Selecting Natural Fibers for Rugs and Carpets
Are you in the market for new carpet or rugs? The most popular options contain synthetic fibers like nylon and polyester, which are durable and affordable but may introduce toxic by-products into your home, depending on the manufacturing process.
If your top priority is maintaining a chemical-free, natural environment, you may want to explore floor coverings made from plant- or animal-based fibers instead of synthetic options. Here are a few possibilities:
Rug Fibers Derived from Plants
Sisal is an extremely long, strong, and durable natural fiber harvested from the leaves of the agave plant. The stiff fibers of this eco-friendly option are spun into yarns, which are woven into rugs and carpets.
Naturally tan, beige, or cream-colored, sisal fiber readily absorbs dyes, resulting in rugs and carpets in nearly any color. However, this trait also means they can stain easily.
Tough? Yes! Soft? Not so much. Sisal isn’t the best choice for lounging on the floor or play-time for little ones, due to its scratchy, prickly texture.
Cat owners may find that their kitties like to sharpen their claws on this fabric, which will snag it.
Due to its strength and durability, sisal is an excellent choice for high-traffic areas, including halls, entrances, and commercial office spaces.
One of the most affordable natural options, jute is a soft fiber with extremely high tensile strength, natural luster, and uniformity. It is harvested from the tall stalks and outer layers of the fast-growing jute plant.
Also known as “burlap” or “gunny cloth,” jute is grown in many countries. However, most of the world’s supply originates in India and Bangladesh.
The long fibers (three to 13 feet) are strong, eco-friendly, biodegradable, and recyclable. Unlike some natural fibers like cotton, jute doesn’t require fertilizer or pesticides during cultivation.
Jute is also called “the golden fiber,” due to its natural shade of light tan. It can, however, be dyed into many other colors.
One of the softest natural fibers, jute is best suited for bedrooms, family rooms, and lighter traffic areas.
One potential negative is that jute fibers may shed. They’re also vulnerable to yellowing when exposed to direct sunlight.
Seagrass fiber is harvested from—you guessed it—grass planted in paddy fields flooded with seawater!
This fiber is naturally water-repellent but is susceptible to mold and mildew damage if used in damp areas like bathrooms or kitchens.
Seagrass is stain resistant, making it an excellent choice for spill-prone areas and for folks who are housetraining pets. Seagrass’ stain resistance also means it’s nearly impossible to dye and is only available in its natural light tan color.
Seagrass fibers won’t fade in direct sunlight. It’s anti-static and sturdy but offers minimal cushioning.
Coir is a natural fiber harvested from coconut husks. The longest fibers are selected, soaked (for months!), and eventually woven into yarn that is used to make rugs and carpet.
Rough and bristly, coir is not recommended for use in areas where people will sit on the floor, walk barefoot, or where children may be playing. Extremely durable and naturally insect repellant, coir is well suited to high-traffic areas.
Coir rugs are usually handmade and provide excellent noise insulation. They will, however, fade in direct sunlight and tend to shed over time.
Coir is not as mainstream as other natural carpet fibers, so it may not be easy to source.
Rug Fibers Originating from Animals
One of the most durable natural fibers, wool is harvested by shearing sheep.
Wool fiber is often chemically treated during manufacturing, so research your brand and check labels. Organic and chemical-free wool rugs and carpets are also available.
It's an excellent insulator that limits the transfer of heat and cold from interiors to exteriors. Like your favorite pair of merino socks or base layer shirt, wool carpeting will help keep your home warm in the winter and cool in the summer, naturally.
Wool can be dyed in an unlimited range of colors and shades. Because it’s easy to dye, it’s also easier to stain with dye-like substances (red wine, juice, tomato paste, etc.). Otherwise, wool is naturally soil resistant and repels the oily stains other fibers tend to attract.
Wool is also naturally flame retardant. However, it will fade in direct sunlight. Plus, it’s expensive and requires special handling. For instance, many cleaners are too harsh for wool and, since it retains water, wool is prone to mildew.
Aside from the cost, wool wears exceptionally well and resists “crushing.” With proper care, it will usually outlast its synthetic counterparts and look great for years—even decades!
Silk is a natural fiber harvested from the silkworm larva’s cocoon. This is the most expensive natural fiber used in rugs and carpets. Because it is so pricey, silk is sometimes woven with wool to lower the cost.
Pure, 100-percent silk carpets and rugs are luxury goods with a material-defining sheen, a delicious softness, and a delicate temperament.
Silk rugs can be damaged by hot water, detergents, steam cleaning, and vacuums that use revolving brush attachments.
Costly, delicate, and easily stained, silk rugs are best suited for low-traffic areas. They are often hung on walls rather than being placed underfoot.
Often, two or more natural fibers are combined in rug and carpet production, intended to deliver the best qualities of each strand or reduce costs. Online reviews for specific products may give you a better sense of buyer satisfaction.
If you are interested in natural fibers to avoid the toxic fumes that occur from the “off-gassing” of volatile organic compounds, make sure the manufacturing process does not introduce potentially dangerous dyes and chemical treatments. Also, be sure your installation uses non-toxic padding and non-toxic adhesives.