The Best Flannel Shirt Is Made From Wool

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Portrait of smiling owner in motorcycle workshop with tools in background a wearing flannel shirt

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Ignore those cotton and synthetic imposters; they'll never do the job right.

I've been telling my husband for years that he needs a real flannel shirt. His wardrobe is a blend of office and gym clothes, with not much in between; and since we live in rural Canada, it seems fitting to have a thick, cozy flannel shirt to offset the bitterly cold temperatures.

Finding the perfect flannel shirt, however, has proven to be a challenge. I am not searching consistently, just poking around stores in person and online on occasion, but I'm surprised at how many flannel shirts do not contain wool, or contain very little of it. Most are cotton or synthetic blends, which, in my opinion, defeats the purpose of buying a flannel shirt. The appeal of a true flannel shirt lies in its functionality and durability, not in the plaid pattern that is often mistaken for flannel. (Quick lesson: Flannel is a material. Plaid is a pattern. The two are often found together, but they are not the same thing.)

Why Wool Is the Best Flannel Material

Apparently I'm not the only person who feels this way. In an article for Outside magazine, titled "An Extremely Opinionated Rant About Flannel," Wes Siler writes that flannel must be made from wool if it’s going to be as comfortable and durable as the material is reputed to be.

"You see, wool is something of a wonder material. You may think of wool as water-resistant, because you can often see rain bead up and run off its surface. That’s due to the tightly-woven nature of the garment, along with the scaly outer layer of the fibers, which is hydrophobic. The inside of wool fiber is actually hydrophilic, meaning it attracts and absorbs water molecules. Once inside, water vapor is trapped within the wool fiber, making the material dry to the touch, even when it’s soaking wet."

Siler goes on to explain how wool holds in heat when the weather is cold, and holds in cool air when the weather is warm. It doesn't smell because it's naturally antimicrobial, which means you can wear a wool shirt for far longer without washing than you would a cotton shirt; talk about real-life water conservation! It becomes softer over time and built to last, which is arguably the greenest kind of fashion.

"The other factor in wool’s durability is that it’s largely composed of keratin, which can stand up to stretching, bending, and abrasion far better than other types of fiber."

Cotton cannot compare to wool's versatility. In fact, it has the opposite effect in cold, wet weather, holding soggy material next to the skin and feeling clammy in heat. As for synthetics, well, they're like wearing plastic on your skin (not to mention shedding microplastics in the wash, which is harmful to animals and, therefore, not cruelty-free in my opinion); they are not breathable and they reek when soaked in sweat.

Now, to be clear, my dictionary (and Wikipedia) states that 'flannel' is a soft-woven fabric made of wool or cotton, so a shirt-maker is not incorrect in calling a shirt flannel if it has no wool, but do not think it will be the same. If you are buying a flannel shirt because you want it to perform in the way that flannel shirts are famous for, then it has to be wool, otherwise you'll be disappointed.

List of Retailers Selling Woolen Flannel Shirts

Here are some potential retailers to start your search. I haven't made my final decision yet, but these are high on my list.

Pendleton: This old American company has been churning out wool shirts for 150 years.

Fjallraven: It only has 1 wool flannel shirt, despite having a large selection of other 'flannel' shirts.

Woolrich: A few wool options available if you scroll through the line list of shirts, such as the Men's Made in USA Buffalo Wool Shirt and Women's Bering Wool Shirt.

L.L. Bean: The only mostly-wool option that I could find on the website, this one is 85 percent wool.

Etsy: Quite a few second-hand pure wool shirts available, so check it out. You could also visit a local thrift store.