How to Choose the Right Carpet Fiber

Before spending money on your home's carpet, decide which fiber best fits your needs and budget.
Before spending money on your home's carpet, decide which fiber best fits your needs and budget.
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Carpeting matters. That's what experts are saying today. Carpeting is the third largest investment the average homeowner makes, topped only by the home itself and car [source: Carpet Buying Guide]. In years past, a carpet was considered a decorative addition. Now it's one of the basic building materials that help determine home value.

When you're shopping for carpet, the fiber from which it's made will be your most important consideration. The kind of fiber determines many of the carpet's qualities and accounts for 80 percent of its cost [source: Cooper]. Remember that no fiber is right for all situations. Before you make your choice, you should look at a number of factors:

  • Traffic: Is the carpet for a bedroom, where there will be minimal wear and tear? Or a family room, where there will be more? Or a hallway or stairway, which receives the most?
  • Budget: Prices vary quite widely. You should look for the best value that you can afford.
  • Moisture: Carpet for a bathroom, kitchen, basement or pool area may be exposed to dampness. Some fibers tolerate it, some don't.
  • Lifetime: Do you want the carpet to last for decades? Or are you planning to replace it in a few years?
  • Children and pets: Are there likely to be spills and accidents? Kids playing on the floor? You should consider these things before choosing a fiber.

Think about fiber in relation to other aspects of the carpet you're considering. For example, some fibers are best with low-pile or low-loop carpets. Some require greater density or more yarn twist.

Dying method is another consideration. Some fibers can be solution dyed -- the color is mixed in when the fiber is being made. With stock dying, the fiber is dyed later and the color does not penetrate.

Think of the difference between a carrot and a radish; the carrot, like solution-dyed fiber, is the same color throughout. Stock dying leaves the color on the surface, as it is with the radish, red on the outside and white on the inside. Solution dying usually results in a smaller range of colors available, but greater resistance to fading.

Remember that not all fibers of a particular type are identical. There are different grades and qualities of every type of fiber. A low-grade, poorly made carpet may not be a value, no matter what the fiber.

Read on to learn about the fiber that makes up almost two-thirds of all carpet purchases.

Choosing Carpet Fiber: Nylon

Nylon is the most common carpet fiber on the market today, accounting for about 65 percent of U.S. carpet sales [source: FastFloors.com]. Nylon was invented by DuPont in the 1930s as a substitute for silk. Now it has become a generic name for this versatile synthetic material.

Two types of nylon are used in carpet fibers. Type 6,6 has always been considered the premium form, with greater strength and durability. Type 6 is slightly less strong. It has been improved in recent years, making the difference between the two types minimal, put the best nylon carpets are usually made from type 6,6 [source: Olefin Carpet].

Nylon is most noted for its durability. Because it's the hardest of all the synthetic carpet fibers, it resists wear and abrasion. A nylon carpet will usually last longer than one made from another type of fiber. The fiber also has good resilience -- it bounces back after being bent or crushed. It has excellent yarn "memory," meaning that it holds its twist well. Nylon carpets are less likely than many others to show indentations after furniture has rested on it. It looks new longer than most fibers.

In general, nylon is easy to clean. It hides soil well. It can be vulnerable to stains from food and will also be discolored by bleach or strong acids like those in toilet bowl cleaner. Many nylon fiber carpets today are treated to make them more stain resistant. Nylon is not affected by moisture; it resists mildew and mold well. Most nylon is solution-dyed and comes in brilliant, long-lasting colors.

One drawback of nylon is that it tends to build up a static charge, which is transferred to a person walking across the carpet. You can accumulate as much as 12,000 volts, enough to sting your fingers when you touch a doorknob [source: FacilitiesNet]. The charge can also harm electronic gear like computers. Most nylon is now treated with an antistatic coating and may include carbon fibers to help dissipate charge. But you might want to avoid nylon carpet in your computer room.

Nylon comes in branded and unbranded varieties. You need to look carefully at the qualities of branded varieties like Stainmaster and Wear-Dated. Their greater expense may be offset by higher quality and added protection against stains and static.

