How is carpet made?


Get down close to your carpet and you'll find out a lot about it.
Get down close to your carpet and you'll find out a lot about it.
Judson Lane/iStockphoto

Have you ever wondered how carpet is made? To be sure, carpet isn't the sexiest topic of conversation you'll ever bring up at a party, but it's actually pretty interesting. Consider this cool little factoid: The carpet you currently have in your home may have been boiled in a vat of water at some point. It's one method of dyeing carpet during production.

Don't blame yourself if you don't know much about how carpet is made, even if you're standing or sitting on some right now. Something as pedestrian and prosaic as carpeting is easy to take for granted. We've been decorating our homes with carpet since nomadic Middle Eastern tribes laid it down in their huts 2,500 years ago. Today, more than a billion square feet (nearly 93 million square meters) of carpeting is produced in the United States each year; about 70 percent of that comes from a single town, Dalton, Ga. [source: Torpy, Seacrest]. Carpet may be somewhat easy to overlook, but if you get down close to the stuff, you'll find not all carpet is alike.

You can learn quite a bit about carpet just by running your fingers over it. You'll find out whether the pile -- the exposed top part of carpet we usually refer to as "carpet" -- is composed of individual strands (cut pile) or closed loops (tufted). You'll also be able to determine the density, or face weight, of the pile. You may also find that what you thought was a monochromatic carpet is actually the result of an optical illusion where several different dyes combine to create what looks like one color.

How is carpet created? What happens during its creation? Let's find out on the next page.

The Process of Making Carpet

A length of carpet being cut after production.
A length of carpet being cut after production.
Tarek El Sombat/iStockphoto

That plush sea of carpet keeping the floor of your living room nice and soft actually starts off as a bunch of loose strands of fibers called staples. The staples are put into a hopper where they're heated, lubricated and formed into slivers, which are wound into a long spool of fiber. From there, the carpet-making process is ready to begin.

Most carpet made today is tufted, or woven into closed loops. This method was developed in Dalton, Ga. -- the carpet capital of the world -- near the turn of the last century. Here's how it works: A needle pushes the carpet fibers through the underside of a piece of fabric called the carpet backing. A hook called a looper holds the fibers in place as the needle goes back down into the backing, forming the loop. It sounds a bit tedious, and it must have been before the advent of automated tufting machines. Today, these machines measure about 12 feet (3.65 meters) wide, with between 800 to 1,200 needles working to create carpet quickly and steadily [source: Carpeteria].

If the carpet is supposed to be tufted, then the actual creation process ends here. If cut pile carpet is being manufactured, however, then the tufted carpet goes through an additional step where the loopers holding the individual pile strands are pulled over sharp knives. This cuts the loops into the individual strands that make up a cut pile carpet.

The coloring process may take place at different stages in production, depending on the desired visual effect. As we mentioned earlier, some carpet is put into vats of water after production and boiled while dyes are mixed into the container. This is known as the Beck process. Another method, continuous dyeing, rolls and sprays dyes onto finished carpet. Still another, pre-dyeing, takes place before the carpet is processed. The actual yarn that will be used in the tufting process is dyed beforehand, which allows for uniform color.

Once the carpet is finished, it's washed, dried and vacuumed. Errant piles are trimmed and then it's sent on a conveyor belt past a final employee who uses a pile gun to fill in any overlooked bare areas. The carpet is now finished.

Sounds pretty straightforward, but what happens after you've bought and used the carpet and are ready to throw it out? What does it take to recycle old carpet? Find out on the next page.

What to Do With Old Carpet

Recycling this old carpet and padding is expensive but more sustainable than tossing it in the dump.
Recycling this old carpet and padding is expensive but more sustainable than tossing it in the dump.
Stephanie Howard/iStockphoto

By now, you've surely figured out that carpet isn't just some roll of textile that's spit out of a machine. There are several components to it -- backing, fibers and, once installed, padding. Most, if not all, of these parts are made of different substances. Carpet fibers are most often synthetic. They're usually made of polypropylene, polyester or nylon, but they're sometimes made of natural fibers like wool or cotton. The backing that fibers are woven into is most commonly woven PVC or latex. Carpet padding is usually made of foam rubber.

Unfortunately, a whole length of used carpeting couldn't be recycled because each component's ingredients would taint the others. The good news is all of these disparate components can be broken down into their respective parts so they can be recycled. The bad news is that carpet recycling in its current form is expensive and carpet recycling centers can be hard to find.

The expense of recycling carpet is found largely in the time it takes to break carpet down into its raw materials. Currently, it costs anywhere from five to 25 cents per pound to do so [source: CARE]. Anyone who's ever lifted a roll of carpeting knows that costs can add up quickly when it comes to recycling carpet.

Still, it's a lot more sustainable to recycle old carpet than to simply toss it in the landfill. The Carpet America Recovery Effort (CARE) suggests that anyone looking to recycle carpet should contact a carpet dealer. CARE wants to ensure that as much as 40 percent of old carpeting is recycled by 2012. Sure, it will cost consumers some coin, but the carpet will end up in myriad other products like manufactured stone, auto parts and roof shingles. Who knows? A house being totally renovated may end up with new carpet on its floors and recycled carpet on its roof.

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Sources

  • Seacrest, Rose. "How carpet is made - background, raw materials, the manufacturing process of carpet." Made How. Accessed April 23, 2009.http://www.madehow.com/Volume-2/Carpet.html
  • Torpy, Bill. "Unemployment frays fabric of carpet city." Atlanta Journal Constitution. February 15, 2009.http://www.ajc.com/services/content/printedition/2009/02/15/dalton02151.html
  • Carpeteria. "Carpet - how it is made." Accessed April 23, 2009. http://www.carpeteria.com/ContentPage.aspx?Id=389
  • Carpet America Recovery Effort. "Frequently asked questions." Accessed April 23, 2009. http://www.carpetrecovery.org/faqs.php