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Choosing Area Rugs and Carpeting

Your Floor Is Your "Fifth Wall"

No element in the design of a room is as satisfying (or as perplexing) as the choice of a rug or carpet.

The staggering variety of choices can overwhelm even a seasoned pro.

If you plan to use carpet in your home, you will be making the choice between Area Rugs and Wall-to-Wall Carpeting. In the following paragraphs we will shed a little light on the pro's and con's of the two, and along the way we will insert some designer's tips for your consideration. After you read through the article you should be armed with some solid information on which to base your choices!

Decorative Area Rugs

Superb though classic oriental rugs may be, they represent only one category in a whole galaxy of superb choices.

Look at all of your other options:

  • European - Glorious Aubussons, Savonneries from France and Belgium. These are generally flowery, romantic confections.
  • Rya Rugs - Lovely and earthy, from Scandinavia. Generally casual in mood.
  • Native American Rugs - A broad category of bold and beautiful textiles.
  • "Designer" Rugs - Bold, contemporary, graphic patterns and colors that send the message of confidence and savvy. Some great artists, architects, and designers have designed rugs of extreme beauty and sophistication.
  • Hooked Rugs - Perfect for the Country Cottage.
  • Rag Rugs - At home in the Casual Country Home or Beach Cottage.
  • Braided Rugs - A rustic Country answer to floor coverings, available in all sizes, shapes, and colors.
  • Needlepoint or Petit Point Rugs - Delicate refinement, ideal for a "Period" look. Not for high traffic areas.
  • Handpainted Canvas Rugs - Individual and full of personality for the right spot. Great for nurseries, kids' rooms, porches; Generally durable and spill-proof.
  • Solid Area Rugs with "Carved" Borders - An elegant alternative for the person who wants to avoid pattern. Custom sizes. You choose the broadloom quality and colors.
  • Natural Grass Area Rugs - Sisal, Hemp, Jute, Seagrass lend a casual sophistication. Superb in both contemporary and traditional rooms, for a chic, off-handed look.


Wall-to-Wall Carpeting/Broadloom

There is another option for your floors: Broadloom, or wall-to-wall carpeting. The name comes from the fact that this carpeting is mass-produced on wide, continuous rolls, generally 12 ft. in width, sometimes 15 ft.

In this category you will find wool, grasses, and a variety of synthetic fibers. You will be seeing an enormous selection of weaves and styles:

  • Cut Pile - Loops are "shaved". Your standard carpet surface.
  • Looped Pile - Loops are not shaved, and stand at an even height. Not good with pets!
  • Boucle - Loopy, bubbly look. Not good with pets!
  • Berber - Low and loopy, with thick yarn. No cut pile. Popular in contemporary settings. Not good with pets!
  • Low Pile Velvet - Velvety texture, as the name suggests. Shows footprints.
  • Saxony - Similar to velvet pile but has heat-set fiber to allow tufts to retain natural twist. Wears well.
  • Axminster - Named for the loom on which it is woven. Solids and patterns.
  • Wilton - Named for the loom on which it is woven. Solids and patterns.
  • Shag - Loose, long, soft pile. Back in favor from the ‘60's. Think Austen Powers.
  • Sculptured - High and low piles, some cut, some looped, set in various designs from florals to geometrics. Gives a solid color carpet texture and surface interest.

As if this is not enough, you will also be barraged with fiber choices. I will describe all of the options and their properties as far as use and upkeep is concerned. But I will state here that I have strong reservations about the use of synthetic carpeting. Regardless of the technological advances in making nylon look almost identical to wool, there are dangerous toxins emitted from some of this carpeting, and I urge you to look into potential dangers before risking your health, or that of loved ones. More about that later.

First, let's look at the various carpet fibers available:

If you can afford it, wool carpet is by far the highest performer of any fiber. It is also the safest in terms of toxic emissions. Wool carpet is sometimes sprayed with a moth resistant substance. Investigate before you purchase.

Wool is luxurious. It takes color exquisitely. It is soil resistant. It lasts and lasts.

But it is expensive. It holds moisture and can mildew, and be prey to pests. So it should not be installed in areas where moisture or pests could pose a problem.

I will say this: I grew up in a house full of wall-to-wall wool carpeting. It looked gorgeous throughout its life (and mine)… it wore like iron for years and years.

