Tips for Choosing Carpet
Last updated in April 2016
Because carpeting affects the look of a room, lasts a long time, and can cost thousands of dollars, take all the time you need to make good decisions about many issues, including: color, style, pattern, texture, padding, and price range.
Carpeting Q & A
Start by answering a few basic questions:
Where will it go?
Will you be eating or entertaining much in carpeted rooms? Do you have pets and/or children? If so, get carpeting with soil- and stain-resistant properties, and colors and textures (such as tweeds and irregular textures) that show dirt the least. Ask a good carpet cleaning service for advice, since it will have firsthand knowledge of which carpet types and colors are easier to clean than others. Click here to see our advice on hiring carpet and rug cleaners.
Will the carpet be installed in areas that get a lot of foot traffic, such as the front hallway, stairs, or family room? Low dense piles generally wear better than deep plush piles.
Will you often sit on your floor or walk barefoot on the carpeting? Plush textures feel soft and project a sense of luxury and elegance.
How much are you willing to spend?
Carpet prices vary tremendously—from less than $2 to more than $12 per square foot depending on materials, form of construction, brand name, and other factors. Price differences that seem small per square foot become great by the room. For example, 500 square feet of wall-to-wall carpeting at $2 a square foot—a total of $1,000—seems quite modest but at $6 or $8 per square foot—a total of $3,000 or $4,000—gets pretty intimidating. Charges for padding, installation, and other labor are often added to the basic carpet price. Establishing a budget forces some choices: Can you compromise on the quality of the carpet in some rooms? Can you live with less expensive area rugs?
Prices for area rugs also vary greatly—from a few hundred dollars for an inexpensive dhurrie (flat-woven Indian rug) to thousands for a handmade Oriental rug.
How much will you need to buy?
The amount of carpet you need determines what your budget can afford. Measure the length and width of the area. For protrusions such as doors and closets, always measure into the deepest point, and count these protrusions into either the room’s total length or total width.
For stairs, measure one step (from the back of one tread to the bottom of the riser below) and add one inch to allow for padding. Then multiply that figure by the total number of steps to determine the length of carpet needed for the entire staircase. Be sure to add in the length for any landing.
Determine the total square footage of the area to be covered by multiplying length times width. Your own measurements will give you the basis for roughly estimating costs when you shop, but the store will measure more precisely before it puts through your carpet order. Since carpeting is manufactured in standard widths (typically 12 and 15 feet), you may have to buy more carpeting than the actual square footage of your room.
Room-size and area rugs are sold in standard sizes or cut to size from carpet rolls. Consider the placement of your furniture in determining the size you need.
What styles and colors do you like?
Wall-to-wall carpeting introduces a large area of unbroken color, expands a room’s appearance, and is often the strongest element in an interior design scheme.
The carpet’s texture and patterns should complement the style of your rooms, whether formal or casual. As an initial step, bring fabric samples, paint chips, pieces of wallpaper, and even couch cushions to the store to help with your selection; and bring home carpet samples or rugs to see how they look with your furnishings and under your home’s lighting.
Since good-quality carpets and rugs last for many years, choose designs, colors, and patterns you won’t tire of quickly.
Carpet colors should complement existing window treatments and furnishings, suit your particular lifestyle, and contribute to the mood you desire for the room. A bright-colored yellow, orange, or red carpet can liven up a room that lacks natural light; shades of blue and green can tone down an overly bright room. Lighter shades that make the room seem more spacious and look more formal show dirt quickly and are therefore best-suited for relatively low-traffic areas. Darker colors such as dark grays or browns make rooms look smaller and are best as accents or in very large rooms. Such dark colors also tend to show lint.
In addition to the wide range of residential carpeting, consider the commercial carpeting commonly used in offices and public buildings. Tightly woven for durability and relatively easy maintenance, commercial carpeting may, for example, be used in home offices and recreation rooms, and often costs less than residential carpeting.
How long do you want it to last?
Well-constructed carpets last 10 years or more with normal use and care. If you plan to move soon or change the use or furnishings of a particular room, consider rugs rather than carpeting because rugs are portable and wall-to-wall carpeting is not.
Finding Your Type
Carpets vary in fiber content, yarn formation, and construction.
- Wool—Before the development of synthetic carpet fibers, wool was the predominant fiber for high-quality carpets. Now, however, wool accounts for only a small percentage of carpet sold in the U.S. Nonetheless, the feel and look of wool remains the standard against which other fibers are judged. Wool feels good to the touch, takes dye beautifully, lacks the shininess sometimes found in synthetic fibers, resists crushing or flattening even with extensive wear, and resists soiling (although it is not especially resistant to staining). But wool carpets can be expensive.
