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First of all, how do you pronounce "sisal?"
The preferred pronunciation is with a long "i" - sayh - sul (or seye - sul). However, the pronunciation with a short "i" is often heard and is generally accepted - sih - sul. Either way you say it, it has become one of the most popular natural fabrics for a variety of area rugs and other applications. Here, then, is (almost) everything you need to know about sisal and sisal rugs.
Sisal fibers are made from a plant called Agave sisalana that is native to Central and South America. It got its name from the port of Sisal in Yucatan. This was the primary shipping site from which the world received its sisal in the 19th century, but ironically, no sisal was actually grown in the Yucatan area.
Today sisal is grown from Florida to Brazil and certain African countries, most notably Tanzania and Kenya, have thriving sisal plantation. The only agriculturally grown fiber that is produced in a greater quantity is cotton.
It's hard to find a product category today that doesn't make use of sisal's coarse fibers, which are both flexible and strong. Most people are familiar with twine and rope make of sisal, but you can also find sisal in furniture, wall tiles, specialty papers, spa products, slippers, and even automotive parts. There's a good chance your cat is digging her claws into a sisal scratching post.
One of the reasons sisal is considered so eco-friendly is that one plant has a 7-10 year life span and produces up to 250 usable leaves. Each leaf contains an average of 1000 fibers. It is certainly one of the most prolific and highly renewable sources of raw materials on the planet. As an added benefit, no pesticides or chemical fertilizers are used in sisal production and what little weeding that is necessary is typically done by hand - thus, no herbicides either.
When it comes to rugs, sisal is an ideal fabric because it can be used both indoors and out, has a wonderful "natural beauty" and, as mentioned previously, is completely eco-friendly. However, a sisal rug does require care and a bit of preventative maintenance. Although sisal can be considered moisture resistant, it is certainly not waterproof. Don't place it in an area in which it will get drenched or worse, actually soak in standing water. You'll find yourself battling mold and mildew in no time. High humidity can also affect a sisal rug, since it has a tendency to expand under this condition. When the humidity returns to a lower state, the rug's fibers might actually become loose. This is not good. So even though most people consider sisal to be an indoor/outdoor fabric, make sure you're not placing you rug in harm's way by letting it repeatedly get soaked.
The good news is that sisal does not build up static electricity nor does it trap dirt. Therefore, about the only care a sisal rug needs is to be vacuumed regularly. This actually strengthens the rug and keeps the fibers in like-new condition. However, don't use the vacuum's beater brush on your sisal rug. Simply attach the bare-floor tool and run is lightly over the rug, being sure to go both directions - top to bottom and left to right. With proper care, a sisal rug will give you many, many years of use.
Cleaning of liquid spills or excessive dirt can be a bit tricky with a sisal rug. They key is to react quickly before the liquid can soak into the fibers. Blot with a dry cloth. Do not rub, which will only press the liquid deeper into the rug. If the spill is something that has the potential to stain - for example juice or ketchup - you can use a mild soap-and-water solution or a half-vinegar half-water solution to try and minimize the discoloration. Again, blot, don't rub. And be sure to blot the rug dry after you have finished. Don't forget to turn the rug over and check the bottom to make sure the spill didn't soak through. If it did, clean the bottom in the same manner that you did the top surface.
Dryer materials like mud can usually be scraped off the rug with a blunt edge. Use wood rather than metal so you don't run the risk of cutting into the rug. Vacuum the flakes off the rug and, only if necessary, apply any sort of cleaning solution. Alternately, you might try one of the special dry cleaning powders that are made specifically to clean area rugs. Products such as Capture Rug Cleaner are excellent for use on any type of rug that you want to keep dry, such as sisal.
If your sisal rug becomes soiled to the point when spot-cleaning and/or vacuuming no longer do the trick, take it to a professional dry cleaner. Horror stories abound of people who have tried doing this themselves - or have rented a commercial system thinking they will save some money - only to completely destroy their beautiful sisal rug. Please don't become one of them!