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As discussed in our last entry, pile is the word used in the area-rug world to refer to the material or fiber used for weaving a rug. Obviously antique and most hand-made rugs are woven of natural piles such as wool, silk, cotton and other plant fibers. However, with a century of advances in chemistry and manufacturing, there are now a large number of synthetic fibers that can be used to make beautiful and durable floor coverings.
Here then is a survey of the many types of synthetic pile you will encounter when searching for an area rug.
Acrylic - Without getting too technical, acrylic fibers are made from a polymer called polyacrylonitrile. A rug - or any product made from this synthetic fiber - must contain at least 85% of the acrylonitrile monomer to be called "acrylic" in the United States. It was invented in 1941 by the Dupont Corporation, which trademarked it under the name Orlon.
Acrylic is lightweight, soft and feels a lot like wool. It is also extremely warm when used in clothing. It has even found acceptance as an inexpensive alternative to cashmere! Acrylic fibers accept dyes very well and hold their color and shape under most conditions. They resist shrinking and wrinkling. Acrylic rugs are resistant to moths, oils and chemicals. They also don't fade or deteriorate when exposed to direct sunlight for extended periods of time.
The disadvantages of acrylic rugs are that they tend to fuzz or pill rather easily. They also tend to store static electricity and, for people with sensitive skin or eczema, acrylic can be rather irritating. This is more of a problem with clothing made of acrylic than rugs, obviously.
Alkene - If you managed to get through Organic Chemistry you probably learned that an alkene, olefin or olefine is an unsaturated chemical compound containing at least one carbon-to-carbon double bond. No? Well, now you know. Impress your friends!
The alkene that is important in the world of area rugs is olefin, which is also known as polypropylene. (Sometimes this is shortened to polypropene and given the abbreviation PP.) This synthetic fiber is one of the most widely used in the world today. You can find it in packaging, ropes, laboratory equipment, loudspeakers, automotive parts, thermal underwear (Under Armor), textiles and, of course, carpets and area rugs. One of the beauties of polypropylene is that it is recyclable.
Polypropylene is basically synthetic wool when it is used in area rugs. It is durable, resists soiling, is easy to clean and does not build up static electricity. Many people consider it to be the perfect pile for area rugs with almost no drawbacks. Homes with pets or small children benefit greatly from this unique synthetic fiber.
Nylon - This is a generic term for a large family of synthetic polymers that were first produced in 1935 by a chemist working for the Dupont Corporation. It is a very silky material and, in fact, one of its first uses was as a silk replacement for parachutes during World War II. In addition to rugs, nylon can be found in paint brushes, women's stockings, rope and the strings for musical instruments. Many screws and gears in machines are now made of nylon too.
The Federal Trade Commission has a complex definition of what nylon technically means, but when it comes to shopping for an area rug, it is easiest to simply think of it as synthetic silk. It resists insects, mold, mildew and many chemicals. It resists abrasion and, despite its light weight, is extremely strong. A big safety feature of nylon is that it melts instead of burning when exposed to a flame.
Polyester - Although this term has been used to describe a lot of different materials, to be absolutely correct it only refers to polyethylene terephthalate (PET). Polyester products are used throughout the manufacturing world and in liquid form it is an excellent top finish for high-quality wood products such as guitars, furniture, pianos, yacht interiors and fine-quality wood floors. Fabrics made of polyester include clothing and a wide variety of home furnishings such as sheets, bedspreads, curtains and drapes.
Rugs made of polyester tend to be a little stiffer and feel less natural that ones woven from cotton. However, they offer resistance to wrinkles and increased durability. For this reason, it is very common to find rugs that consist of a blend of polyester with a natural fiber. The best of both worlds!
Rayon - In the strictest definition of the term, rayon is not truly a synthetic fiber. That's because it is manufactured from naturally occurring polymers, namely cellulose. It is more accurately called a semi-synthetic fiber. It is a very versatile material and many people find it as comfortable as most natural fibers. Through various processing methods it can be made to mimic the texture and appearance of silk, wool, cotton or linen. Rugs made of rayon pile are soft, smooth and usually have a sheen or luster to them. Rayon does not recover well when it gets wet and is not very elastic, so it requires a bit more careful treatment and placement than many other rug materials.
The word viscose is sometimes used to describe rug piles, but technically this is an organic liquid used in the process of creating rayon. If you come across a rug described this way, it is actually just another way of indicating the rug's pile is rayon.
Vinyl - Although vinyl can be woven into area rugs, many times they resemble floor mats more than true rugs. It is a very rugged material that will withstand weather and water extremely well, making them ideal for use outdoors. Most people agree that their function outperforms their form and vinyl rugs aren't all that attractive. Still, it is an important option to consider when decorating your home because of the huge practical benefits it provides.
Rugs Direct carries a wide selection of area rugs in all synthetic piles. Click on any of the underlined links in this article for more information, or to go directly to the Rugs Direct home page, please click here.