizable.”
Flannel is also known for its “mottled” look, accomplished by using various color threads during the milling process. This gives flannel a depth unseen in other fabrics, an alluring three-dimensional melange of hue. This can be seen on worsted flannel, but is especially distinct on the old school woolen stuff, which is a unique fabric unto itself. The process of making woolen fabric begins with carding, combing the wool in two directions at once with stiff brushes. Unlike worsted fabric, where long fibers are lined up parallel to create a smooth weave, woolen fabric utilizes short fibers, resulting in a napped, fuzzy cloth – a perfect start for flannel. Fox’s specific method, however, remains a secret. “I’d rather keep quiet on our milling process,” Douglas deflects when asked. “Although eight hours, soft water and a piece of wood play a part.”
Whatever the recipe, it makes something you have to wear something you want to wear. And that is why flannel is the best fabric for a suit.