When you are looking to buy an oriental rug, is your first thought, “What material is this rug made out of?”. If not, it probably should be. For centuries, the standard has been to weave rugs out of wool or silk. Both of which are great fibers. Here at Serafian’s, we have seen how the industry has been changing in big ways. Over the course of these last years new fibers have found their way into the marketplace. In additional to wool and silk, we are seeing a lot more rugs made of both olefin and viscose.
Wool and silk are by far the best fibers for rugs. Both wear incredibly well over time, insulate and protect your floor, and are even stain resistant on their own. Wool in particular has been has been the weaving standard for centuries. An average wool fiber has lanolin, the sheep’s natural oil, present in it. This helps to give the wool both body and pliability. A wool fiber can bend and flex hundreds of thousands of times over its life. This flexibility is key to its durability as a fiber. When properly cared for, good wool in a rug will last a century or more.
In the middle of the spectrum is olefin. Olefin is plastic that has been refined to look and feel like carpet fiber. The upside to this fiber is that is often comes from post consumer plastic, essentially recycled materials. The empty water and soda bottles that clog our rivers and oceans can be stretched, spun, dyed, and reused to make colorful decorative rugs for your floor. The downside is that it just doesn’t have the lifespan of good wool rugs. Where wool remains flexible for its whole life, olefin eventually begins to become stiff and will more readily start to break down. Where a wool rug will last a century or more, a good olefin rug is usually made to last 10 to 15 years. However, olefin rugs tend to be very inexpensive and while not as long lived as wool rugs, are generally a very good value for the money.
Lastly, at the bottom of our list, is viscose. Unfortunately, viscose fibers are a recent and very popular trend. Viscose is treated plant fiber that has chemically been made to look and feel like silk, but beware as this imposter is anything but! Silk is much more difficult to make in quantity and much higher in quality than viscose. Like wool, silk is a protein fiber that will last for years. By comparison, viscose breaks down quickly, losing its luster and plushness. This is due to the fact that plant fibers in general tend to lack the flexibility. Where protein fibers such as wool and silk will bend and flex, plant fibers such as cotton, jute, and viscose will much more quickly break down. This leads to an average life span that is much shorter.
Let the buyer beware. It is very common to see viscose rugs called silk by unscrupulous or even unknowing retailers, but there is a sure fire test to know which fiber you are looking at. Cut and take a small amount of the material in a set of pliers, burn it, and smell the smoke lifting off it. Viscose and similar cotton fibers smell like paper when burned where silk smells like burning hair. Where good wool and silk rugs can last for a century or more and olefin will last for a decade or two, I expect that most Viscose rugs will have an average life span of 5 to 10 years before real problems start to develop.
For this reason, when you look to buy a good rug, it is always important to ask what it is woven with. Knowing what material your rug is made out of will quickly tell you a lot about its longevity. By no means is this the only factor in durability, but it is without a doubt the most important.