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What to Know Before Buying Carpet

Martha Stewart Living, September 2005

A walk through the basics of choosing the perfect floor covering.

Carpet tends to be underfoot and out of mind. But when it's time to choose a new one, all thoughts turn to the floor. Here are the pros and cons of common carpet styles and fibers as well as a translation of some showroom lingo.

The carpets here can be installed wall to wall or ordered in a specific size with bound edges to be used as an area rug -- a good solution for large or oddly shaped rooms. (Specialty area rugs, such as Orientals, have their own considerations and are not included here.)

One of the first choices to make is between tufted and woven construction. Most carpets are tufted, consisting of rows of machine-punched yarns held together by adhesive and a backing. They generally last between five and seven years. Woven carpets, made on a loom, are known for their long life span -- 20 to 30 years. You'll pay significantly more for the higher quality. Most of the styles and fibers listed here are used for both woven and tufted carpet. So start looking -- and you're on your way to kicking off your shoes.

Get in the Loop

Identifying styles of pile -- the yarn that makes up a carpet -- becomes easy when you see samples up close. Pile is sheared for "cut pile" or left intact for "loop pile". A combination is called "cut-and-loop pile."

Dive into the Pile

Seeing and touching carpet samples will drive home their differences -- and your preferences. Pile heights include short velvet piles and longer plushes; deeper pile has a more luxurious feel, but short pile tends to be easier to care for. A carpet label is required by law to list fiber content and country of origin; some will include additional helpful details.

The Next Steps

As you shop, take the opportunity to ask questions, read labels, and find out how to install and maintain the carpet you buy.

Price and Particulars

Bear in mind that carpet is often priced per square yard, not square foot. (To calculate the price per square foot yourself, divide the price per yard by nine.) Be aware, too, that when you look at a carpet sample, the color might differ slightly from what would be delivered to your home. Consider asking for a roll-cut sample -- a piece of carpet cut from the lot you would actually purchase. This is particularly helpful when it comes to fibers with a tendency to fade, such as sisal or jute.


The pressure a carpet withstands results in crushed pile and ground-in dirt. Some of that can be alleviated by padding, which also absorbs sound. Not all paddings are suitable for all carpets, so ask before you buy. For instance, "hard" carpet, including those made from most plant fibers, can be damaged by ultra-cushiony padding (the space it creates invites shoe heels to puncture the carpet).


"Installing" an area rug is easy -- just be sure to lay down the proper padding first. But wall-to-wall can be quite tricky. To make sure carpet stays put and the seams are inconspicuous, leave the job to professionals. For large rooms, ask your retailer if the carpet you're buying will "seam well." No seam is invisible, but some carpets disguise them better than others.


Before cleaning, check the manufacturer's instructions. Cleaning methods for carpet vary by fiber, but a weekly once-over using a vacuum with good suction and a rotating head keeps many carpets looking their best. (For delicate carpets, such as hand-woven or hand-tufted, use a vacuum without a rotating head.) A professional can steam-clean synthetic and wool carpet, if needed.

How a carpet's pile is cut and shaped contributes to its look and feel -- short or shaggy, soft or nubby -- and to how well the product wears.

Sisal-like carpets are meant to imitate the look of sisal or other plant fibers and are made from wool or a synthetic.

What to know: These mimics are softer underfoot than the real thing, and they release stains better. However, many people prefer the appearance of real sisal.

Wilton is considered the premier woven carpet. It is made on a jacquard loom and can have cut, loop, or cut-and-loop pile.

What to know: These carpets are tightly constructed, making them dense and durable. Worsted-wool Wiltons are some of the best carpets available.

Saxony carpet yarns have a soft twist or curl; the pile is often cut at an angle.

What to know: Saxony is not quite as textured as frieze but it still effectively conceals marks, making the carpet a popular choice for children's rooms and family rooms.

Velvet carpet is soft, like the fabric for which it's named. The pile is short, uniform, and dense.

What to know: The carpet has a matte finish, giving it an understated appeal. Velvet pile generally holds up well but, like plush, its uniform surface exposes indentations and tracks.

Frieze is a cut-pile carpet with twisted yarns and a crimped, textured appearance.

What to know: The twisted strands of a frieze carpet obscure footprints and vacuum marks well, and the tousled look complements an informal room.