Nylon can imitate Wool better than any other synthetic fiber. It is tough. It is durable. It is stain-resistant, and easy to clean.

A problem with Nylon carpeting is that it can attract static. And it can be toxic.

Polyester has a soft feel, and is generally stain-resistant. It doesn't absorb water, making it moisture and mildew resistant. The colors won't fade, and it is inexpensive.

However, Polyester can pill and get "raggy-looking" over time. It is not as durable as Nylon. It tends to look synthetic. And it can be toxic.

Olefin (also known as Polypropylene) is tough and durable. It is stain-resistant, and "wicks" (resists) moisture. It is mildew resistant. It is easy to clean. It is inexpensive.

I am not a fan of Olefin, however, because oily substances can pose a cleaning problem and end up staining the carpet. The fiber is also problematic in wall-to-wall installation, as it is difficult to seam.

And, you guessed it, it can be toxic.

Caveat on Using Synthetic Fiber Carpeting

It is imperative that "buyer beware" when choosing and purchasing carpeting. I am by no means an authority on the subject, but I, like you, have loved ones, and do not wish to expose them to dangerous carcinogens for the sake of design or convenience.

The following is a quote from How to Stay Young and Healthy In A Toxic World, by Ann Louise Gittleman, M.S., C.N.S.:

"If you must install synthetic carpeting, check the major specs regarding the chemicals used in the carpeting and choose the least toxic carpet. Look for Carpet and Rug Institute (CRI) low-emission labels before buying. Allow any synthetic carpeting you plan to install to air outside for several days before you install it."

Ensure that your new carpet, its backing, and the padding you choose, meets indoor air quality standards.

If there is a baby in your home, an older person, or someone with a compromised immune system, be especially careful about subjecting them to the toxins of new carpeting. (Note: According to Gittleman, if the carpeting was installed a year or more ago, it has probably outgassed and will emit no more toxic fumes.)

Gauging Quality

Carpeting is graded according to thickness. The quality of fiber, the twist of yarn, colorfastness, and height and density of the pile determine the grade, and in turn, the price. If it is durability you want, look for a "4" or "5". A lower rating does not necessarily indicate an inferior carpet, but one which should be used in areas where there is light traffic, such as a bedroom or a study.

The price quote you will receive for the cost of your carpeting will usually include padding and installation. Buy from a reputable store, which will offer good padding, as it will enable the carpet to wear better and last longer (be sure, as above, to use a padding which does not emit toxic fumes… this will require some investigation on your part), and also very importantly, patronize a store that employs an excellent, experienced installer, one who will use his expertise to lay out and install your carpet perfectly and professionally.

A Natural Alternative to Synthetics

Don't overlook the many popular natural fiber Broadlooms such as Sisal, Coir, Jute, and Seagrass, all of which are in demand by designers for their casual elegance. They come in marvelous nature colors from pale straw to deep,earthy
tones. Jute is the softest underfoot, making it the best for bedrooms, while at the other end of the spectrum Coir tends to be tough and prickly. Avoid it unless you are considering using it in a more rugged space.

Installers have an aversion to working with this classification of carpeting, as it does not seam well and is tricky to install. For that reason check with your salesperson or the installer to see how the carpet will "lay up" in your space. If the seams cannot be placed in low-traffic or unnoticeable areas of the room, it may be better to choose a Berber weave Broadloom which imitates a "Sisal look".

Always look for and buy the highest quality you can afford. Learn to recognize quality. Know what you are purchasing. It is the most economical way to spend your money, in the long run. I have learned this the hard way, and I pass it on to you.

Your Choice

Now that you have a pretty good idea of what's out there, let's get a little closer to which choice is best for your room.

Keep in mind the fact that your floor is your "Fifth Wall". It's the wall you walk on. What you put on it will make a huge impact in your finished room. I have a friend who has a livingroom filled with beiges and neutrals, all very understated and safe. But on her floor sits a bright red Tibetan masterpiece, incorporating greens, blues, and sizzling yellows. The impact when you enter the room is sensational. This is the "WOW" Factor at work. Without the impact of that rug the room goes "blah".

The impact from a rug is not merely visual. Rugs are sensual as well, tactile and inviting. Your choice could be a Sisal, a velvety wool pile, a tight, flat-weave tapestry, a thin, refined and shimmering silk, or a handpainted canvas mat. Each of these choices carries impact, a definite message - one which will set the pace for the whole room.

