Soft fiber wars

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by Kelly Kramer

Early in my career, I started my personal education of the various types of natural and synthetic fibers used in tufted and woven carpets. Fortunately for me, most of my education came from Reg Burnett of RBI and Floor Covering News’ master Lew Migliore. So you might say I learned from the very best in the industry.

During my study, I learned a great deal about the history of just how synthetic fibers went through a learning curve back in the 1950s and 1960s. That’s about the time frame mills started heavier production of tufted, wall-to-wall synthetics. So we were going from mainly slower produced woven natural fibers, which were not always done wall-to-wall, to the much higher speed tufted wall-to-wall carpets.

At that time, synthetics offered a limitless supply for yarn, while wool (being grown from sheep) was costly and was a commodity that fluctuated from year to year. Basically, when tufted carpet started to boom, mainly in the U.S., wool and a few other natural fibers could not keep up with demand.

As a side note, the same thing happened to jute in the early 1980s, when I was just getting started in the industry. For you younger generations, jute was the main primary and secondary backing for tufted carpet up until that time. Then synthetic backings slowly replaced it almost completely. Just so you know, synthetic backings faired out as a much better backing in several ways: Dimensional stability (keeping a good stretch) and no mold or mildew from over wetting are the two biggest positives. If you’ve ever smelled wet burlap, you understand that problem.

Back when the various synthetic yarns were being tested in tufted carpets, the fiber and testing companies learned a great deal. They found out nylon, which has it’s own set of flaws, faired at the top on the positives list for fibers. It had very good resiliency, wore (wear) well and had pretty good stain resistance. That stain resistance was later improved when Scotchguard and Stainmaster found ways to waterproof the yarn—because it needed that protection.

Meanwhile, polyester had a better natural stain resistance than nylon, was softer and cost less. But its biggest downfall was it flattened out when compared to a similarly structured nylon carpet.

At that point, many manufacturers made sure polyester would be regarded poorly for the next two decades. They made polyester carpets into staples, poor twist and gauge, and made basically thick piles of junk. But they felt really nice for about a year or so before flattening out. So retailers back then said never again.

Then along comes the new polyesters of the early 2000s. Manufactures started to take market share from nylon by producing polyester with continuous filament, tight stitch and gauge, and providing a decent heat setting. All this meant nylon had to get softer to compete.

Now both soft nylons and polyesters share the same flattening problem. But don’t worry because the warranties won’t cover either. To make the race to the bottom worse, manufacturers are making low end, poorly built polyesters again and we will all pay for this.

In this economic period, price seems to beat quality almost every time. My mind has changed for now because of what I’ve seen lately. For now, I’m trying to sell stiff feeling, well built nylons. Poorly structured polyesters and soft nylon are just you asking for problems the manufacturers will not stand behind. What ever happened to producing products that manufacturers and retailers could be proud of and stand behind?

Thanks for reading.

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