Nylon is good for almost any part of the home, including high-traffic areas. It's easily the most versatile carpet fiber. You'll pay a bit more for nylon, but it's popular for a reason.

On the next page, you'll learn about another adaptable and well-liked carpet fiber.

Choosing Carpet Fiber: Olefin (Polypropylene)

Olefin and polypropylene are two names for the second-most widely used carpet fiber after nylon. Olefin is not as durable as nylon, but it's chemically inert and resists acid and bleach well. Olefin fiber carpets can be cleaned using strong cleaners without risk of damaging the fibers. Less expensive than nylon, olefin is a good choice for a carpet that does not need to be particularly durable. Olefin is solution-dyed and is the most colorfast of all fibers. An olefin carpet is good in an area exposed to sunlight.

Olefin is water-resistant. The fiber naturally wicks moisture, moving it toward the tip of each strand, so it discourages mold and mildew. It is often used for outdoor carpets and is ideal in damp basements. It dries quickly after getting wet.

An olefin carpet can be hard to keep clean. It attracts dirt and looks dingy when soiled. Even after the carpet is cleaned, the fiber tends to wick more dirt from the base as it dries, causing spots and streaks to reappear. Olefin is more resistant to water-based stains than nylon, but is vulnerable to oil-based stains and grease. Even bare feet walking on an olefin carpet can leave behind enough oil to show traffic patterns.

Olefin fiber carpets are not as resistant to wear as nylon. The fiber is not as resilient and doesn't spring back as readily. The carpet may mat where it has been repeatedly walked on -- the flattening is usually impossible to repair. The pressure of furniture can crush the fibers, leaving indentations. Another drawback to olefin is its relatively low melting point, so low that the friction of dragging furniture quickly across a carpet can be enough to leave scorch marks.

Olefin is best used in low-traffic locations. Its stain resistance makes it good for places where children and pets might create spills, such as a family room. It's ideal for damp areas, from pool changing rooms to basements to patios. It's also a good choice for computer rooms, because unlike nylon it does not create static-electric charges.

Look for olefin carpet that has a low pile or low loops in its construction. This will help it to resist being crushed or matted. Olefin fiber carpets of this type are common in commercial applications. They're popular in retirement and nursing homes because wheel chairs roll over low-loop carpets easily. When choosing olefin, you might opt for darker colors, which are less likely to show dirt or scorch marks.

Read on to learn about the carpet fiber that can be made from recycled soft drink bottles.

Choosing Carpet Fiber: Polyester

Polyester is another popular synthetic fiber used in carpets. Less expensive than nylon, it once had a reputation for being of poor quality. In recent years, polyester fiber has been improved considerably. It has its advantages and can represent an excellent value for certain applications.

Polyester carpets present a beautiful appearance when new. The fiber has a very luxurious "hand" (the feel of the fibers). Polyester also comes in some of the richest colors of any fiber. Because it is process-dyed, it has excellent fade resistance. Polyester's relatively soft fibers give it a rich feel, with high "perceived" quality -- that is, the quality you see in the showroom [source: Cooper].

The downside is that polyester is the least resilient carpet fiber. It does not stand up as well to traffic and will not last as long. Polyester carpets are susceptible to wear, matting and traffic patterns. When matted, the carpet is difficult to restore.

That doesn't mean you should reject polyester entirely. Polyester is a very economical fiber. It's good for allergy sufferers. It sheds moisture and resists moths and mildew. It won't shrink.

Polyester is fairly easy to clean. Like olefin, it resists almost all water-based stains but is susceptible to oil stains. Once oil gets into the fibers, it's difficult to remove. Polyester fiber carpets can shed individual fibers. They may also be susceptible to pilling, in which loose fibers become entangled with each other and form little particles on the surface.

