Flannel is a woollen cloth which can be brushed on one or both sides to produce a soft nap. It has been closely associated with Wales for several centuries. The English word ‘flannel’ is thought to be derived from the Welsh ‘gwlanen’ (from gŵlan, Welsh for wool.)
In England it was also applied to a cotton fabric, but in Wales it remained a term for woollen fabric.
It was made into underware, shawls, shirts. It was also used, occasionally, for covering coracles.
References to flannel
Flannel was alluded to in Tudor plays where it was used to identify Welsh characters. (Miller, E.J., Wales and the Tudor Drama, Transactions of the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion, 1948, p. 179). In Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor, a Welshman is called ‘Flannel’.
On Sundays at church ‘the women were all dressed, as in a uniform, with their Beaver Hats, and long blue flannel cloaks, they also had good shoes and stockings on’. (Cullum, John, Tour Through Several Counties of England and Part of North Wales, 1774, Bury St Edmunds and West Suffolk Record Office, E2/44/2.1-2.3)
Anne Clayton [a pauper?] was given two flannel shifts by the parish. (Vestry book of Llanfihangel y Creuddyn, 1791, quoted by Etheridge)
1791 south Wales
I am particularly struck with the simplicity of their mantle, or cloak. It is nothing more than a square piece of white flannel, bordered with coloured binding. This they throw carelessly over their shoulders, and fasten with a hook and eye, or tie with a piece of binding. They do not put it on crosswise, as we do a handkerchief, but with the straight side about the neck. (Morgan, Mrs, A Tour to Milford Haven, in the Year 1791, (London, 1795), p. 274)
The wool is chiefly white which, with a great quantity purchased from the isle of Anglesea, is manufactured in this county. The finest sorts are picked out for broad cloth and flannels and the coarsest kinds are employed in making blankets. The broad cloth is very commonly made 7/8th of a yard wide and sells from 4-5/- per yard of 38 inches. The flannel is sold from 1/3 – 1/8 per yard. The manufacture is principally carried on by the farmers and their servants, and the wool is dyed by themselves generally of a blue colour for making broad cloth, which is commonly sold to shop keepers and at the different markets and fairs in the county. The flannels are most commonly sold for the English market. (Kay, G., (from Leith), General View of the Agriculture of North Wales (1794), p. 18)
[According to Elizabeth Inglis-Jones, when Mariamne Jones, daughter of Thomas and Jane Johnes of Hafod celebrated her 11th birthday, the estate workers were invited to the celebrations. ‘The men wore the traditional sky-blue worsted coats and breeches such as their forefathers had worn for centuries past, while the women had snowy mob-caps under their high hats, and bunchy skirts of linsey-woolsey which they had woven themselves (often of wool gathered off thorns and gorse bushes) in vivid stripes and checks of red, blue and white, which swung blithely above their buckled shoes.’
She also wrote [the quotation marks are hers]: A Society for the Encouragement of Agriculture and Industry [in Cardiganshire] … formed in 1784 … offered premiums for different branches of husbandry and the domestic manufacture of flannels and stockings. The women … ‘used neither cloth nor flannel but what had been manufactured in their own houses’. (Inglis-Jones, Elizabeth, Peacocks in Paradise, (1950 and Gomer, 1990), p. 116 and p. 157, no source quoted)
Flannels, and cloths, i. e. webs, are dyed of various colours; but not in Wales, except what is consumed at home; and indeed it is seldom that a Welshman (among the lower classes) wears a coat that is not made in the principality: the usual colours are blue, drab, brown, or mixed. (Aikin, Arthur, (1773-1854), Journal of a Tour through North Wales and a part of Shropshire with observations of Mineralogy and other branches of natural History  (London, 1797), p. 81)
Theophilus Jones defined a whittle as a kind of short cloak – or piece of flannel – pinned or tied around their shoulders. (‘Cymro’, [Theophilus Jones, (1759-1812)] Cursory Remarks on Welsh Tours or Travels (1799), Cambrian Register II, (for 1796), pp. 440-441)
In his description of the wool industry of Montgomeryshire in 1799, Walter Davies praises the quality of the flannels which had a fine nap, making them particularly soft and ‘rendered them exceedingly well adapted to be worn next to the skin of the most delicate invalid’. (Davies, Walter, General View of the Agriculture and Domestic Economy of North Wales, (London, 1810), p. 394)
Flannel known as web or gwart, used for soldier’s clothes … (Anon, The Cambrian Directory or cursory sketches of the Welsh territories, (1800), p. 161)
The women, particularly the elder, wear loose gowns of cloth with striped or plaided flannel petticoats and checked aprons. (A.M. Cuyler, Recollections of a visit to Llanbeder in the County of Brecon … , NLW add MS 784a, p. 167-168)
Pritchard, in 1828, advised the women of Pembrokeshire and elsewhere in Wales ‘to throw off their flannel shifts, and wear linen ones’. (T. J. Llewelyn Prichard, The Adventures and Vagaries of Twm Shon Catti; (1828), p. 46)
The guide to Llanberis pass told Anne Rushout that … the whole of the clothing of the Welsh woman was of flannel and their gowns cost on average 13 shillings a piece. (Rushout, Anne, Hon (1768-1849), [Tour of Wales, 1830], University of London (Senate House Library) MS682/3
The pais (petticoat)] is made of flannel, as they call it; of a dark brown or puce colour, variegated in south Wales by lighter stripes, intersecting each other at right angles, checquerwise; but in the north, these stripes run only parallel to one another from top to bottom … Light and dark red seem to have endured thro’ centuries, and maintained their places till today, for it is in these colours that their flannels are principally dyed. (Anon (Pedestres), A Pedestrian Tour of Thirteen Hundred and Forty Seven Miles through Wales and England (1836), vol II, Chapter 1 p. 3-6)
The Welsh Flannel Co., was established in the Greenfield Valley near Holywell, in 1874 manufacturing garments of sufficiently high quality to supply Queen Victoria’s household. [Source to be checked]
Griffith Davies, general Drapery and Furnishing Establishment, High Street, Bangor. Welsh Unshrinkable Flannels, Welsh Whittle Shawls, Welsh Tweeds and Shirting Flannels, Welsh Hosiery, Welsh Newtown ‘Leek’ Flannels. (North Wales Chronicle August 23, 1879)
1893 Advert for B Evans and Co, Swansea
Includes Real Welsh hand-made flannels for shirts, Ladies’ and Children’s costumes, aprons, Gentlemen’s wear, nightshirts, and Real Welsh Whittles, shawls, wraps and Turnovers in light and heavy makes. (Western Mail October 24, 1893)
During the early part of the 20th century, some firms in England claimed to be supplying Welsh flannel and other Welsh fabrics. However, there is some evidence that this was a false claim.
John Richard Jones learned at a show at Wembley, 18th September 1924 that imitation Welsh flannel made at Rochdale.
NLW JR Jones collection, vol. 1, p. 132
John Richard Jones was told by Mr Williams (age 20), of Trefriw factory near Llanrwst, that Pryse Jones of Newtown (who supplied the robes for the Gorsedd) had spoilt the Welsh Flannel Business by buying English Flannel and selling it as Welsh homespun.
NLW JR Jones collection, vol. 2, p. 52