Background: I was asked to apply "hot flannel towel" by my optician; to alleviate a mild eye lid inflammation, not important. My question is what she meant by the "flannel towel".

Terry cloth (or terrycloth) - this is the fabric towels are normally made of. As Wikipedia puts it: fabric with loops that can absorb large amounts of water. It's surface is coarse, it's made for rubbing. In my language we use froté, from French frotté, meaning rubbing.

Flannel - this is the fabric shirts can be made; and also blankets and bed sheets. NOT towels. It's soft and smooth and not a great water absorbent.

Thinking that "flannel towel" would mean a towel made of flannel, that is a special type of a towel, I started to search on Amazon. But to my surprise, all the results terry towels labelled as flannel towels.

Flannel even seems to be even used as a synonym to towel.

Is it something historic? Like that towels used to be made flannel before terry cloth was invented? Please, can someone shed some light on this?

And back to my optician advice, should I keep searching for a towel specifically made of flannel?

The optician is British English.

UPDATE 2019-09-06: So I simply emailed the optician. Their answer was: A small face cloth will help or any small terrycloth towel also.

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    Searching for a fabric is probably less important than immediate treatment with some kind of hot/wet towel, although I doubt you are supposed to rub the eye. Use a small towel that is soft and will shape itself to the contours of your face. A face cloth is sometimes called a flannel. – Weather Vane Jul 4 '19 at 19:54
  • To me a "flannel" towel had a tighter, shorter nap than a "terry" towel. – Hot Licks Jul 4 '19 at 21:16
  • towels are made from cotton. Flannel cloth is pressed. – Lambie Jul 4 '19 at 22:37
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    I call them 'face flannels', which is probably because I am a Brit. A face flannel is often, but not always, made of the same material as a towel - absorbent terrycloth.Flannel (colloquially) refers to the usage of the piece of cloth, not its composition.(+1). – Nigel J Jul 4 '19 at 23:07
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    To this Brit, a flannel is simply a towel the size of a handkerchief. If your optician is British, that is undoubtedly what she meant. – TonyK Jul 4 '19 at 23:29

I wonder if she meant flannel/towel. As in either/or. Which would make more sense.

In the UK, a flannel or face flannel is a small square of terry-cloth or towelling used for washing the face or body.

Towelling is the material that towels are made from.

Terry-cloth fabric is used for flannels, or nappies (traditional square cloth diapers). Terry cloth is probably less-known now, and more often called ‘towelling’. My mother used to refer to ‘terry nappies’, I remember.

‘Flannel’, additionally is a soft usually wool or worsted dense fabric used for trousers suits or coats.




Towels are indeed made of terry (or terrycloth), and flannel is everywhere a woven cloth made of wool. But adding to the confusion, the word “flannel” is indeed sometimes used in the U.K. to refer to what the US calls a “washcloth;” see sense 4 here:


So I am pretty positive your doctor just meant a plain old ordinary washcloth.

  • Except that won't help much if he is in Britain, and two of his other questions specified British English. – David Jul 4 '19 at 23:06

Terry, despite its pedigree (see the comment by @HotLicks) is almost unknown in Britain. So I cannot comment on that as an answer.

Flannel has many meanings, and in Britain, most notably, flannel is a fabric used for trousers.

A Flannel is also a face cloth in Britains. So, without reaching for my OED, I’d avoid that one.

It may seem lame, but personally I would say towels are made of towelling. And the Cambridge Dictionary online lends me some support in this respect:


a soft, thick cloth used especially for making towels or clothing:

And consulting my OED, I discover the word towelling was first used in 1585.

I don’t think you’ll do any better in English. As we say, “The French have a word for it”.

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    Despite the negative response to my answer, I refuse to throw in the towel! – David Jul 4 '19 at 23:20
  • "A Flannel is also a face cloth in Britains. So, without reaching for my OED, I’d avoid that one." - Why are you avoiding it? That's literally the answer the OP needs. It's an X-Y problem. – AndyT Aug 5 '19 at 10:22
  • @AndyT— Something of a wet blanket ;-) ? – David Aug 5 '19 at 12:50
  • "A Flannel is also a face cloth in Britains. So, without reaching for my OED, I’d avoid that one." - Why are you avoiding it? Yeah, that's literary the right answer as best I can judge. – Flavius Iulianus Aug 6 '19 at 12:56
  • @FlaviusIulianus — Your optician may have suggested that you used the material that a face cloth or flannel is made of, but your question was what was the name of the material, not what was the name of the object. (I imagine also that the material rather than the object was specified so that you could cut up the object into strips and sterilize it in boiling water, rather than using a non-sterile face cloth.) – David Aug 6 '19 at 14:32

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