Nov 11, 2020–While attending a meeting during a recent cold snap, I looked around and realized everyone was wearing flannel.

As I wasn’t paying attention to the agenda anyway, I started wondering what is flannel?

What a strange design for a garment. If I were the one in charge of fashion for the human race, I never in my most fevered dream would have conjured up the concept of flannel, that multi-patterned hodge-podge of lines and blocks and mismatched colors. What does it mean?

In fact, I challenge anyone reading this to grab a scrap of paper and try to recreate a flannel pattern right now. It cannot be done.

Yet someone did it. And keeps doing it.

Doing the shallowest of research, I learned that we use the word “flannel” incorrectly. We assume it refers to the plaid pattern. Actually, flannel describes the material and process. It is usually made from wool or cotton, and is brushed to raise the fibers to form a nap. That brushing is what gives it the addictive softness and warmth that we hairless apes crave.

That little knowledge got me to wondering about how any fabric is made. The combinations of patterns, textures, materials that we take for granted all came out of some confluence of need, geography, and local plant and animal resources.

  • Corduroy–that awful fabric that makes you feel both fat and noisy
  • Herringbone–a pattern that refuses to go quietly into fashion history
  • Madras–a cousin of flannel, except all the cool kids wore it in the 1960s
  • Tartan–kilt cloth that makes Scots go to war
  • Silk–inspiration for many a country song
  • Twill–I have no idea what this is
  • Tweed–this either

Most of what our fashion-forward ancestors wore came off a goat’s back or out of a worm’s butt.

When scientists discovered how to create fabrics made of synthetic fibers that needed a whole new list of names, the gloves really came off.

My favorite of the rayon/nylon/exxon family of fibers is something that I don’t even know what it is–Spandex.

When Jack & Adams Bicycle Shop started their family-friendly bike rides around town, they named them the No-Spandex Rides, to make the point you didn’t need to be at Tour de France level in order to participate. So people gladly showed up pumping their garage fat-tire bikes sporting sweats, cutoffs, sandals, and, yes, flannel.

But I had had a personal epiphany. I liked wearing Spandex. I had purchased my first pair of spandex bike shorts, and soon found I did not want to take off the stretchy sheer garment at the end of a ride, much to the embarrassment of my immediate family and casual visitors. I discovered there is just something stimulating about wearing skin-tight multi-colored britches, complete with padding in the buttockal region. I am wearing them as I write, as a matter of fact. Spandex shorts make pounding out 600 words feel as if you are sailing down l’Alpe d’Huez rather than cruising spell check.

What more could one ask from a fabric?