When beginning the décor of a room, it is ideal that you consider your floor first. The great advantage of choosing your rug first is that you will then be able to work your fabric choices and wall colors from the color palette provided by your rug. MUCH easier than trying, at the end, to find a rug that works with an already established room.

That being said, if you simply want to revitalize your present room with the "punch" that a new rug will give it, go for it. The search may be a little more intense, but sooner or later you will find the perfect accent.

If you are fortunate enough to be working with a designer, he/she will establish a floor plan based upon your needs and the dictates of the room. A master plan, if you will. From that floor plan it will be easy to see what size rug you will need, and the ideal placement of it in the room. Many "open plan" rooms are large enough to handle two or more area rugs, which create conversational or functional "zones". These possibilities will become apparent from your floor plan.
Do not go out to view rugs in stores until you are armed with the sizes you will need, as well as a general idea of the color look you are trying to establish in the room.

Ask yourself:

  • What room are you decorating? If you are planning your bedroom, for instance, your color choices can begin from the palest ice cream tones. The inner sanctum of the bedroom is much safer from harm done by gritty shoes, allowing for the relatively safe use of paler hues.
  • What look or mood do you want to create? Casual? Formal? Tailored? Romantic? Contemporary? Eclectic? Purist? Your Area Rug will set the mood for the look of the room. It will do a lot of the work for you. Don't be afraid to "zero in" on the look you want at this point!
  • How much traffic does this room get? Observe family habits. Appoint patterns, medium-deep colors, and tough weaves to high traffic areas. Avoid very light colors, which will show wear and tear, or very dark colors, which will show every speck of lint that drifts to the floor.
  • Is it a room you will "live" in or only occasionally use? In rooms where there is light use, light colors, and/or more delicate rugs (such as needlepoints) will look wonderful for a very long time. Avoid these in heavily trampled areas.
  • How much light does this room get? Natural fibers are vulnerable to fading. If you are decorating a very bright room, protect your rug investment by pulling down window shades during the bright hours of the day. This simple step will prolong the life and beauty of your floor coverings.
  • Do you like the look of area rugs on beautifully finished floors? Most people want some kind of floor covering, for warmth and color, and to protect the finish of the floors. However, there are those people who simply want "bowling alley" sleekness in their home, and a bare, beautiful floor is all they need. You decide.
  • Do you prefer the look of wall-to-wall broadloom? Why not? Just be sure you look into the safety of using the broadloom of your choice before making a purchase. The decision to newly carpet a whole house may require temporary evacuation with the windows cracked while toxic gasses are exhausted.
  • Do you like the look of pattern on the floor? Some do, some don't, but I encourage you to try pattern in at least one room of your home. People are often simply afraid of pattern, but are thrilled once they see the stunning results that a patterned rug can produce.
  • If so, do you lean toward Oriental Rugs? Bold, graphic Contemporaries? This is a very personal decision. Go to every good rug emporium in your area and look at every category out there. You will definitely lean one way or the other.
  • Do you want your rug to be the focal point of the room, or fall into the background? If you wish to showcase a particular piece (or pieces) of furniture or art, you might want to play down what is on the floor by choosing a very subtle, patterned Oriental, or even a solid color Area Rug. On the other hand, a simply appointed, monochromatic room can go from "so-so" to AMAZING with the addition of a boldly colored and/or patterned rug.
  • Do you want your rug to highlight a special feature in the room (such as the seating area in front of the fireplace)? If you want to bring drama to a hearth and seating area, place your sofa (or loveseats, or chairs) on a boldly patterned Area Rug or Oriental in front of the fireplace. Be sure the size is not skimpy.
  • What size is this room? Will it require more than one rug? Discussed later in this article.
  • What size rug will you need? Discussed later in this article.

Answering these questions will bring you closer to finding the perfect rug(s) for you.

Area Rug or Broadloom?

It is likely that some areas of your home will beg for Area Rugs, while in other areas Wall-to-Wall Carpeting will be more appropriate or functional.

