Fiber Choices for Carpet Chapter Six: Plant Fibers

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?

Carpets and rugs made from plant fibers account for a very small portion of the U.S. market. They are used more widely for soft flooring in developing countries and in the countries where the respective raw material is grown. Just like for clothing, shelter and coverings, plant fibers have been woven into flooring for many thousands of years.

sisal-rugsSisal is the most common-used name for plant-based rugs and carpet. We normally equate sisal with its dried and un-dyed color of golden brown but sisal can actually be dyed into very rich colors. Sisal is made by removing the fibers from the leaves of the Agave Sisalana plant. The plant renews the leaves and is generally harvested every 7 years. Sisal fiber is strong and stiff, and feels coarse to the hand (or foot). It can be combined with other fibers, like wool or cotton, to soften the feel. Since sisal is so easy to dye, it is also very easy to stain. Even plain water can darken the look of the fiber.

Seagrass is a flowering plant that grows in shallow sea beds or in cultivated fields that are flooded with seawater. Unlike sisal, seagrass is impervious to moisture, so it cannot be dyed and it will greatly resist staining. It is also smoother and softer than sisal but not nearly as strong. The fiber is quite slippery so is does not spin into tight yarn bundles like other fibers; resulting in a large, loose weave. Even though the fiber is resistant to staining it will hold moisture close which can contribute to the growth of mold or mildew, but an unlikely occurrence in our desert climate.

heenalu-jute-rugJute is the best of both worlds; softer than sisal and able to be dyed. It is harvested from the leaf skin and stem of the Corchorus plant, laid out to dry, then spun into the desired yarn thickness. In carpet, jute is used more for the backing than the face of the carpet, and in rugs it is more often the yarn through which the face yarns are woven. But in some designs, jute is either the main fiber or is combined with another fiber, like wool, to make interesting colors and textures.

Coir comes from the husks of coconuts. It is tough and durable, quite scratchy to the touch – which is why it makes good door mats, a.k.a. coco mats. But the fiber is brittle and will bend to a point, then it breaks – that’s why a coir door mat wears down fairly fast. Coir can be easily stained from spills and, like seagrass, its yarns do not bundle tightly – making for a looser, slippery surface.

Abaca is harvested from the long leaves of a banana plant – inedible bananas. Each fiber can be 6’ to 12’ long and when spun together make the strongest yarn of any plant fiber. It is used to make hawsers (ships’ ropes) and fishing nets. Like sisal, it can be dyed to rich colors but it has a reflective shine much like silk.

img67jCotton makes great bath mats, towels and clothing because it absorbs moisture so well. Cotton dyes to rich, long-lasting colors that can be cleaned over and over. Of course, since cotton is so soft, it does not wear well under foot and because it absorbs everything, a cotton rug will always need cleaning.

One property that is common to all plant fiber rugs or carpet; when they get wet they will expand and when they dry they will shrink. For all the above except cotton, that shrinkage makes for a smaller rug or carpet than what you started out with.

All the negatives aside, there is no synthetic fiber that can achieve the natural look and feel of plant fiber carpet and rugs. They are a statement that you care about the environment and cherish things from the earth.

Next Chapter: Silk and the faux silks

IMG_1449Don 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

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