Synthetic and Natural: Carpet Fiber Basics

Carpeting
Carpeting. Getty / Pamela Spencer / EyeEm

For many, carpet buying is one of those not-so-fun home remodeling tasks. It's not quite as terrible as buying replacement windows or vinyl siding, but it falls within the same arena.

Carpet is wonderful stuff and has great qualities that have been forgotten within the resurgence of hardwood floor's popularity in the last 20 years or so. Time was, you wanted a house with wall-to-wall carpet. Suddenly, home buyers would tear up carpeting as soon as the contract was sealed.

When you talk to a carpeting salesman, the deck is stacked against you--especially when the talk turns to carpet fibers. Some salesmen may cloud the issue by talking about all sorts of different carpet fibers.

But when you get right down to it, carpet fibers can be broken down into just a small handful of types: synthetic or natural. The predominant natural fiber is wool. The synthetic group is broken down into 3 types. Here they are:

Synthetic Carpet Fibers

  • Nylon
  • Olefin
  • Polyester

Natural Carpet Fibers

  • Wool

Nylon

If you're a homeowner putting in carpeting, there's a 90% chance that the carpet you install will be composed of nylon fibers.

Nylon is a synthetic fiber with excellent durability. Nylon carpet is often associated with different brand-names, but in the end, it's still nylon. For example, Stainmaster® is not a carpet fiber but a Teflon coating from DuPont, developed in 1986, that is applied nylon carpet fibers to provide spill resistance.

Nylon is a very strong fiber, great for high-traffic areas. It resists moisture well and it dries out quickly, so it is a good candidate if you are looking for basement carpeting. After all, one way to prevent carpet mold is to keep moisture away from the carpet. During fall and winter months, nylon manages to remain fairly static-free.

On its own, nylon carpet fiber does not resist stains very well. This is why stainblockers are added. Nylon is one of the costliest of all synthetic carpet fibers.

Olefin

In the past, olefin was a popular fiber for carpeting. Now, it's not as prevalent, since better fibers have been developed. Olefin's chemical name is polypropylene. Olefin is one of the cheaper carpet fibers on the market.

One notable downside of olefin is its low melt point.

Polyester

PET is one abbreviation you will find for polyester carpet fibers. SmartStrand and Triexta fall in the polyester fiber class. The full name for polyester carpet fibers is Polytrimethylene Terephthalate, and usually goes by the initials PTT.

Polyester carpet fiber cannot match nylon's durability, but it does "take" the carpet dyes well and thus produces stunning hues with superb fade-resistance

Tip: Are "green, recycled, and eco-friendly" words you would like to apply to your next carpet? Aside from organic carpet fiber choices such as wool, sisal, cotton, and jute, one "green" fiber is purely synthetic and "grown" in a factory, not a farm: polyester. Polyester fibers often come from recycled plastic bottles. But don't assume this: check the label carefully.

Wool

Wool is the one non-synthetic carpet fiber we include on the list because of its superior qualities (as opposed to a fiber such as cotton, which is comfortable but not particularly durable). The chief reason a carpet buyer might choose wool, other than the "green" qualities associated with owning a man-made fiber, is this: it's very soft. Wool carpet has a softness that no synthetic fibers cannot match.

Downsides? For the average carpet-buyer, plenty. Wool is more expensive than synthetic carpet fibers and, because of the fiber's porosity, it soaks up moisture. This means that wool carpet is not the best choice for basements.

If you're looking for a close substitute for wool carpet, try acrylic fiber. While Orlon® is closely associated in consumers' minds with acrylic fiber, it is interesting to note that DuPont has not made Orlon® carpet since 1990 (mainly because acrylic fiber does not hold up well to traffic).

Instead, look to acrylic fiber blends, such as the 20% acrylic/80% wool blend from Stanton Carpet.

Note: This list is by no means exhaustive. Instead, it captures the majority of fibers you will encounter when shopping for carpet.