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Pile is the word used in the area-rug world to refer to the material or fiber used for weaving a rug. Just about anything that can be transformed into a strand of yarn can, and has, been used to create an area rug. Sometimes the effect can be stunning. There are both natural pile fibers, which have been used for centuries to create rugs, and within the last 100 years or so, scientists have developed a tremendous amount of synthetic fibers.
Here then is a brief survey of the many types of natural pile you will encounter when searching for an area rug.
Bamboo – There are about 1,000 different species of bamboo plants on the planet and most all of them have been used to create area rugs. Because it is the single fastest growing plant on Earth it is also one of the most eco-friendly in that it is rapidly replaced after harvesting. Bamboo rugs are popular not only because of their unique look, but their durability. About the only drawbacks are that they tend to not be very soft underfoot and are rather difficult to color. Fortunately most people in the market for a bamboo area rug want it to look like what it is!
Coir – (pronounced KOY-er) - A rug made of coir fibers is basically a coconut turned into a floor covering! Coir is found between the husk and the outer shell of this unique seed – that’s right, a coconut is not a nut or a fruit – it’s a seed. Coir consists of a lot of cellulose, which makes it very durable and strong. It is extremely waterproof and one of the few natural fibers that is resistant to damage from salt water. There are actually two types of coir fibers; brown coir is harvested from a fully ripened coconut. It is thick and resists abrasion, but also not very flexible. White coir comes from a coconut before it is ripe. These fibers are finer and easier to fashion into yarn, but also a bit weaker than the brown variety.
Cotton – Although 100% cotton area rugs exist, it is used more frequently as an important fabric for the foundation and decoration of many rugs. It is used to add strength and shape to many other natural fiber rugs, and it can also add a degree of softness to an otherwise coarse rug. Obviously cotton is an easily renewable resource that is extremely easy to clean and maintain.
Hemp – Industrial hemp is used for making ropes and a variety of area rugs. Usually it is blended with other fibers such as flax, cotton or silk. Pure hemp is very strong, but also extremely coarse. Like bamboo, hemp is a rapidly growing plant and can be replenished quickly. It also is a very healthy plant, requiring no pesticides or herbicides, thereby making it one of the most eco-friendly of all area rug piles.
Jute – This is a long, soft, shiny fiber that comes, surprisingly enough, from the jute plant. (Officially it’s the corchorus – but who can pronounce that?) It is very inexpensive to grow and harvest. Jute is naturally heat and fire-resistant and is not susceptible to stretching or shrinking. It is also highly biodegradable. Usually the more shiny the fiber, the better its quality, although there are plenty of uses for low-grade jute yarns. You might be more familiar with what we call pieces of fabric that are made of jute – burlap.
Mountain Grass – This is a very specialized pile that isn’t very common. It is made from a special plant that grows at high altitudes of mountains on the Pacific Rim. It’s closely related to hemp in many of its characteristics. Mountain Grass rugs require a great deal of care because they are highly susceptible to mold and mildew if they get wet. With their unique and beautiful Earth tones, they serve a much more decorative function than practical one and need to be placed where they won’t receive much traffic.
Seagrass – As the name implies, this fiber comes from plants that grow in saline, marine environments. There are some 60 different species worldwide, but only the ones with long, narrow leaves are used to create area rugs. It tends to be woven in a style resembling rattan furniture and is probably better described as a floor mat than a true area rug.
Sisal – (pronounced SEYE sul) – This fiber comes from the agave plant and its main industrial use is for making twine and rope. It’s frequently called hemp, but it is not. Today most sisal is grown in Brazil, although it originally was cultivated in the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico. The main port for worldwide export was Sisal; hence the name. Sisal is strong and resists deterioration from all types of water. It also takes dyes readily, which is rare for natural plant fibers. Sisal rugs are very popular for their appearance, texture and durability.
Natural Pile - Animal Origin
Cowhide – Technically cowhide is not a pile that is sewn into an area rug. Nevertheless, cowhide rugs are popular with people who want to create a rustic or cabin look in a room. Shapes tend to resemble the animal rather than a traditional rectangle. Cowhide can be dyed, but most people prefer the look of the original breed of cow from which it was tanned.
Leather – Unlike cowhide, leather can be cut into strips of yarn and sewn into a rectangular area rug. There are many processes used to tan leather, but they all result in a rugged fabric that is flexible, water-resistant and often nicely aromatic. Leather also has great use as a border or accent pile in many area rugs. The combination of leather with wool can be stunning.
Silk – Although it is expensive, silk is one of the most beautiful and popular piles used in making high-quality area rugs. It comes from the cocoon of mulberry silkworms, which, unfortunately, kills the larvae. Some animal-rights proponents urge people to consider some of the artificial silk alternatives to the real thing. Silk is one of the strongest natural fibers, but loses up to 20% of its strength when it gets wet. It has poor elasticity and when stretched tends to remain that way. In addition, silk can be damaged by prolonged exposure to sunlight and can be attacked by insects. So with all of its many drawback and limitations, why are silk area rugs so incredible popular? There is no other pile that has the beauty, sheen and feel of real silk!
Suede – This is a special type of leather with a napped finish. (The word comes from the French for Sweden…and I have no idea why we call it this!) Suede leather is made from the underside of the skin of lambs, goats, pigs, calves, deer and cows. It is softer but less durable than standard, or full-grain leather. Often you will see suede combined with leather in a woven area rug, which tends to give the rug the best of both worlds.
Wool – By far this is the most commonly used pile in both ancient and modern area rugs. It is soft, durable, easy to weave and relatively inexpensive. It also takes dyes better than most any other fiber on the planet. Because it comes from sheep, it is completely renewable and totally eco-friendly. Coarse wool is more durable than fine wool, so generally it is agreed that the wool from sheep that live and graze at high altitudes is superior. New Zealand wool is among the most popular for area-rug making today. It is also relatively easy to combine wool with other pile materials, giving the rug maker an unlimited number of options for creating fine works of art for the floor.
Rugs Direct carries a wide selection of area rugs in all natural piles. Click on any of the links in this article for more information, or to go directly to the Rugs Direct home page, please click here.