The trend today definitely favors the look of Area Rugs. We have become more sophisticated in design over the last thirty years. We no longer cling to the notion that an Area Rug needs to cover as much of the floor as possible. On the contrary, there is an appreciation of beautifully finished hardwood floors, rich stains and finishes, and the elegance of gorgeous Area Rugs against them. We have left the "safety" (and relative boredom) of running Wall-to-Wall Carpeting throughout the house. Consider the following:

Wall-to-Wall is the Best Choice For You If:

  • Your floors are unfinished or in poor condition, and you do not plan to re-finish them (perhaps you are living in an apartment).
  • Your room has a cold floor and the insulation provided by Wall-to-Wall Carpeting would insulate it and save on energy consumption.
  • You prefer the look of total carpet coverage (in some rooms it really is the best choice).
  • Your room is exceedingly small (An Area Rug could close it in even more).

An Area Rug is the Best Choice For You If:

  • You have an "open-plan" home with one large, expansive "Great Room". Area Rugs beautifully define seating plans and functional zones in open-plan living.
  • Your home has gorgeous wood floors which you wish to emphasize. Area Rugs show off your beautiful floors while at the same time providing some protection in heavily trafficked areas.
  • You love the idea of owning handmade works of art which have investment value and will become heirlooms. Handmade rugs - Orientals, Native Americans, Aubussons, etc, often stay in families for generations. The good ones hold excellent re-sale value.
  • You simply prefer the look of Area Rugs in general, regardless of their value.
  • You have plans to relocate to a new home. Area Rugs are portable. Wall-to-Wall Carpeting is not. In addition, if you are planning to sell your home, beautifully re-finished floors add handsomely to the selling price, therefore proving to be an excellent investment.

If you nodded at any of the above statements, then Area Rugs are for you.

There is no aesthetic reason not to "mix it up" within your home. There are sure to be spots where only Wall-to-Wall will serve the function of the room.

The Importance of Rugs in Your Home

  • Rugs add warmth to an environment, literally as well as aesthetically.
  • Rugs unify room layouts.
  • Rugs pull fabric and wall colors together, and give "snap" to the finished room.
  • Rugs sound-proof the house. Especially effective on stairs.
  • Rugs define zones and "organize" a room.
  • Rugs speak volumes about the inhabitant of the home.

Design Tips

Did You Know...

  • A light color rug will make a room appear larger.
  • A light color rug will make a naturally dark room feel brighter.
  • Dark color rugs make any size space look "cozier".
  • Patterned rugs add a feeling of intimacy to a room.
  • Patterned rugs tend to make a large room look smaller, more intimate.
  • Patterned and textured rugs hide soil and footprints, making them perfect in Family Room settings.
  • Rooms with heavy traffic benefit from patterned rugs.
  • Rugs need not always be rectangular. Squares and circles, well placed, can be very dramatic.
  • Broadloom can easily be cut and serged (or bound) in any custom size. If it is a simple, solid Area Rug you seek, this can be an effective as well as extremely economical way to go.
  • Darker rugs with intricate patterns work well in Foyers. Shoes coming in from outside will shed dirt, grit, and soil on the Foyer rug. It is unavoidable.
  • Light, bright, dramatic rugs are wonderful in the Diningroom, which gets lighter usage. Avoid center-medallion patterns, which get lost under the dining table. Focus, instead, on a rug with a superb border, the portion of the rug that will show.
  • If putting a rug in the Bathroom, be sure it is resistant to moisture, water and mildew.
  • Pale-colored rugs are wonderful in the Bedroom, which is less vulnerable to soil from shoes and heavy traffic.
  • A neutral colored rug can be the perfect "foil" for an extremely colorful room.
  • A boldly colored rug can have stunning impact in an otherwise neutral colored setting.
  • When positioning your new Area Rug in your room, it is important to note that all pile rugs have a "sunrise" and a "sunset" view. Stand at one end and look at the rug, then move to the other end and look at it again. You will see that from one angle the rug looks "frostier, lighter", and from the other view, the colors appear deeper. The pile of the rug reacts just as velvet fabric would, giving beautiful nuances in tone. When the delivery men lay down your new rug, instruct them as to which angle you prefer to see upon entering the room. It can make a difference in the overall effect.

Determining the Size of Your Area Rug

Most people have the mistaken notion that in a seating area, the furniture must be "all on" or "all off" the Area Rug. I have even heard some designers declare this. In my opinion this is not so, and it can be destructive counsel. It causes people to go out and purchase an overly large or an overly small rug, wasting money and ruining the design of the room. Having said that, though, determining the best size and placement for you, via this article, is almost impossible.

