This guide is designed to help the reader find affordable vintage flannel shirts for everyday wear.
Reproductions of vintage flannel shirts sell for around $200. I imagine that brands like Iron Heart, Sugar Cane, and The Strike Gold deliver a worthwhile product, but I laughed a bit when I learned a California company revived Five Brother.
I understand the appeal of, say, a Buzz Rickson sweatshirt or some LVC 1947s. The originals are incredibly rare and expensive. But Five Brother flannel shirts? The originals–made in the USA of 100% Cone Mills Brawny cotton flannel, durable, soft, and stylish (though lacking the 21st century chin strap)–remain accessible and affordable. I find them at thrift stores almost every week, and deadstock ones are on eBay for under $50.
So, I’m spreading the news. What follows is a guide for buying vintage flannel shirts at thrift stores and on eBay. There’s a glossary, a listing of common brands, and, at the bottom, tips for thrifting and popular eBay search terms.
Terms for Describing & Evaluating Vintage Flannel Shirts
Brawny is the name of a fabric produced by Cone Mills and widely used by American flannel shirt-makers. It’s heavy and durable yet soft and breathable. Based on handling dozens of shirts from different brands, I’m willing to bet that many US-made sanforized flannel shirts from the 1970s through the 1990s–such as those by Five Brother, Private Property, Frostproof, and others–are made of this fabric.
Buffalo Check describes a popular plaid pattern. The classic red and black lumberjack pattern is, indeed, a Buffalo check. It’s essentially a giant gingham. And hey, it was the topic of a New York Times Magazine article a while back.
Cat Eye Buttons have two holes instead of the usual four. These buttons are called “cat-eye” because the vesica-shaped channel in which the two holes are drilled resembles a feline pupil. Cat-eye buttons are often found on shirts from the 1950s and earlier, and can be the mark of a true vintage item.
CHAIN STITCH RUN-OFF
Chain stitch run-off describes the way in which threads from a lock stitching machine over-run the edge of a garment, usually at the hem, and dangle freely. I have never found a vintage flannel with this detail; I couldn’t find even find a photo. For what it’s worth, these threads are always tidily sewn down on triple-stitched WWII-era military clothing in order to prevent snags and unraveling.
Chamois flannel is a heavily brushed plain-weave fabric. I’ll take a moment here to share that any brushed fabric could be flannel; it needn’t be twill or plaid or what have you. They’re quite different from twill flannels, but we include them here as they’re not deserving of their own article.
A chin strap is an extension of fabric containing a second button hole at the top-most closure of a shirt. This keeps the shirt closed at the neck, which helps keep in heat. Like cat-eye buttons, chin straps can be the mark of a true vintage item. And like cat-eye buttons, they can be found on vintage-inspired shirts sold by Polo, Target, and J. Crew.
This abbreviation stands for “Chief Petty Officer,” a rank in the American Navy. CPOs were issued navy blue wool flannel shirts with twin flap pockets similar to the work shirts we see today. While a plaid flannel would not have been issued to a CPO, the similarities lead to a conflation of terms.
Flap pockets are self-explanatory: They’re pockets with flap closures. They’ll keep your notepad dry! A standard option on most vintage flannel shirts, but they’re not a guarantee.
Some vintage flannel shirts will have a reinforcing gusset sewn where the front and rear hems meet. This keeps the shirt from splitting up the side seam. (I’ve never seen that happen on gussetless shirts.) On some vintage pieces, the gusset is made from fabric cut from the selvage.
I’ll be honest, I’m not 100% certain on the proper term for this. But while most flannel shirts are woven with dyed yarn, others simply have the plaid pattern printed on. It’s a unique look.
There are also, of course, flannel shirts with images printed on them. These are often made from a chamois fabric, which works better for images than twill.
Like sanforized denim, sanforized flannel shirts are made from fabric that’s been treated to prevent shrinkage. Many heavyweight vintage flannel shirts I’ve found are labeled as sanforized, though it seems the label fell away even when the process remained.
In twill fabric, the warp goes over a set number of weft threads than under a different number of weft threads. This offset pattern creates a diagonal look to the fabric. Denim and chino are popular twill fabrics. The flannel shirt in its Platonic form is made from a twill fabric.
Wool flannels should have their own write-up, but I’ll mention them quickly: They will itch, they will keep you warm, and if you don’t patch moth holes they will get bigger. Woolrich, LL Bean, and Pendleton all make a good wool flannel. 85-15 blends perform identically to pure wool, and in my experience are a little bit softer. Occasionally, what appears to be wool flannel will be made in fact be acrylic. Here at Comma Vintage we advocate against acrylic and do not ship it.
Vintage Flannel Shirt Brands
Big Bill uses a thinner but more tightly woven flannel fabric. They are often, but not always, American made. They feature a logo sewn to the chest pocket.
Big Jess flannels are exclusively true vintage, and to be honest I’m only including them because I wanted as many “Big X” brands as possible. I’ve only found one, and I dated it as pre-WWII. They often feature side-seam gussets and the occasional chin strap. You’d be lucky to find one.
I find Big Mac vintage flannels with some frequency. They were sold widely by JC Penney into the 1990s, when they morphed into St. John’s Bay. (St. John’s Bay, for the record, made the same great flannels for a while.) Big Mac flannels are generally US-made and have bias cut patch pockets.
