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Shag, Berber And Sisal Still Kings Of Wall To Wall

Originally Posted: April 28, 2009

Cindy Lee Bergersen

Sisal is considered a decorator's favorite because of its neutral color and uniform texture. Images courtesy of Jupiter and Google Images

Southampton - From its origins in the 18th century, broadloom carpeting defined luxury. That was until the 1960s and 1970s, when it "pond hopped" here by popular demand. Its use spread like kudzu and the quality tanked to appease all price points. It became cheap, because it was cheap - and looked it. Try not to remember the shag carpeting of the 1970s, if you were around then.

As a result, its use has frequently been considered by some design snobs to be rather "suburban" at best, as if "suburban" were a bad and un-cool thing. The notion was relegated to the "for use only in bedrooms" category, if one must.

Loosely twisted wool carpeting.

Recently however, as style trends rotate, wall-to-wall carpeting is being revisited and has returned in the most up-to-the minute designs and high quality. It has always had built-in advantages - it's nice and warm underfoot, and made more comfy with the requisite rug pad. It's great for family rooms too, or anywhere the kids might want to play around and tumble.

For the most part, the obvious pluses that are true for wall-to-wall carpeting are also true for rugs, except more so. Like a rug, a carpet will add color and texture in a way that compliments the overall look and comfort in your home. A carpet will also "ground" the room and your furniture arrangements.

On the extra credit side, wall-to-wall carpeting has a few tricks of its own to offer. Where a rug will unify a grouping of furniture, wall-to-wall carpeting unifies a whole room and the unbroken expanse of pattern and/or color also seems to expand the size of a room visually. It offers terrific sound absorption to boot. This is a considerable boon in households with young children. If all this weren't enough, here's the big bonus - it's the best solution for disguising floors that have seen better days, or floors that weren't finished well to begin with.

By the way, if you want all of these great characteristics AND you want to take it with you, have the rug cut to room size but short 6 inches on all sides of the room. You will lose a bit of sound muffling because of the smaller size and different type of rug pad needed, but the rug served this way, can be re-cut and the ends re-finished if and when you re-locate.

Example of Berber capet texture.

Form Follows Function
Some working knowledge of the usual suspects of carpet fibers and blends available along with carpet styles is critical in your selection process. It's like checking the weather before you dress for the day.

Wool is considered to be the best fiber for this application for many reasons. Of all the fibers available for use in carpeting, wool wears the best and has the softest feel. It takes dye well in a wide range of colors. It's the easiest to clean, because it is, after all, hair. It's also the most expensive. The fact that a wool carpet wears beautifully and has the longest life, makes it an excellent investment. This is one of the main reasons for buying higher quality at a comparable higher price. The cost is amortized over time.

By contrast, the natural fibers such as sisal, sea grass, (and to a lesser degree, jute, coir and abaca too) have been "decorator's favorites" for some time. Because of its neutral color and uniform texture, they can work well in most décor categories and are considerably less expensive than top quality wool carpeting. However durability ranges only from fair to poor. Furthermore, they are very hard to clean, as the cellulosic fibers absorb liquids rather than repel them as wool does. They're scratchy to walk on too. The best benefit is that for reasonable cost you can have an attractive neutral floor covering that adds color, texture and subtle pattern to give you the perfect backdrop to layer your finer area and scatter rugs over.

Shag is still a favorite - retro colors make this texture carpet a real statement.

Mix Masters
Nylon and acrylic mimic wool in some regards, and are the most widely used synthetics to blend with wool. Their addition maximizes the positive characteristics of wool while reducing the cost of the finished rug. To that end, you will most frequently see wool and nylon blends or nylon and acrylic blends. Nylon carpeting as the sole fiber is also a good, lower cost option now that the former problems of static electricity and shine have been modified with new treatments and solutions. As a synthetic fiber, nylon is very durable, strong and resists abrasion and is non-allergenic. It's available in a wide range of colors and comes pre-treated with stain-guarding chemicals. Acrylic fibers have some characteristics that resemble wool in look and feel also. It resists soil and holds up to wear, but it doesn't take color as well as the other fibers mentioned and the pile can be subject to crushing. Because acrylic fibers are moderate in price along with their wool-like characteristics, they are a good choice in a blend with nylon. Olefin and polyester are inexpensive synthetics you will find in indoor/outdoor carpets because they are easy to clean and not adverse to water.

