How to choose carpet

I went to our local interior design shop the other day for my first introduction to flooring. I wandered in with trepidation and made my way to the back where an overwhelming display of carpets, rugs and lino samples met my eyes. A young lady kindly shared her expertise with me for about an hour.

My first question was something like, “What distinguishes between the different types of carpet?” My words didn’t come out that clearly though. She patiently put up with my awkward attempts to frame an intelligent question. Then she asked an oddball question of her own, “Do you want to sit on the carpet in your house?” There were a lot of other lifestyle questions too. Do I have children? Do I have indoor pets? Am I likely to put a wood fire in my house? What colour soil is on my house block? This very strange start to our conversation made sense by the end of my visit.

Flooring options are not just a matter of materials, textures and colour choices. Your choices will also depend on what you want to do with the flooring. “Walk on it” is apparently too simple an answer.

This is what I learnt that day. I hope I got it right.

Construction materials

There are three main materials used in carpet:

  • poly – a man-made synthetic.
  • nylon – another man-made synthetic.
  • wool – a natural product from the sheep’s back.

As a very basic explanation:

  • Poly and nylon are spun from plastic (sounds awful, but the feel is surprisingly okay).
  • Wool is spun from sheep fleeces.

If you decide on a poly or nylon carpet, check whether the carpet was solution-dyed or surface dyed.

  • Solution dyed has the colour mixed into the plastic during manufacture.
  • Surface dyed has the colour applied after manufacture.

Apparently surface-dyed synthetic carpet can turn white if bleach is accidentally dropped on it.

Budget versus materials

The price range for carpet varies according to it’s construction material.

  • The cheapest product is poly.
  • The mid-price product is nylon.
  • The most expensive carpet is wool.

Carpet prices can vary from AUD$50 – $200 per square metre.

Carpet also requires underlay. Underlay prices can vary from AUD$45 – $80 per square metre. Foam underlay is generally cheaper than rubber but there are various underlay qualities to choose between. If I remember rightly, the thick rubber underlay is recommended for old houses that have uneven floorboards in order to help smooth over the bumps.

Installation is an extra cost and depends on the quantity of carpet purchased and difficulty of installation (uneven floors, multiple corners, curves, staircases, etc).

Wood fires

If you drop a burning ember onto carpet and quickly remove it, the damage will depend on the material.

  • Poly and nylon will melt (because they are made from plastic).
  • Wool will singe the top surface of the carpet.

Wool is naturally fire resistant. The Australian CSIRO published the fact sheet “Flame Resistance of Wool” (pdf) that states:

Of the normally encountered textile fibres, wool is the most flame resistant.
…it is difficult to ignite wool, but once ignited, the flame speads slowly and it is easy to extinguish.

Wool is recommended for carpet near wood fires. However, always install a large hearth around a wood fire. Why damage any carpet or risk a fire at all?

Pets and carpet pile

If you have indoor pets who are likely to scratch at the carpet (dogs, cats, or anything with claws, beak or teeth) then you need to understand about carpet pile. Basically, carpet is fluffy stuff on top of a backing material. The fluffy stuff is the pile.

The pile is generally made by running a long thread along the surface of the backing material. The thread is poked through many small holes so that the thread is fixed to the backing material. You end up with loops of thread like this:

Sketch of carpet loop pile

Loop pile

One vigorous scratch by a pet could pull up a loop, which is attached to the next loop and the next loop, unravelling a thread. The end result is a bare line of backing material through your perfect carpet.

Cut pile is made is the same way as loop pile but the top of the loops are cut off. Each pile thread is broken into multiple small independent threads.

Sketch of carpet cut pile

Cut pile

Just to be interesting, there is also a combination pile – both loop and cut. This can be used to create patterns and textures on the surface of the carpet.

Sketch of carpet cut and loop pile

Cut and loop pile

Cut pile is recommended for use with indoor pets that will scratch at the floor.

Berber pattern

The term “Berber” originally described a type of colour pattern achieved only with wool carpets. Instead of a plain colour or a deliberately obvious repeating pattern, Berber gives subtle variations and colour flecks which are spread randomly across the carpet. It is quite beautiful.

Synthetic carpets can mimic a Berber pattern quite well, but lack the subtly and randomness of colour distribution.

Sketch of synthetic berber carpet

Sketch of synthetic berber carpet

Don’t misunderstand me – the synthetic samples I saw were great and I am very likely to choose a nylon berber carpet for myself. Its just that the wool berber samples looked better than great; they looked luxurious.

I thought that the Berber Carpet Bible website gave me a lot more information about berber carpets than visiting the interior design shop. I suspect this was my fault rather than the sales staff. I didn’t know enough to ask the right questions at the time.


Which is easier to clean and maintain?

Synthetic and wool carpets react differently to liquid spills such as wine. Both can be cleaned up fairly easily if done quickly. However, wool does have one distinct advantage. Wool contains natural oils. Oil repels water. Therefore, spilled liquids tend to sit on top of wool carpets for a little while before soaking down to the base.

Sketch of wine spills on synthetic and wool carpets

Something I learnt today: Apparently oil-based spills are difficult to clean off synthetic carpets (because plastic is an oil based product). So don’t degrease your car engine in the lounge room.

Twist and pile length

The tighter the threads of your carpet are twisted, the tougher it is. This means that it will bounce back from compression quicker and survive foot traffic longer.

Shorter pile length equals easier maintenance. Your vacuum cleaner can suck out the dirt easier.

On the flip side of the coin, a long pile length with loose twist threads can be very plush and soft. A very inviting option for those who like to sit on their carpet.

Checklist for carpet shopping

Start shopping for carpet at least 6 weeks before you want it installed. Two or three months is even better. This will give you a couple of weeks decision time plus allow the shop time to obtain and install the carpet. After all, you probably aren’t their only customer and will have to book several weeks ahead for an installation date.

Before you go to the carpet store, gather these items:Sketch of checklist paper and pencil

  • house plans with room sizes (even a rough sketch is better than nothing)
  • a budget idea (minimal cost, mid-range prices, luxury fittings)
  • clippings from magazines and photos of house interiors

The photos and clippings should reflect the type of house you like. If you have a favourite piece of furniture, take a photo of that with you too.

Shopping for carpet is apparently not just about buying a product. It’s about personally matching a carpet to you. How very odd.