Synthetic Rugs Vs. Wool Rugs

Cost and compression are two words that describe the spectrum of carpets, from high-end hand-knotted wool to bargain basement, replaceable, machine-made fiber.
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Budget-busting beautiful wool or practical, durable polypropylene -- your choice between wool or a synthetic rug may come down to price, but there are a number of other significant differences to affect your decision. Sustainability and crush-quotient are among the carpet characteristics to consider.

Griffins, Lotus Buds and Fallow Deer

In the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, a fragment of a hand-knotted carpet, made sometime between the 5th and 4th centuries B.C., sits in climate-controlled storage in faded glory. The early Iron Age rug from the Pazyryk culture once gleamed vivid yellow, blue and red, with elaborate borders of stylized lotuses, griffins, fallow deer, men and horses. The rug might have been originally Persian or it might be a skillful copy. It is the oldest known fragment of a surviving carpet -- and it's wool. Wool is an extremely durable rug fiber.

Wool Advantages

Wool is the finest quality rug fiber because it

  • Holds up under hard use
  • Is very resilient
  • Takes dye beautifully
  • Depicts precise details
  • Repels water and stains
  • Insulates 
  • Muffles sounds
  • Creates a microclimate by absorbing humidity 
  • Will last for generations with the right care. 

Wool rugs are often handmade, the most valuable and best investment-caliber type of rug.

And Disadvantages

Wool is expensive, needs pricy professional cleaning, retains some stains and shows wear eventually -- the pile can wear away over time and even develop bald spots. Wool absorbs humidity and can give off a sour animal odor, and is impractical in homes with small children and accident-prone pets.

Synthetic Carpet

There are several types of synthetic carpet fibers -- the best of them is nylon. Synthetic carpets are petrochemical derivatives, so they are not as green and sustainable as natural fibers like wool. But they do have their advantages.

In general, synthetic rugs are easy to clean, quite durable, fade and stain resistant, and cost significantly less than a good wool carpet. You can swap out a synthetic rug after a few years without a fiscal twinge, and your kids and pets can blithely wreak their usual havoc on the carpet.

The downsides are that the carpets are cheap -- or cheaper than wool; they don't feel as nice as wool, don't last, need more frequent cleaning, will yellow, and won't show craftsmanship and fine detail because they are machine-made copies of wool rugs.

Types of Synthetics

Synthetic rugs are made from nylon, olefin, polyester, acrylic yarn and polypropylene. Nylon is the standard for synthetic rugs -- it has the best resilience. Thats means its fibers compress underfoot and spring right back, unlike polypropylene that compresses and crushes, losing its looks and loft. Nylon holds color well, hides dirt and will survive the kids so you don't have to replace it too often.

Olefin, a polypropylene, is a strong fiber commonly used in synthetic Berber carpets. It can be treated to provide excellent stain resistance, is anti-static and works in commercial areas with heavy traffic. But it's difficult to keep clean and it has low resilience. A Berber carpet made with Olefin will hold up better with low loops rather than high loops, due to compression.

Hybrids

Carpets made with 20 percent nylon and 80 percent wool, or a similar blend, are designed to feature the best of both fibers. The rugs have the resilience of nylon and its durability. They are machine-made and less expensive than pure wool. They also have more of wool's appeal, as well as its drawbacks -- a tendency to absorb humidity, a higher price, less precise detailing, and lower grades on the barefoot test. A hybrid carpet will cost more than most synthetics, but it has no investment value.

About the Author

Benna Crawford has been a journalist and New York-based writer since 1997. Her work has appeared in USA Today, the San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times, and in professional journals and trade publications. Crawford has a degree in theater, is a certified Prana Yoga instructor, and writes about fitness, performing and decorative arts, culture, sports, business and education .