You might choose polyester carpet when you're looking for a short-term carpet. Maybe you plan to replace it when you remodel or after the kids are out of the house. You should choose a high-density carpet. Make sure the pile or loops are not too long -- high-pile carpet may look good in the showroom, but it will mat quickly. Polyester carpet should have a high twist level to the tufts. In low-twist carpets, also known as blown fiber, the tufts tend to untwist, leading to rapid wear. Loop-style carpets, like Berber, can be good if you're going with polyester.

In the next section, you'll read about the most luxurious of all carpet fibers.

Choosing Carpet Fiber: Wool

Wool is the most expensive and luxurious fiber in everyday use for carpets. It has advantages over synthetics but costs considerably more. Because of its price and some other drawbacks, wool carpets represent only about 1 percent of U.S. market [source: Doityourself.com]

Wool fiber carpets are made from the hair of sheep, with New Zealand wool considered the finest. Some wool rugs are made from the hair of goats, llamas or alpaca. Wool is naturally resilient. Because the sheep's hair grows in a spiral, the fibers have an excellent "memory" when twisted into tufts. Wool fiber is durable and the carpets can last 60 years or more if properly cared for [source: The Flooring Lady]. The fiber is easy to dye and comes in rich colors.

But wool is high-maintenance. It usually requires a professional cleaner to do a careful job. The fiber has some stain-resistance, but wool can absorb protein-based stains like meat juice and blood. It's also sensitive to dye stains like tea, coffee and wine. Fortunately, because of the way the wool fibers bend light, it tends to hide dirt.

Wool's resistance to fire is another plus. While synthetic carpets can melt and burn, wool chars but does not burn. It can be a good choice if cigarette burns are a concern. Because it's a natural fiber, wool is a sustainable resource. It has good insulating properties. It absorbs and releases moisture, serving as natural humidifier. It resists dust mites, which can aggravate allergies.

Keep in mind that wool is almost always going to be more expensive than other fibers. Also, it can create a static charge, especially in dry weather, so -- like nylon -- you won't want it near your computer. Some people are allergic to wool.

Wool has low resistance to abrasion, so it can wear down in high-traffic areas. After long use, wool carpet can develop bald spots. It's also subject to damage by moths -- though most wool carpets are now moth-proofed before you buy them. Wool holds 10 times its weight in moisture, making it susceptible to mildew and mold. It can develop an odor and shrink if it gets wet.

Wool is more popular for rugs -- which cover only a part of a room -- than for wall-to-wall carpets. A wool area rug gives luxurious accent to a formal room. You won't want to use it for high-traffic areas like hallways. And it's not the best if you have kids or pets.

In the next section, you'll read about a fiber that looks like wool but is much less expensive.

Choosing Carpet Fiber: Acrylic (Art Wool)

Acrylic is a synthetic fiber made from acrylonitrile, a clear plastic. Acrylic carpets became popular in 1960s. The fiber, also known as "art wool," was seen as a wool substitute. Of all synthetics, acrylic is closest to wool in appearance and feel. It's cheaper than wool and has some desirable characteristics. It's sold under brand names like Acrilan, Orlon and Creslan. Though it has lost some of its popularity in recent years, acrylic still has a number of advantages:

  • Acrylic gives you the look of wool at a lower cost.
  • It's springy like wool; it has a luxurious "hand."
  • It resists soiling, stains, static and mildew. It's easier to clean than wool.
  • Unlike wool, acrylic is not susceptible to moth damage.
  • Acrylic colors are bright and resist fading in sunlight
  • While wool holds moisture, acrylic wicks it away.

But acrylic fiber carpets have some drawbacks that have limited their use. Acrylic is not as durable as wool, nor as resilient. It has a tendency to become fuzzy as fibers deteriorate and to pill like polyester. Acrylic is easily stained by oil and grease.

You are most likely to encounter acrylic in blends with wool. These have been created to make wool carpeting less expensive and to give it some of favorable qualities of acrylic. Pure acrylic fiber is more popular for scatter rugs. Because it wicks water and dries quickly, it's often seen in bathroom rugs. Any carpet containing acrylic fiber is best for low-traffic areas.

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Sources

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