- Nylon—When first introduced in carpeting over 50 years ago, nylon was not a very attractive or well-performing fiber. Nylon carpets looked shiny and readily showed dirt. They lacked the warm, soft feel of wool and tended to accumulate static electricity. But from the start nylon possessed certain excellent qualities, such as exceptional resistance to abrasion, crushing, and mold. And great advances have been made in succeeding generations of nylon fibers. The most recent versions (often called “advanced-generation nylon”) are no longer shiny; they have antistatic qualities either built into the fiber (better) or applied to the surface (not as good); and they are treated with stain-resisting fluorochemicals such as Teflon or Scotchgard either built into the fiber (better) or applied to the surface (not as good). Nylon is currently by far the most popular carpet fiber. Depending on carpet quality, prices range from inexpensive to as expensive as wool.
- Olefin (Polypropylene)—Olefin, or polypropylene, is popular for indoor-outdoor carpeting and in low-pile commercial carpeting (which can be used in residences as well). This synthetic fiber is very resistant to static, soil, and stains, even without special treatments. It also holds dye very well, has excellent abrasion resistance, and does not absorb moisture. Polypropylene might be the fiber of choice but for one failing: It crushes or flattens easily, a limitation that restricts its use to low-pile carpets. Prices are generally inexpensive to moderate.
- Polyester—Polyester is often used in deep-pile carpets because of its soft, luxurious feel. Because it is not as resistant to crushing as nylon, polyester tends to be used for dense carpets in low-traffic areas, where the density supports the yarn. Most polyester carpets are inexpensive to moderately priced.
- Triexta—Triexta is the generic name for a fiber type developed by DuPont. (Manufacturer Mohawk Flooring brands it as SmartStrand.) Although it’s a polyester, because it feels and wears so differently from other polyesters, and because it is partially made from recycled materials, it often gets its own designation in the carpet business. In addition to being very soft, it is more stain resistant and doesn’t flatten as easily as other older polyesters. And its appearance is less shiny than most other polyesters. Although it has built-in stain resistance, triexta can be difficult to clean and should be vacuumed more often than other carpet fibers. Also, because it’s still relatively new, triexta hasn’t been around long enough to make it through an entire carpeting life cycle (10 to 15 years), so it’s hard to accurately compare it to other fibers’ performance. Like polyesters generally, most carpeting made from triexta is inexpensive to moderately priced.
Whatever fiber is used for carpet pile must be processed into strands; and the strands, in turn, must be twisted together into yarn.
In cut-pile carpet, the tighter a yarn’s twist, the crisper looking and longer wearing the carpet. “Heat-set” twists last longer.
In general, thin yarns give a smoother, more velvety look than coarse yarns.
Construction, Density, and Texture
The most common way to make carpets today is by tufting. To make a tufted carpet, a machine with hundreds of yarn-threaded needles pushes yarn through a backing fabric, forming loops as the needles push in and pull out. The loops are held in place with latex adhesive, and a secondary backing is glued to the primary backing to provide strength and stability. The specifics of construction vary in several ways.
In some carpets, the tufts of yarn are spaced much more densely than in others. Density is determined by the number of tufts per unit of surface area and the thickness of individual tufts. All else being equal, the denser the pile the better the carpet. This is because the individual tufts in dense carpet support each other, so that the carpet is less likely to appear matted, and wear occurs only at the top of each tuft rather than along the tuft’s side.
Carpet surfaces come in many pile textures—
- Level loop—has a surface of loops of uniform height, creating a pebbly appearance. This is generally the most durable texture. Also, it is easy to vacuum and doesn’t show footprints. Most commercial carpeting and the distinctively knotted Berber carpet style have level-loop textures.
- Multilevel loop—is similar to level loop except that the loops vary in height. Multilevel loop carpet hides dirt better than level loop but is more difficult to vacuum.
- Plush—is carpet with the tops of all the loops cut off. Because the yarn doesn’t have much twist, plush has a soft, luxurious look and feel, but tends to readily show dirt. It is also subject to shading, an apparent change in color tone that occurs when bent yarns reflect light in different directions. Shading can be minimized by vacuuming, which tends to bend all the yarn tufts in the same direction.
- Saxony—is similar to plush except that the yarn is more tightly twisted. As a result, individual yarn tips are more springy and more discernible to the eye. Saxony tends to be somewhat more durable than plush and less subject to shading.
- Frieze, or twist—consists of cut pile in which the yarn is so tightly twisted that the ends tend to bend over, creating a nubby appearance. This surface wears well and hides footprints and dirt.
- Shag—has yarn, either cut or uncut, 1 1/2 to more than three inches long. The pieces of yarn are widely spaced but fall over each other to cover the carpet surface. Shag hides dust but is difficult to vacuum.
- Cut-and-loop—has a surface in which some, but not all, of the loops are cut. The surface may be level or sculptured. This type of surface hides dirt and footprints well.
