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Fiber Choices for Carpet

imagesChapter Two:  WOOL, the other side.

It’s not just choosing the right color, anymore.  There are now dozens of kinds of fibers in residential carpet.  How do you decide what’s best for you?

While I contend that wool carpet is the overall best choice for a quality residential carpet or rug, I must also declare that there are times when it can be a poor choice.  This is for two reasons: 1) not every wool carpet is the same and 2) a wool carpet cannot be treated like a synthetic fiber carpet. 

Reason 1 is the toughest one to explain, and to understand.   To say I own a wool carpet is like saying I own a foreign car.  That doesn’t tell anyone whether it’s good or bad, pretty or not, expensive or cheap.  Wool fiber is far more complicated than a nylon, polyester, acrylic, olefin or rayon fiber.  There are dozens of breeds of sheep; each producing wool of a different length, curliness, coarseness and a different basic color.  Coarse wool is the most durable, but the less coarse, soft “hair” makes the carpet feel so good. 

Then, there’s how the individual fibers are made to lock together to form strands of yarn.  They can be spun, like cotton thread from a modern spinning wheel.  They can be clumped together so the fibers point every which way and have a lot of air.  Or they can be soaked then matted down to make a felt-like yarn.  Each process results in a different look and feel when the yarn is made into carpet.  When fibers are combed to make them line up (like combing a person’s hair), the yarn that is the result is said to be “worsted”, like the threads of a fine suit.  Worsted yarn is the most durable of all wool yarns but to create more softness or a thicker carpet, yarn can be “semi-worsted” (not combed so perfectly straight) or “woolen spun” (combed just a bit).  In both versions, the fibers that are spun into threads and then twisted into yarn are a bit more loosely connected, not all lined up straight like worsted.  They also have some shorter fibers and a bit more space (air) between the fibers.   Then there’s the process of “felting”; to take loosely spun clumps of fiber and soak them, then press them together as they dry.  When wet, the scales on wool fibers open up.  As they dry, the scales close down, locking the fibers together – arm in arm, so to speak. 

small2Reason 2: Each of these processes – worsted, semi-worsted, woolen spun and felted – create a different look and feel in carpet and rugs; and each has a different level of response to cleaning and vacuuming.  Woolen spun and felted yarns, while they feel better and are thicker than worsted and semi-worsted, have shorter and looser fibers which means that abrasive vacuuming can cause the carpet or rug to fuzz.  Bottom line: the best way to vacuum almost all wool carpet and rugs is by adjusting the beater bar/ brush so it is just above the height of the carpet.  That way, the vacuum’s suction will remove dirt and lift up loose fibers.  The beater bar/ brush will then chop off the loose fibers and leave a smooth, clean surface.  Beater bars and brushes were created for nylon carpet which is a tougher fiber and is also a slippery fiber – so that dry soil will slide down to the bottom of the fiber.  Thus, a beater bar/ brush is needed to bring up that dry soil.  Not so with wool, whose scales hold dry soil close to the surface for easier vacuuming.  Allowing a beater bar to dig into your wool carpet is like washing your car with a wire brush – the method is just too harsh for the product.  Lastly, do not think that a vacuum with high suction is a good thing.  It might be great for lifting bowling balls but it will strip your wool carpet of all the many shorter fibers and make the longer fibers stand up, like a beard.  Yes, high suction is generally okay for synthetic fibers, most of which are long, continuous strands of fiber (like fishing lines wrapped around each other).  Even then, there are some synthetic yarn carpets that are intentionally made from short fibers (“staple” yarn instead of “continuous filament”) and they will suffer from high suction and abrasive beater bar/ brush vacuuming.

Final Note: The cost of a carpet or rug does not indicate its durability or cleanability.  There are many fiber and construction choices that are more “boutique” than practical.  Just like we buy clothes that we know require special care, but buy them anyway because we like their look or feel, there are tradeoffs when we choose a carpet that’s extra soft, a very light color or loosely constructed.

Next Chapter: NYLON, America’s favorite


Don PayneDon Payne has been a manufacturer’s rep since 1972.  He opened Pacific Crest Mills and Camelback Sales Agency, a rep agency for residential & commercial flooring, in 1978.  Don opened Floor Styles, a to-the-trade ONLY showroom, located in the Scottsdale Design District 1992.  Presenting high-end floor coverings to designers, architects & floor dealers, Floor Styles has more than 16,000 individual samples of carpet, rugs, cork, wood, vinyl, rubber and leather floor products.  You can reach Don at www.floorstyles.com

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