A truly great flannel shirt is an extension of its owner. It exists as an arm’s length default, a more socially acceptable but no less personal alternative to the altogether. It has a longer lifespan than the dog, but smells a bit like the dog and can be similarly trusted not to judge or take exception to having food dropped on it. But, even in an age of flannel ubiquity, a great men’s flannel shirt hard to find. Most new shirts are made of lesser materials sewn around ill-considered patterns. To find one suited to shiftless Sundays, home games, and social events, one must know precisely what makes something common into something special: the right clothing material and a decent fit.
Flannel Shirt Material
“Start with the cotton,” says Rob Rosenblum, Chief Operating Officer at Dakota Grizzly. “The longer and cleaner the cotton size is the nicer quality of cotton you have.”
It used to be that almost every flannel shirt was made of 100 percent cotton. Woolrich, Pendleton, and even Abercrombie built fortunes on the back of the stuff. But as manufacturing methods modernized and cheap, stretchable fabrics came into vogue, the purists found themselves in a minority. Today, shoppers have to check or buy vintage.
“A 100 percent cotton flannel is going to feel different than a cotton-poly blend or a different synthetic material,” explains Brian Davis, who runs the popular Brooklyn-based used clothing store Wooden Sleepers. “It might not seem like a difference but if you are looking to have a flannel that becomes comfier and seems to fit better over time, you’re going to want to go cotton.”
As for what materials you should avoid, Stephania Schwartz, a stylist at Stitch Fix recommends you steer clear of polyester. Polyester, she points out, “sours quickly with sweat, which is a no-no.” Part of the point of wearing a flannel shirt al the time is that your partner can borrow it or treat it like an avatar (dance with it, confide in it). That doesn’t work if the shirt stinks.
Flannel Shirt Fit
When you’re buying a new suit or a new pair of shoes, getting everything taken in is key (if you have to get everything taken out, it’s too late for looking good). That’s not necessarily the case for flannels. In fact, Davis believes that “Flannels should not fit too perfectly.” Why? “These are shirts meant for activity and movement, so being too precious about fit is not a good place to start. A flannel is at its best when it fits like an overshirt. Not baggy, but not tailor fit.” The basic idea is that you’re looking for something closer to “security blanket” than “second skin”
The more cynical case for sizing up a bit has to do with the upside of pessimism and the downside of aging.
“Flannels are a lot like jeans,” Rosenblum says. “Consumers expect them to get more comfortable over time. People never want to have to size up because of an uncomfortable fit. So make sure any flannel you try on isn’t too big or too small.”
But how can you tell what shirt will stand the test of time. The best bet is to consider the things about yourself that are least likely to change. Think about the shoulders and sleeves then make sure that the shirt doesn’t hang lower than the middle of your front pocket (you are, in this scenario, wearing jeans). Does that focus guarantee success? No. Understanding that success is never guaranteed is a big part of the flannel lifestyle. But it does give your 100 percent cotton buddy a fighting chance.
Flannel Shirt Intangibles
After you have established a plan for material and fit, what else do you need to know while you’re on the hunt for that perfect flannel? Stitch Fix stylist Jennifer D. advises considering context, taste, and — if you’re into the whole 9-to-5 thing — professionalism.
“Keep your occasion in mind,” Jennifer D. explains. “If you’re looking for an over-the-tee with jeans, laid-back weekend flannel, opt for a hybrid or regular fit. Want a flannel that can pull double duty for both work and weekend? Shop for a flannel that fits closer to the body so you can wear it the same way you would a classic oxford or dress shirt.”
Davis just wishes customers would stop settling for flannels they don’t love.
“We turn down 99 percent of flannels due to their poor quality,” he laughs. “We are always searching for that one gem that we know people are going to love. Customers should have a similar mentality. Hold out for the one you are really excited about.”