Traffic Patterns: What Goes Where
Halls and Family Room
In these high-traffic areas, good choices are a low, densely packed cut pile or a level-loop carpet, such as a Berber. Nylon and (in a level loop) polypropylene wear well. A neutral or “tweedy” color minimizes the visibility of dirt; avoid lighter colors in the family room, where food might be spilled. A firm fiber or rebond pad is best.
A plush or Saxony usually holds up. An advanced-generation nylon or wool looks good—in any color that fits the rest of the decor. A good-quality, firm rebond pad feels comfortable and wears well.
Unless use is heavy, follow the same advice you would in making selections for a living room—but make sure carpet has stain protection and buy medium or darker colors. If use is heavy, consider options similar to those for a family room.
Because use is generally light, a less expensive carpet will do. Deep pile, even if not especially dense, can be used with a relatively spongy pad that feels soft. Polyester, an advanced-generation nylon, wool, or wool mix feels good. Any color will do.
How to Check Carpet Quality
Fiber type. Wool is generally considered a very high-quality fiber, as are advanced-generation nylons. But depending on their purpose, other fibers, such as olefin, may better serve your needs. Carpet labels indicate the type of fiber.
Twist. Yarn should have a heat-set twist to hold its shape over the long run. Labels usually indicate whether a yarn’s twist is heat-set.
Density. The density of the yarn tufts on the face of carpeting is very important for minimizing wear and preventing flattening, or matting. Because labels seldom disclose density, you have to check it by digging into the carpet with your fingertips to see how easily they push through to the backing. Or conduct the “grin” test by folding the carpet onto itself, with the backing on the inside of the fold; then check how much backing is visible between the tufts at the fold. You may also be able to obtain some information on density or “face weight” (a combined measure of density and pile height) from a store salesperson.
Picking Your Padding
Good padding minimizes carpet flattening and wear by absorbing part of the impact of foot traffic. Padding also creates a softer walking surface, insulates cold floors, absorbs noise, prevents carpet from shifting, makes irregular floors feel more even, and makes carpet feel deeper and more luxurious.
The choice of padding depends on the type of carpet, where and how it will be used, your preference for greater or less bounce, and other factors. Carpet pads differ in content and performance, and each type comes in a variety of weights.
As a rule, the heavier the pad the better the performance. High-traffic areas should have a heavy but relatively thin pad. For a bouncier, more luxurious feel, such as in a bedroom, use a thicker pad. But don’t confuse thick, soft padding with good padding. Bouncy padding can make a thin carpet feel more luxurious but shorten its life by letting the backing flex too much. The Carpet and Rug Institute recommends that padding be no thicker than 1/2 inch.
Several types of padding are available—
- Rebonded polyurethane foam, also known as “rebond,” is made from bonded-together fragments of urethane foam and is usually heavier than prime urethane padding. A weight of five pounds per cubic foot at a thickness of inch should be sufficient for high-traffic areas. A heavier cushion, up to 14 pounds per cubic foot, feels firmer.
- Fiber padding is recommended for high-traffic areas such as halls and stairs, and for area rugs. It feels quite firm and not very bouncy underfoot. Fiber padding is made from jute, animal hair, a combination of the two, or a combination of jute and nylon or other synthetic fiber. A pad weighing 40 ounces per square yard is good for moderate-traffic areas, but you’ll need a 48-ounce pad for more heavily used rooms or stairs.
- Sponge rubber padding works well in moderate-traffic areas. While a pad of at least 64 ounces per square yard should be sufficient for most home uses, sponge rubber padding is available in heavier weights—up to 120 ounces per square yard. Sponge in a flat sheet feels firmer than sponge formed into a waffled configuration.
- Prime urethane foam padding performs well in low-traffic areas. The less the pad weighs per cubic foot, the softer it feels. Urethane foam padding should weigh at least 2 to three pounds per cubic foot.
Before contracting for installation of padding, check several points. See if the padding tears easily. Place samples on the floor covered with a carpet sample and walk on them to get an idea of the feel the padding will give your carpet. Make sure the padding is the right weight and thickness for the area where it will be used. If you can get a thinner padding that will perform properly, avoid a thicker one with thickness that may raise the carpet too high for doors to swing open into the room; if so, you may need to cut off the bottoms of the doors.
Like carpeting, most area rugs benefit from an underlay. Padding under area rugs helps secure them in places where people might slip and fall, and prevents the rub-off of color by non-dye-fast rugs, such as some dhurries. A good fiber pad is usually best for area rugs. There are several varieties of useful anti-slip material, often made in a honeycomb structure.
Many stores include padding in the price of the carpet. Be sure to check out the quality of what’s offered and, if necessary, find out if you can upgrade.