So, What Am I looking At?
The terms Plush or Saxony describe a thick, soft surface of cut pile (a/k/a yarn). It has a velvety, more formal look. Axminster carpets fall into this category and usually have an all-over pattern. This style is good for rooms with a medium amount or less of foot traffic.

Freize carpet texture.

Frieze (pronounced free-zay) is a type of Saxony carpet where the yarns have been twisted to give a strong textural pebbly look. Good for high traffic areas.

Loop or Berber are the terms for a flat minimalist weave that resembles sisal but is formed from uncut looped yarn. This is the most durable and wear resistant style of carpet. Woven in a neutral color with a sisal pattern, it can be used as the base layer for finer area rugs, as described for the natural fibers, to get the best of all worlds.

Shag is a cut pile that is over an inch long, with fibers twisted in a loose design. The look is "shaggy" and rough, but not good for high traffic areas.

Handle that last one with care. Let's just say, it adds a lot of personality to a room.

How Do I Do This?
Broadloom carpeting is sold in rolls to the distributor and is usually 12 to 13 feet wide. Your rug would be cut to requested size from a roll this width. Rooms larger than 13 feet wide will necessarily have seams. Work with the carpet dealer and the floor plan to figure out the best place for them. The goal is to run a seam in out-of-the-way places, not high traffic areas, and if possible, under fortuitously placed furniture. I strongly recommend that you buy from a reputable company that also will install their product for you. If any problem arises, there won't then be an argument about who will resolve it.

The only time a carpet pad is optional is when the carpet back is rubberized, as in the case with some sisal or seagrass offerings. Padding can prolong the life of your carpeting and depending on the pad, give some cushioning. Sometimes a standard backing sends out the kind of chemicals you don't want into the air so look for a backing made of jute or some other natural fiber. Ask about "green padding." Don't try to get more cushioning underfoot by using a thicker, bubble type pad that's actually intended for another type of carpeting than the one of your choice. The wrong pad can actually wear your carpet out faster because too much "give" can weaken the fibers.

Wool is considered by many to be the best fiber for wall-to-wall carpeting. Image courtesy of Jupiter Images

What To Use Where
Your carpeting goal is to enhance the look of your rooms by fitting in beautifully, in a practical way. The use of loud, large patterns and loud, strange colors is questionable in the hands of a novice. That goes for all but a few very talented designers too. Just sayin'...

With that warning in mind, a stripe can work trompe l'oeil magic. A stripe or a horizontal pattern across the width of a room will make the room seem wider. The room will seem longer if the same pattern is laid lengthwise.

As categories, tailored flat weaves, patterned neutrals, textured solids are all descriptions that could be considered marching orders to complete the look and comfort of a well appointed home in most style descriptions. They all lend understated, modern elegance.

 • A patterned design in neutral colors (tone on tone for example) is a well-mannered graphic statement that won't shout, while a carpet with a texture in a solid neutral color does the same, but also provides an interesting pattern because of the texture, that won't compete with any other patterns in the room.

 • Tailored flat weaves (described as loop or Berber above) work best in living rooms, dining rooms, library/offices or any high traffic lanes like hallways and stairs. Sisals and sea grass fall into this category but aren't known for durability in heavy use areas.

Practically speaking, as you might assume, a light colored rug is a cleaning challenge. It also shows any seaming more readily too. On the other hand, solid and dark colors highlight dirt, lint and dust bunnies by color contrast. Forewarned is forearmed. The fail-safe way to go is with a medium color that has flecks of different color. "Tweedy" weaves and textured solids are great for camoflage as well.

A friendly reminder: Don't wait until the day the installers come to check your carpet selection with the rest of your furnishings and lighting. Always bring samples home to check out in your environment. You can't be too careful. Happy hunting for well dressed floors.







Updated: May 21, 2009, 2:09 am
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