Every room setting is unique, and requires individual attention. Let me say this much: Too large is better than too small. And yes, it is perfectly fine if just the front portion of the furniture sits on the Area Rug. Just be sure that you don't have a situation where only one leg of the chair, sofa, or accent table is on the rug, or vice versa, which tends to look rather awkward and strange.

Diningrooms are a bit easier. Bear in mind that in order to sit down at the table and not mar the chairs or destroy the wall behind you, there must be at least 2.5 feet from the table edge to the wall. I personally prefer 3 feet, but 2.5 feet will do (this information comes in handy when purchasing your dining table and chairs, as well).

Therefore, to determine the minimum size Area Rug that you will need, measure the table length and width, and add 54 inches to each measurement.

I find that most Diningrooms can handle an 8'X10' Area Rug. If the room is large enough to handle a 9'X12', even better. A 9'X12' allows for the use of table expansion (leaves) during holidays, without running the risk of destroying the edges and fringe of your rug by the constant abrasion of pulling a chair over it. Of course, if you are blessed with a larger Diningroom, you most likely have a larger table as well. So once again, this becomes a very individual matter. Do some math and remember to leave a bit of floor showing around the perimeter of the room, no less than 12" from fringe to base molding.

Also, if there are servers, sideboards, or other furniture in the room, it is preferable to plan the size of the rug so that they will not sit on the rug. If there is no alternative, and the front of the sideboard or other furniture must be on the rug, you will have to shim the back portion of the piece with small wood chips the same thickness as the rug, to keep it level.

Note: When measuring be sure to use a steel measuring tape, and measure twice. No, three times!

In bedrooms I often prefer a large Area Rug, "apron-ed" (perpendicularly) under the bed. I find it more dramatic and elegant than the use of two small scatter rugs on either side. The impact of using a large rug this way can be very rich and lovely. In more casual "cottage" settings, scatter rugs are fine, and probably preferable. The actual dimensions of the rug, however, must be determined by the size of the bed you have, and by the dimensions of the room. Once again, this is where consultation with a designer comes in handy!

Using Two or More Rugs in a Room

It can be extremely beautiful and effective to use three different Oriental Rugs together in a room. There are rules that apply to this, though, and they are based purely upon aesthetics:

  • One rug should dominate, or be in charge. This "Alpha-Rug" will no doubt be the largest rug in the room. It may have the boldest pattern, as well.
  • The second (or third) rug(s) may share some of the same colors, and therefore relate well to the larger one.
  • Be careful not to choose rugs that are too similar in pattern and palate, as they will tend to visually cancel each other out. Perhaps they can each emphasize a color tone which is present in the large rug.
  • Feel confident in mixing patterns! It is often the bold strokes from which the most successful rooms emerge.

When Purchasing

  • Many dealers will allow you to take a rug home with you to try it out for a day or two.
  • When purchasing, work only with a reputable dealer, and be sure to obtain a Certificate of Origin.
  • If investing in a "collectible" rug, be sure the piece has been authenticated, and obtain the appropriate documents guaranteeing authenticity.


According to every authority I have ever consulted, the best care you can give to your rugs is frequent vacuuming. Every day is not too often. As this is not possible for most of us, just take that statement as emphasis that you cannot over-do the vacuuming.

Remember not to use the power-nozzle with the beater brushes on your fringed Area Rugs. Doing so will end badly…I can tell you this from first-hand experience. The power-nozzle should be used exclusively on your Wall-to-Wall Carpet.

As for stains (especially pet stains) and odors, there are some enzyme products on the market today which make astounding promises, unheard of before now. I have no personal experience with any of them. They may be terrific, but proceed with caution, perhaps trying them out on an old "test" rug first

Ready, Set, Go!

With all of these pointers whirling around in your head, and your rug sizes tucked into your pocket, you are ready to begin your search. Don't make any snap decisions. The search is the best part. You will discover and fall in love with rugs you never knew existed. You will return home exhausted, only to venture out again and again. But by the time you make your decision you will have had some fun learning about the world of beautiful (and some not so beautiful) choices available to you. Have fun!

-Karen Saloomey


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