Shag has pile so long it doesn't stand upright, giving a carpet a "shaggy" look.

What to know: No longer just a throwback to the 1960s and '70s, today's shags come in contemporary colors and have an inviting feel. But those long yarns can still get caught in the rotating head of a vacuum.

Axminster is a cut-pile carpet that is woven by definition. It is often called "pub carpet," a reference to the carpet's frequent appearance in restaurants and hotels.

What to know: Axminster tends to be the most affordable of the woven carpets and is available in a wide range of colors. Like a Wilton, it is long-wearing. But it is not as refined and may appear industrial.

once referred specifically to an undyed Moroccan rug. Today the term is used broadly to describe most loop-pile carpets.

What to know: Because loop pile has no exposed tips (unlike cut pile), it is especially durable. This makes berber a good choice for high-traffic areas, such as family rooms, hallways, and staircases.

Ribbed cut can be a cut-and-loop pile or a cut-pile carpet that is trimmed in areas to create carved designs; it may also have color variations throughout.

What to know: Because its textured surface can camouflage marks and stains, ribbed cut is another good choice for children's rooms or other high-traffic spaces.

pile is cut to a smooth, level height. It is higher and less dense than velvet.

What to know: Plush carpet is comfortable underfoot, making it a cozy covering for a bedroom floor. But its pile is easily crushed, revealing indentations.

A carpet's appearance, texture, and longevity also are determined by its fibers. The pile can be natural, synthetic, or a blend of several fibers.

Wool is strong, static-resistant, and pleasing to the touch.

What to know:
It is the fiber that most synthetic fibers are meant to imitate, and it is more costly than those materials. Wool is resilient and also naturally stain-resistant and flame-retardant. Note that a wool carpet will shed a bit initially.

Silk carpet is largely produced in India, China, and Turkey.

What to know:
Carpets made from silk are soft and luxurious. Silk dyes better and is more durable than any other fiber. Because of silk's high cost, the fiber is often blended with wool.

Cotton carpeting was popular in the United States before World War II. Today, it's made almost exclusively in Belgium.

What to know:
Cotton carpet, like cotton clothing, wears well and has a natural feel. A magnet for dust and dirt, it should not be used in high-traffic areas.

Linen yarn is made from flax. Most linen carpeting is produced in France and Belgium (the latter is generally considered the better quality).

What to know:
Linen carpet is lustrous and can help absorb humidity. However, it can be quite costly, and with age, linen carpet will reveal traffic patterns.

Sisal comes from the agave plant; the highest-quality fibers are from East Africa.

What to know:
Sisal is strong (second only to wool). It is one of the more pricey plant fibers. Sisal is particularly prone to fading in direct sunlight and can be stained even by water.

Jute flooring is made from the jute plant, which also is used to make burlap and twine.

What to know:
Jute is softer than sisal but also less durable. Like sisal, it can be damaged easily by sunlight and liquids.

Coir is the fiber taken from the hairy husk of coconuts.

What to know:
Coir is durable, wiry, and mildew-resistant. In other words, coir makes the perfect doormat.

Sea grass carpet is made from a variety of reedy plants and has a greenish tint.

What to know:
Although durable, sea grass carpets are not very absorbent; they should not be used in moist or humid rooms. Sea grass costs less than sisal and jute.

Paper carpet is made from paper cords coated in a protective wax.

What to know:
Paper carpet is, in fact, quite strong. It is more water-resistant than carpets made from other plant fibers, but liquid spills should still be blotted immediately.

Polyester has a wool-like appearance and is often used for cut-pile carpets. It dyes well, so it's available in a range of vibrant colors.

What to know:
Polyester carpet is soft, stain-resistant, and affordable. It's not as resilient as other carpet fibers, and may mat down in a short period.

Olefin is a glossy synthetic fiber usually sold in muted colors.

What to know:
Olefin is one of the less expensive synthetics. Water-and stain-resistant, it's often used outdoors. However, the fiber crushes easily.

Nylon is the most popular carpet fiber in the United States.

What to know:
Nylon is durable, resilient, and stain-resistant. It is one of the more expensive synthetic fibers. The fiber comes in many hues; look for solution-dyed nylon, which is colorfast

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