The Inside Story on Carpeting

When it comes to carpeting, the options can be a bit overwhelming. Here's what you need to know.
By: Mark McCauley

THE INGREDIENTS

Palisades 017 Arctic v2 1 Sitting Area

Palisades 017 Arctic v2 1 Sitting Area

Photo courtesy of STAINMASTER®

Photo courtesy of STAINMASTER®

Carpeting, no surprise, is indeed fabric. And, as in the fabric world, there are different ingredients that go into it, either natural or synthetic.

Natural Fibers
Wool is top of the pops natural fabric-wise, in terms of wearablity, holding dyes well—and it cleans up in a jiffy. Wool is a staple yarn (small strips spun together) so it can fuzz up a bit and pill (think of your favorite old wool sweater). It’s not hypoallergenic, which means you might sneeze a bit if allergic to wool.

Synthetic Fibers
Synthetic fibers can be broken down into four categories:

  • Acrylic is made to replicate wool but, fooled you, it’s not. Acrylic is also a staple yarn and can pill and fuzz. Acrylic is color fast and resists stains and sun bleaching. It won’t give you the hives as wool can, but is a bit harder to clean.

  • Numero uno in the wall-to-wall carpet world, nylon is the defending champ due to its ability to just say "no" to stains, static electricity and wear. Nylon is a continuous filament or a yarn that starts out as chemical stew and is then extruded, or stretched into fibers. Its nature reduces shedding and it absorbs dyes well.

  • Olefin/polypropylene is great—if you happen to own a professional baseball team: it makes great indoor-outdoor carpeting.

  • Polyester is another staple yarn that wears well and won’t make you sniffle. It handles sun well but is a bit more difficult to clean than nylon or wool. It is not as resilient as those mentioned above and has a tendency to lie down on the job. In other words, it crushes underfoot and doesn’t bounce back as well as the others.

THE BACK STORY

Carpeting is tufted, meaning it's unceremoniously punched through something called primary backing. A secondary backing is then applied over this to make sure those little fabric buggers don’t escape out the back way.

Backing is generally made of either natural fiber such as jute, or polyester. Woven carpets that are made by weaving the top and backing together into one piece don’t require backing.

Padding

Padding is primarily meant to keep your carpeting from disintegrating on contact with air and comes in many type and thicknesses. Since padding will have an impact on how long your carpeting lasts, it pays to find the right kind for your carpeting.

Felt padding is made of animal hair or jute (the glossy fiber of certain Asian plants—Corchorus olitorius and C. capsularis—for all you botanists). It is quite pricey and works well with woven carpets.

Urethane foam is the most common form of padding and comes in many densities. When shopping for it do the Mr. Whipple and squeeze the Charmin out of it to check how dense the product is. If it flattens easily between your fingers, there isn’t much there but air.

Rebond is recycled urethane leftovers scrunched together. It’s available in your basic plethora of thicknesses and you should shop for it as you do for urethane foam. In other words: squeeze away.

PILES OF STYLE

There are tons of wall-to-wall carpeting styles to pick from:

Berber
Invented by the Berber of Seville (joke), Berber carpeting is made up of rows of fabric loops that can all be one length or different lengths. It’s tough stuff, too. Keep in mind that you will see the seaming in Berber more than in other styles. It also crushes underfoot and doesn’t rebound well from foot traffic.

Cut-Pile
Cut-pile is created by lopping the tops of carpet loops and creating two separate yarn tufts. There are a variety of cut-pile styles: Plush, Saxony, Velvet and Cut and Loop. Velvet is thick and cushy but it shades, or leaves footprints after having been walked on. Saxony fibers (twists of fiber) behave as unruly split ends and have to be heat set (ouch) like your perm. Plush is what is probably under your feet at the moment (a common flat cut) and Cut and Loop is just what it says.

Designer Mark McCauley, ASID, is a carpet expert in the Chicago area.

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