Fiber Choices for Carpet

Chapter Five: The Other Synthetic 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?

chemistry_iconBesides the all American Nylon, there are several other fibers that are woven or tufted into carpet. The most commonly used are Polypropylene and Polyester, which are quite often mistakenly grouped under one nickname: “Poly.”

Polypropylene, also called “olefin,” has the amazing property of repelling liquid, which means it also repels any color that might be with the liquid – it just won’t stain. Because it won’t stain, it cannot be dyed as a fiber so the color of the fiber needs to be added while the olefin chemical is still a liquid. The name for this is “solution-dying” and the solid fiber that is extruded from the solution has its color all the way through it, like a carrot. All other dye methods for carpet fibers put the color on the outside of the fiber, like an apple. In addition to being extremely resistant to stains, solution-dyed fiber is colorfast, it resists fading by sunlight or by bleach. It can be cleaned with strong chemicals without affecting the color. This makes it a popular fiber for school and hospital carpet.

However, olefin is not as refined as nylon; literally, in the refining process from oil to fiber it does not go through as many steps (as nylon) to make it. Fewer steps result in a less expensive fiber, but since it is closer to a barrel of oil than nylon it has a few bad properties. It allows oils to cling to it, and gives them up only with strong detergent shampooing. An example would be oil tracked in from our parking lots, body oil, grease, sunscreen, cosmetics, etc. The best fiber for walk-off mats at an office building is olefin because it grabs oils from shoes before they are carried into the building. Olefin fiber has a lower melting point than nylon which is not a terrible problem except if there is high friction across the carpet surface –like Johnny sliding into “home plate” in the family room or if you quickly slide that glass table top (on end) while moving the table. The friction from these activities can actually melt a path into the carpet. Being softer than nylon also means olefin will not bounce back as well from foot traffic.

The other “Poly” polyester, has been around a long time. It came on strong in the 70’s but lost out to nylon because polyester carpet would crush (pack down) so easily. During my first week on the job, in April, 1972, with a carpet mill called Berven, I visited a home to inspect a claim of crushed carpet made with the old Kodel y Polyester. I looked at it and agreed with the homeowner that something was wrong. I returned to the office to report my findings to my boss. He straightened me out right away — crushing is a character of polyester carpet and cannot be a valid claim. It was another five years of turning down claims before I no longer had to deal with them. Polyester was gone from the carpet market.

Well, it’s back! Here’s what’s different:

1) some polyester carpet fibers are made from recycled water and soda bottles.

2) some are made with oil from corn

3) some manufacturers are making a lot of the polyester carpets in dense constructions with tightly twisted yarns. The difference is that #1 and #2 appeal to our ecological sense; recycling pop bottles is great and keeps the cost down. Using corn oil instead of crude oil or coal tar, like with nylon, is great for the environment but doesn’t keep the cost down.

The real important difference this time is #3; the carpet is made better than it was in the 70’s.

There are great features of polyester such as its great feel, a soft “hand.” It can also achieve clear and bright colors and, like olefin, can resist many stains and is good at resisting fading.

Carpet Pilling

There is one other synthetic fiber that we see occasionally in carpet — Acrylic. We find it more often in clothing with brand names like Acrilan y or Orlon y. Acrylic looks and feels like wool, mostly because it is cut up into short fibers (staple) like wool. Because of this, the short fibers will break loose (fuzz) and ball up (pill) on the surface (like an acrylic sweater) which makes for an unsightly carpet in a very short time. Acrylic is best used in carpet as a blend, such as with wool, to bring down the cost of the carpet. The Sunbrella y brand of acrylic fabric is solution-dyed, like olefin, so it is very fade-resistant. Some outdoor rugs are created by braiding the fabric and weaving or stitching it together.

All synthetic fibers are designed to emulate the best properties of wool: resilience, soil-hiding, softness, flame-resistance and low-luster. They all absorb less water vapor than wool, meaning they won’t hold stains and have a greater tensile strength (won’t break as easily) than wool. They all resist fading better than a dyed wool yarn (except a natural, un-dyed wool yarn is very fade resistant). And, of course, the synthetic fibers cost less than wool fiber.

Next Chapter: Plant fibers

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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