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In Victor Canning's 1950 Bird of Prey, I encountered this sentence:

Spadoni nodded, his eyes dropping from Mercer's face, taking in the tweed jacket with leather-bound cuffs, the neatly pressed gray trousers with the virtue long gone from the flannel and the well-worn, highly-polished shoes.

As it should be, the general meaning of 'virtue' in this context is clear; however, I felt there must be a more specific meaning I was missing. As a metaphor, the use is understandable but general, and encompasses everything about 'the excellence of new flannel'. This did not seem sufficient to explain the use, but perhaps it is sufficient.

I searched the OED for some specific definition of 'virtue' pertaining to a quality of new as opposed to old cloth, and hoping for something pertaining particularly to flannel, with no good result.

Is there a definite virtue, unique to flannel, that is lost with age? Was or is this a description of flannel specific to a particular quality, or a general metaphor that might be applied to any cloth?

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    Flannel has, when new, a sort of soft fuzzy surface. When well-worn, though, the flannel loses that softness and becomes a rather yucky shiny substance. I would regard "virtue" as a reasonably clever metaphor for the fuzzy softness. – Hot Licks Oct 26 '15 at 22:11
  • What makes you think that it may refer to "some" virtue of flannel? – user66974 Oct 26 '15 at 22:18
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    I'm finding lots of references to the "virtues of flannel" which are quite weird. Apparently there was a lot of superstition regarding the medicinal properties of flannel back in the late 1800s. It should always/never be worn next to the skin, taken off/put on before sleep, etc. Protects the wearer from cholera and several other maladies. So regardless of the "virtues" of my fuzzy view of "virtue", the word appears to have a strong association with flannel. – Hot Licks Oct 26 '15 at 22:55
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    As it happens, while formulating my answer, I found a number of references to the virtues of wool (including the example in Merriam-Webster). Flannel "was originally made from carded wool or worsted yarn" So I think that flannel inherited these virtues. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flannel --- I put a P.S. to that effect and then deleted it. Maybe this goes back a long way after all! – chasly - supports Monica Oct 26 '15 at 23:12
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I don't see this as a metaphor. It is simply one of the meanings of 'virtue', i.e. 'goodness'.

virtue

... 3: a beneficial quality or power of a thing

Example: the virtue of wool as a clothing material is that it can provide insulation from the cold even when wet

Merriam Webster

That last example simply means, "the good thing about wool as a clothing material is that it can provide insulation from the cold even when wet

Your text simply means, with the goodness long gone from the flannel


Update (prompted by HotLicks' comment)

There may be more to this after all. Flannel used to be made "from carded wool or worsted yarn"

Wool seems to be connected with virtue (and note the example in Merriam Webster).

So I think that flannel probably inherited these 'virtues' from wool.

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  • @Hotlicks' comments are salutary. If only an answer was forthcoming. In any case, I don't recall and can't find evidence that the particular virtue of wool (providing warmth when wet) is diminished or vanishes with age, washing, wear. This suggests to me there may be more to this than the inheritance of virtues specific to wool, that is, it suggests there is a virtue or set of virtues specific to flannel. – JEL Oct 26 '15 at 23:50
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    @JEL - While ordinary wool holds up pretty well with wear, flannel, as previously stated, loses it's fuzz, and with it much of its insulating nature, as well as it's soft texture. – Hot Licks Oct 27 '15 at 0:29

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