We Traveled the World to Find the Softest, Warmest Flannel

christmas flannel beddingBy Mike Laflamme, fabric expert at The Vermont Country Store

Vermont winters are known for being brutally cold and extremely long, but we get by in comfort, thanks in large part to our flannel sleepwear and bedding. Our customers write to thank us for carrying high-quality flannel products. They tell us it’s hard to find such reliable quality and attention to detail at big-box retailers. And come winter, the demand for our Portuguese flannel sheets and sleepwear skyrockets! That’s because Portuguese flannel is the best in the world.

holiday pajamas

Lanz Of Salzburg Tyrolean Flannel Pajamas

But what makes Portuguese flannel the best? Is it really worth paying a bit more for? Most blogs about fabric are technical (and boring) for a person who just wants to learn a little about characteristics and care. This blog is not going to speak to other experts. Instead, I’ll share some interesting flannel fundamentals as well as a few personal insights and experiences.

Softness and Warmth

When you think of flannel, what two words come to your mind first?  Ninety-nine out of a hundred folks will say “soft” and “warm.” That’s because flannel has a reputation that is well-deserved. But how does it get those soft and warm qualities? As you will soon see, softness and warmth result from a combination of technology, tradition, and — with the very best flannel — art.

The Portuguese Flannel Difference

Harbor in downtown Porto in northern Portugal

Harbor in downtown Porto in northern Portugal

For over a century, the world’s finest cotton flannel has been made in the hill towns of northern Portugal. You can bet I was beyond excited to learn last fall that I was going to travel there to meet many of the renowned manufacturers from this region! My task was to have flannel pajamas, nightgowns and sheets made for us that were the best in the world.

Soon after arriving in Portugal, a nation slightly smaller than the state of Indiana, we headed to the flannel mills in the northern hills. The land here is ruggedly beautiful, even to someone like me who is accustomed to the awesome beauty of Vermont’s Green Mountains.

When compared to other flannels, Portuguese flannel is consistently softer, stands up far better to repeated washings without pilling or growing thin, and lasts longer. Why? Two reasons: It is woven with a longer staple cotton, and the brushing technique they use.

Spools of long staple cotton thread

Spools of long staple cotton thread

“Staple” refers to the length of the individual cotton fibers. A cotton plant produces bolls and each cotton boll contains 250,000 or more individual fibers. A short staple fiber can be up to one and one-eighth inch long. A long staple fiber is between one and one-eighth inch and one and one-quarter inch long. That little extra length makes a huge difference in terms of fiber strength and fabric quality. Flannel woven from a longer staple cotton (as is our Portuguese flannel) is superior to that woven from short staple cotton because it lasts much longer and pills much less.

Portugal’s access to the sea has allowed flannel mills to receive premium long-staple cotton from around the world. The old Vermont adage, “You can’t make a good pie from rotten apples” also applies in the manufacturing of fabric. You can’t begin with low quality cotton and end up with a premium flannel.

Flannel Making: Art and Tradition

In Portugal, flannel-making is more than an industry; it is an art form based on generations of experience. When I toured the mills, this art became most apparent while watching the brushing of the fabric by skilled craftsmen called nappers.

Eliot Orton, Proprietor, inspecting Portuguese flannel in Red Stewart Plaid

Eliot Orton, Proprietor, inspecting Portuguese flannel in Red Stewart Plaid

Relying on their experience and touch, nappers apply the brushing that will assure the softest, most durable pile. As a rule, flannel is brushed at least once on the face (top) and underside. The Vermont Country Store flannel is brushed three times on both sides, resulting in extremely soft, warm fabric.

What Are Tartans?

You probably have heard the term ‘Tartan’. Tartan is a pattern of crisscrossed horizontal and vertical bands in multiple colors, creating a plaid, and they’ve been around for hundreds of years. Until the middle of the nineteenth century, weavers relied on local plants for color dyes, so a tartan was often associated with a region, and sometimes a specific clan.

Our exclusive Orton Plaid

Our exclusive yarn-dyed Orton Plaid

Black Watch Plaid and Royal Stewart Plaid are most popular today, both of which are available in our Men’s flannel sleepwear collection. We also offer other eye-pleasing plaids, like Denim Plaid, Charcoal Plaid, and our very own, exclusive Orton Plaid. 

The Yarn-Dyed Difference

There are two primary dying methods: direct application and yarn dying. Direct application is basically printing on the woven fabric. Yarn dying involves applying color to the fibers before they’re woven, so the patterns created during the weaving process will show on both sides of the fabric, and will also hold their color after many washings (which isn’t the case with printed fabrics).

A Kinship of Shared Traditions

Many of the Portuguese millworkers I met are second and third generation. They take great pride in their work. I come from a long line of textile workers too — four generations. As we worked together, I felt a kinship with them through our shared pride, because once I felt the softness of their premium flannel, I knew it would become The Vermont Country Store’s flannel, and soon after that it would become the Portuguese flannel sleepwear and sheets that our customers love and also take great pride in giving as gifts.

When we give the gift of Portuguese flannel to our loved ones, we are sharing in the proud tradition of the Portuguese flannel craftsmen. Yes, we pay a bit more, and in return we receive premium quality, softer, warmer, more durable goods. And that’s a tradition that we at The Vermont Country Store are proud to continue.