The number of “Big X” brands reflects both the value of copycat marketing and the value of marketing to anxious masculinity. In my experience, Big Mike flannels are more similar to Private Property and Five Brother Flannels than the other “Big” brands.
Big Yank was around for a long time, and has a great reputation. Repro brands frequently take inspiration from Big Yank pieces from the 30s, 40s, and 50s. The brand existed up through the 70s, though they’re not all that common. Big Yank are most known for their chambrays.
Fieldmaster was a private label from Sears. They produced flannel work shirts as well as wool and wool-blend shirt jackets. As production moved overseas, the range of products grew and so did the range of quality. I’d encourage you to look closely at any online listing to ensure you’re buying precisely what you want.
Here we have the brand that started this whole guide. Five Brother Flannels are, alongside Champion Reverse-Weave Sweatshirts (CReWS), Fruit of the Loom Pocket Tees, and Levi’s 501s, in the pantheon of late-20th century accessible and stylish vintage.
I quite like Frostproof shirts. They produce great twill flannels as well as my personal favorite chamois ones. Newer shirts feature an incredibly basic label.
G. H. BASS
G.H. Bass is still around selling Weejuns and having outlets at tourist centers, but they really were a solid Maine outfitter for a while. The flannel pictured here is my personal favorite.
LL Bean, at least the LL Bean you’re most likely to find out thrifting, specializes in a lighter, more versatile flannel shirt. Their Rangeley Flannel and new iteration of the Northwoods shirt, of which US-made examples abound, look appropriate in most casual offices. Their chamois shirts are similar to those of other brands. Be on the look out for the vintage signature label, which dates a garment to the 70s or earlier. Wool Flannels can also be found.
My experience suggests they’re made with the same Cone Brawny flannel as other brands. I find them less frequently than, say, Big Mac or Five Brother, but am happy when I do. They also make western-style flannels with pearl snaps.
Osh Kosh B’Gosh primarily makes children’s clothing now, but they do have a long history of workwear behind it. I don’t find them as frequently as other brands, but they’re worth having in your eBay search arsenal.
Among flannel shirts, this might be my favorite tag. These shirts are similar to Big Mike, Frostproof, and Five Brother Twill flannels, and I’d wager are made from the same Cone Mills Fabric.
Most cotton flannels from Woolrich are made with chamois fabric. And like most chamois flannels, they feature tonal buttons and tonal stitching throughout. Common Woolrich cotton flannels generally date to the 80s and later.
Tips for Buying AND WEARING
FINDING THEM AT THRIFT STORES
I come across quality vintage US-made sanforized flannel shirts with some regularity, about once every 4 thrift store visits. So, they’re relatively common–that is, so long as you wear a large or extra large. Mediums are uncommon and smalls are altogether rare.
Some thrift stores separate flannels out from the rest of the shirts, usually at the ends of racks. This can be helpful for saving time, but they rarely catch ’em all. If you’re committed to finding a nice flannel, I recommend doing a full scan of all shirts.
Once in hand, scan the shirt for imperfections. The size of the yarn used in flannels makes them a bit more susceptible to pulls and fraying. Check the hem, cuffs, and collar for damage and wear.
It’s not uncommon to find paint or coffee stains, and the plaid can hide them until you get in natural light. So, double check the front. Coffee and dirt usually comes out; paint may not.
BUYING VINTAGE FLANNEL SHIRTS ONLINE
There are a lot of quality vintage flannels on eBay and Etsy. It’s really a matter of paying what you want and finding the right colorway. I personally feel that $30 is a fair price, though they can be had for less. Prices will be higher on Etsy, but you might have better luck finding precisely what you want.
When searching, I recommend the following algorithm:
VINTAGE + [BRAND NAME] + FLANNEL + [SIZE]
You can also add “USA” to the end, or replace a brand name with “plaid.” Other terms, like “sanforized” or “twill” are not frequently used. Here are some pre-made examples:
There, of course, are countless different ways to find what you’re after.
WEARING and fit
Vintage flannels span a surprising breadth of sizes. I find, though, that shirts generally fit true to size in the shoulder and in length. Generally speaking, the fit will be quite boxy. I have been surprised, though, by the occasional taper.
Rather than sizing down and hoping for the best, I recommend buying true to size and tailoring if necessary. Below are two fit photos of the author, who is 5’8″ and 155lbs. Note how the untailored medium comes off the shoulder more and billows a bit under the arms–it’s great for layering, though. The small on the right, which has been tailor fits much more closely, but there’s little room underneath.
In my experience, vintage flannels are more likely to fit too short than too long. If you are over six feet, consider looking for tall sizes.
If you want to find a vintage flannel shirt, you’ll have one within a month of occasional thrifting or for about $30 online. Here at Comma Vintage, we ship out vintage flannel shirts (and loads of other vintage goodies) every week. And we’ve written similar guides for Harrington Jackets, Levi’s Truckers, and vintage T-shirts.
If you’re a bit daunted by thrift stores and online retailers, or simply don’t have the time to do it yourself, we hope you’ll subscribe to Comma Vintage. Every three months you’ll receive a box of hand-selected vintage clothing, a letter describing the contents, and several additional items all for less than it would cost to buy a new shirt at the mall. Take $10 off your subscription with code “TAKEPAUSE.”