Comparing Synthetic and Natural Carpet Fibers

Natural fiber carpet swatches
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The carpet fiber is the type of material from which the strands of carpet are made. There are several different fiber types used in carpeting. Each fiber has its own characteristics, including certain strengths and weaknesses specific to that fiber type. In order to be sure that you choose the right carpet for your home, you need to understand the traits of the fiber types, and how they will affect the carpet’s performance.

All carpet fibers can be classified into one of two categories: natural fibers and synthetic fibers.

Synthetic Fibers

Synthetic materials are those not found in nature. They are machine-made from various chemical compounds. Synthetic fibers represent the vast majority of carpet fibers sold today.

There are four major types of synthetic fiber used in carpeting: nylon, polyester, polypropylene (olefin), and the newest synthetic carpet fiber, triexta.

Natural Fibers

Natural fibers are comprised of materials that grow in nature, and that are harvested and processed into fibers. While natural fibers make up a relatively small percentage of broadloom in today’s market, they still have a place in the carpet industry.

There are many natural materials, but only several that are commonly used in carpet. Wool is by far the most common natural fiber in carpeting and is virtually the only natural fiber used in broadloom (wall-to-wall carpet). Other natural fibers are more often made into area rugs, including sisal, cotton, seagrass, jute, silk, and coir. Most of these fibers are either too weak or too rough to be made into broadloom.

Differences between Natural and Synthetic Fibers

While each fiber type has specific traits and differences, there are some general characteristics of natural and synthetic fibers than can be observed.

Eco-Friendliness

Natural fibers are generally more environmentally friendly than synthetics because they are made from more sustainable resources. In addition, synthetic fibers will release volatile organic compounds (VOCs) which are gasses emitted from the fibers. Natural fibers themselves will not release VOCs, however, if the fibers are attached to a synthetic backing, then it is still possible for VOCs to occur.

Stain Resistance

Synthetic fibers are generally much more stain resistant than natural fibers. Although wool has a fairly good protective barrier thanks to the microscopic scales that cover the fiber, once a substance penetrates the barrier and gets into the fiber’s core, it is almost impossible to remove the stain.

In addition to being more stain resistant, synthetic fibers are generally also easier to maintain. They are more easily cleaned with common spot treatment products found on grocery store shelves and can be deep cleaned through hot water extraction (commonly referred to as steam cleaning). By contrast, natural fibers require specialty cleaning products and professional cleaners specially trained in dealing with the particular fiber type – all of which translate into a higher cost to maintain a natural fiber carpet than a synthetic one.

Durability

Durability is one area in which it is difficult to make an overall comparison between naturals and synthetics, because of the individuality of each fiber type. For example, wool is extremely durable and resilient to foot traffic. On the other hand, cotton – another natural fiber – is not very durable by comparison. Similarly, in synthetics, nylon and olefin are at opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of durability – nylon is one of the most durable carpet fibers available, while olefin is often better suited for low-traffic areas.

Cost

In general, natural fibers are more expensive than their synthetic counterparts. Pricing out broadloom per square foot or square yard, or pricing out a specific size of area rug, will usually reveal that the natural fiber has the higher cost over the synthetic option. Also, as mentioned above, natural fibers are typically more costly to maintain.

Practicality

For many, synthetic fiber is much more practical than natural fiber, based on the elements we have just reviewed. For busy homeowners and families who don’t have a lot of time to spend cleaning their carpet, or money to spend on pricier natural fibers, synthetic carpet is the most suitable option.