Carpet buying guide

It's hard to tell why some carpets are a lot more expensive than others, so we've written this short guide to help steer you through the choices. We've tried to speak in plain English, so we're sorry if some of our carpet geekiness snuck in.

Carpet construction

Carpet can be made from wool or a few different man-made fibres. It can also be woven or "tufted" - tufting is a modern process which is a lot quicker than weaving and is thus cheaper, and most carpet you see will be tufted. Traditional woven carpets are still available, you'll see them in the form of Axminster (ie single woven) or Wilton (ie double-woven). Traditional loom production is slow so relatively expensive. The woven construction is strong and should give a carpet with a long life, if combined with making it out of a strong fibre.

Carpet fibres

Wool is the oldest and most traditional material used to make carpet. It's a bit of a wonder fibre. It has natural bounce, warmth, cooling properties, and a soft feel. It can also be dyed with great colours. Then carpet makers discovered that mixing a little Nylon with it would add a lot of strength. Hence the 80/20 mix of 80% wool and 20% nylon which was used to make the best carpets.

The first man-made carpet fibre was Nylon. Early on the finishing process hadn't been perfected, so you will find a generation of old ladies swearing they'll never buy a nylon carpet as they cause static cling and you can't properly vacuum them. This was fixed quickly (by double tip-shearing them), but nylon still got a bad name. Nylon now makes excellent carpets, and you'll see them a lot in other countries, but in the UK they're hard to find (probably due to that generation of old ladies) - ours are mostly the cheaper polypropylene.

The cheapest fibre is Polypropylene. Since most people are concerned with price, an awful lot of carpets are made from it. One cool feature of polypropylene is that when the fibre is extruded the colour dye goes right through, meaning that you can clean it with aggressive cleaners like bleach and it won't lose its colour. (Imagine shaving a layer off a carrot - the orange colour goes right through so even if you remove some orange along with the stain, it's still orange beneath.) This is why a lot of carpets say "stain free" or "bleach-cleanable". The disadvantage to polypropylene is that it's the weakest of the carpet fibres, so it'll flatten and lose its appearance quicker than other sorts of carpet.

Polyester came into the 80/20 wool mix when carpet makers looked for ways to strengthen carpet without so much expense. They hit upon using a little bit of added polyester as it has a lower melting point than other fibres - they'd use a blob of polyester on top, heat the carpet to make it melt, and when it set it formed a protective sheath around the carpet tuft, giving it a longer life before flattening. So these days on the very best carpets you'll see a mix of 80% wool, and maybe 10% nylon and 10% polyester, or variations like 80/15/5. It may be under names like Meltbond or Tuftloc.

Equally, in the desire to make carpets cheaper, you'll see some products listed as 80% wool 20% synthetic - where that 20% is an inferior fibre like Polypropylene. This isn't as strong as Nylon, it's a cheap way to call it 80/20.

And that covers most of the carpets you'll find in the UK. It splits into two - better carpets made from wool, and cheaper carpets made from polypropylene. Within them you'll see better and worse versions.

Weights and gauges

Carpet quality can be measured in cloth weight. One may be 40oz per yard, another 50oz per yard. Obviously the heavier one means you're getting more carpet fibre packed into the space, and is thus better. However, they can either pack it in tighter, or looser but with longer pile. Long pile feels luxurious as your toes sink into it, and long pile "saxony" carpets are popular. Just remember that those long tufts will flatten quicker than shorter, more tightly packed-together ones. A shorter pile that's more densely packed will stay looking good for longer, so you're trading luxury feel for lifespan. The tightness of packing is called the gauge, with a 10th gauge carpet more densely packed than an 8th gauge.

So, what do you get for your money?

Budget

At the budget end, it's polypropylene tufted carpet. This could be in a cut-pile format ("twist"), or a looped-pile ("berber") - the looped pile will flatten less but feels harsher. If you want cheap and practical for rented property then a polypropylene berber loop is a value choice, with choices from £7/m.

Mid-range

If you want something comfortable without spending much, the polypropylene twists and saxonies are for you - and they're most of the things on the market as they're hugely popular. You'll have bags of choice. (In colour if not in pattern - but you have the fashion industry to thank for deciding that pattern is out. That's another story.) Our most popular saxony is £15/m.

High-end

If you want a carpet that lasts, and that stays looking good for much of that long life, you want wool. As to which wool carpet, well the old adage applies: you get what you pay for.

A basic 40oz 80/20 where the 20% is polypropylene may stay looking good for 10 years for an average household. And for this you'd pay maybe £25 per square metre.

 

For a better one, a 50oz 80/20 using nylon or meltbond, it may look good for more like 15 to 20 years, at a cost more like £35 per square metre.

Underlays

Cheaper carpets get away with using a "built-in underlay", in the form of a spun felt backing. (This has replaced the older foam backings which used to disintegrate into powder over time.)

But if you are having a good carpet, a good underlay lengthens its lifespan. Imagine when you walk across the carpet, you press it down. This would flatten the tufts of your carpet, and they only bounce back for so long. Putting an underlay underneath means that the underlay flexes instead of the carpet, keeping your tufts nice and perky.

Modern underlay is made from PU, or polyurethane. This is much better than the older rubber underlays as it retains more bounce over a longer period. Rubber tended to dry out and turn to powder over time. When shopping for underlay, don't just look at the thickness (eg 8mm or 10mm) but also at the density. We offer a choice of 3 grades.

Occasionally a different type of underlay is appropriate. For wheelchair users or for seamed Axminster "body" carpets a felt underlay may be best. If you have underfloor heating then a low tog rating underlay and carpet are important - your system will specify a maximum combined tog of carpet+underlay, and there are special underlays to achieve this.

You made it this far?!

Now I've probably bored you as much as I can for one article. There are loads more oddities to carpets - sisals and seagrasses and flatweaves and recycled bottles, pure new wool vs recycled wool, stainproofing, etc etc. If you want something specific then please call into the shop where we'll be pleased to help.