When buying a new area rug, the first step is always figuring out what size rug you need. But the second step – choosing a material – is every bit as important. The material your rug is made of will determine how well it stands up to wear and tear, how easy it is to clean, how it will feel underfoot, and how long the rug will last, as well as what you’ll end up paying for it.
Wool is far and away the most common material used to make area rugs, and has been for centuries. That’s because the material is ideally suited to the task: a high quality, well made wool rug can last for generations. They are extremely soft, hold dye very well, handle heavy traffic, don’t crush over time, and develop a beautiful patina as they’re used. Wool can be vacuumed, wet cleaned, and gently spot cleaned, though dry cleaning is required for a more extensive cleaning. Wool rugs will shed fuzz while they’re new, but this shouldn’t be cause for concern. The biggest drawback of wool rugs is their price: they’re among the most expensive area rugs out there. That said, because the material is so common, you can find a huge variety of different types and styles of wool rugs at different price points, from expensive hand-woven area rugs made from New Zealand wool to more affordable machine-made rugs.
Cotton area rugs are also quite common, and are available in a wide variety of colors and styles. Cotton is often considered a more affordable alternative to wool, and the two are sometimes blended. That said, cotton rugs have a homier, more casual appearance, and while they’re quite durable and stand up well to heavy traffic, they certainly aren’t heirloom quality pieces and won’t last a lifetime. One of the main appeals of cotton area rugs is that they’re extremely easy to clean; not only do they stand up well to spot cleaning, vacuuming, steam, and wet cleaning, but many can even be tossed right in the washing machine, making them ideal for mess-prone areas like the kitchen.
Silk rugs are another type of heirloom quality rug. These include what you probably think of as oriental rugs, but can come in more modern designs as well. Silk rugs are actually made of a combination of silk and wool, but the silk gives the rugs their distinctive sheen and sleek feel, and can highlight the details in the wool design. Unfortunately, silk is a very delicate material, which means these rugs are best suited to low-traffic areas and can be fussy to clean. The rarity of real silk also makes silk rugs quite expensive, but a beautiful hand woven silk rug is very much an investment piece, as each one is one-of-a-kind and will last for many years if properly cared for.
Rugs can also be made out of a variety of other plant-based natural materials like jute, hemp, sisal, and sea grass. These types of area rugs are generally a bit rougher, and range from fairly soft to coarse and scratchy. Jute is the softest and least expensive of these four materials, but tends to shed and won’t stand up well in high traffic areas. Hemp rugs are popular for their neutral color and sustainability and tend not to shed, but are more expensive because they’re typically hand woven. Both sisal and sea grass hold up very well to heavy traffic, but are quite rough in texture – more like stiff mats than cushy rugs. The main drawback of these fibrous area rugs is that they’re much less durable. While they can handle foot traffic just fine, they can be crushed by furniture, and although they can be shaken out or vacuumed and give up loose dirt fairly easily, they can begin to disintegrate when exposed to water, and can fade or become brittle when placed in direct sunlight. Perfect for adding a more natural touch, these rugs won’t last quite as long, but are generally more affordable than cloth rugs.
There are also several types of synthetic rugs available, including nylon, polyester, and polypropylene. These are made from a variety of synthetic materials, and are designed to mimic traditional wool rugs. Nylon and polyester hold their colors well and feel very soft and plush underfoot, and all three can be kept in good shape for years with simple routine vacuuming and spot cleaning. Polypropylene rugs come in a more limited variety of colors, but can be used outdoors as well as inside. The real appeal of synthetic rugs is that they’re much more affordable than cloth ones, which also makes them easier to swap out when you change your decor, rather than designing around a rug you’ll have for a lifetime. The lifespan of synthetic rugs is definitely years rather than decades; while they can stand up to heavy traffic, they won’t improve with age the way wool rugs do, and they tend to crush under furniture more easily.
Leather is probably the most oddball material on this list. Typically, leather rugs are hide rugs, which naturally vary in size and shape and are best used as accent rugs, often in conjunction with a larger rectangular area rug. But you might be surprised to know that actual square rugs can be made of leather as well, either in a woven pattern, stitched strips, or a fine knotted fringe that mimics shag carpet. This type of leather rug has the unique, natural feel of leather and are quite soft underfoot. Cleaning techniques vary from piece to piece, and although leather is fairly resistant to stains, this type of rug should generally be reserved for lower traffic areas (especially hide rugs, which are a bit more delicate).
What type of rug appeals most to you? Are you looking more for an heirloom quality rug that will be with your family for generations to come, or a just-for-now accent to spice up your living space? Let me know in the comments below, or for more information about choosing a new rug, check out Part 1 and Part 2 of this series.