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Flannel vs. Plaid | What's the Difference?

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Flannel vs. Plaid

The weather’s getting colder, and it’s time to grab your plaid. Or rather, is it your flannel? Does the word really matter if they’re the same thing? Actually, it does. That’s because, contrary to popular belief, and misconception, plaid and flannel aren’t the same thing. When it comes down to flannel vs. plaid, we have the answers you need.


What is Flannel?


high quality wool threads

Flannel can be made from different materials, although wool and cotton are the most popular options. However, flannel is sometimes also made from other natural or vegetable fibers. 

Traditionally flannel was made of wool, and later came cotton, with other materials also being recently introduced.  Take a look at our flannel shirts here.


What really makes flannel unique among other fabrics is how it’s made, and how the end result feels. We all know flannel has that warm, cozy feeling that gets you ready for cold weather. The reason it does is that it has a bit of a nap to it. Basically, it has fibers raised from the main cloth that give it the end feeling. 

fuzzy plants and threads

Whether it’s cotton, wool, or another fiber, all flannel goes through the same process more or less. Specialized metal brushes are drawn across the fabric, which raises some of the smaller fibrous bits. That’s what creates the ‘nap’ or fuzziness that people recognize flannel by. 


Here’s where a lot of people get flannel and plaid confused. The reason why it’s so confusing is that the vast majority of flannel shirts also happen to come in a plaid pattern. That said, flannel is a material, and it can be made with any color or pattern, and still be flannel. 

These days, you’ll see just about any clothing item made in flannel if you look for it, especially those made for colder weather and a plaid pattern is one of the most popular patterns for flannel fabric shirts.



While historians can debate about the exact date flannel came about, it’s generally accepted that it showed up around the 1600s. It’s even speculated that some of the first flannel fabrics were made to create blankets that shepherds used for the sheep in their flock. 

More common use began in Wales, although within a century it progressed to becoming a popular material for scottish kilts. By the 1800s flannel became common in the United States, especially among workers. In the 1900s flannel turned into a national icon in some areas, even earning its own festival in Michigan. 

Of course, it’s also hard to ignore the massive popularity plaid flannel shirts gained during the grunge movement. While plaid flannel isn’t the only way to wear the material, it’s undoubtedly become an integral part of cultures around the world. 


What is Plaid?


blue plaid weave

Plaid is really more about design and pattern than fabric and material. It’s essentially a pattern that has both horizontal and vertical lines (up and down, and sideways) that cross over each other. Plaid is an iconic, and unmistakable pattern. Not all the striping is the same width, no matter which direction it goes in.

These criss crossing horizontal and vertical lines create boxy figures of all different shapes and sizes throughout the pattern. While the term plaid is often associated with, or used interchangeably with, the term tartan, there are a few distinctions, depending on who you ask, of course. 

More often than not, it comes down to whether or not it’s a traditional scottish pattern. There are similarities between the designs, although they may be slightly differently, with the same appeal.  Plaid patterns very common with professional dress shirts.



Here’s another huge difference between plaid and flannel. It comes down to the materials used to create either. Flannel is strictly a textile, typically made with wool or cotton, with cotton flannel being more popular. Plaid can go on basically any materials, and you’ll even see it on non textile items, but plaid shirts are the most popular form. You might see plaid on a sticker, a poster, wrapping paper, and much more. 

Because plaid is a pattern, it isn’t limited to a certain material. However, when you do see it on clothing, the fabric is commonly flannel. That’s because flannel is a sturdy material that holds up well to all the different weaves needed to create plaid. 



Contrary to popular belief, plaid and flannel didn’t necessarily emerge at the same time. However, it didn’t take long for plaid to come into use after flannel did. It’s commonly accepted that plaid was used as early as the 1700s in Scotland. 

The Scots didn’t call it ‘plaid’ though. Back then, and even now, they refer to it as ‘tartan.’ As we mentioned however, there are a few differences between flannel and plaid, and it really depends on the culture of the person you’re asking. 

Even so, plaid got a huge rival in the grunge era as it was paired with flannel, of course. The appeal and popularity continues today. The wide range of applications for a pattern associated with not only tradition, but also rebellion, is too much for most of us to resist.


They Are From Different Categories

As we’ve discussed, plaid and flannel aren’t really one in the same. However, most people struggle with this distinction because we see both paired together so often. While they both have their own place in clothing and culture, they’re really from entirely different categories. 

Plaid is a pattern. It doesn’t dictate methods or materials used to make a fabric. It can be printed or woven, regardless of the medium, and whether or not it’s on clothing or blankets. 

Flannel is a material, often used for clothing such as these popular flannel shirts. However, it can also be used for nearly any other textile. What flannel is not, is a pattern. You’ll see it paired with plaid as a typical pattern, but that doesn’t define it. What really defines flannel is the fibers (typically wool or cotton), and brushing technique used to create the end material. 



As you can see, plaid and flannel aren’t the same. One is a pattern (plaid), and the other is a material (flannel). However, knowing the difference can change how you buy clothes (or give you an edge at trivia night).



1. Are all flannel shirts plaid?

Since most flannel shirts are plaid, we understand your confusion. Flannel fabrics are also available in plain and heathered hues that are not plaids at all.

2. What is flannel or plaid?

The term flannel refers to a type of cloth generally made of wool or cotton that has been brushed -- that is, rubbed with metal brushes to create extremely fine fibers -- for increased warmth and softness. Flannel is a woven fabric, but plaid is a pattern.

3. How can you tell if a shirt is flannel?

Wool and cotton are the most common materials used to make flannel (if it's a shirt, you can usually expect it to be cotton). The napping of flannel distinguishes it from other woven fabrics. The napping refers to the slightly raised texture of the fabric.

4. What is the difference between flannel and checkered?

Almost all people confuse the terms flannel and plaid because most flannel fabrics, especially flannel shirts, contain a plaid pattern. As a result, most people believe they are synonymous; however, this is not true. Flannel is a woven cloth with a velvety texture, while plaid is a checkered pattern.

5. Is flannel warmer than cotton?

Sheets made of flannel are warmer than ordinary sheets and are helpful in the winter. Cotton flannel sheets are delightfully warm and breathable. Choose micro flannel for less expensive or easier-to-care-for warm bedding.