by Matthew Spieler
Less than a decade after nylon was invented in 1939 its use in the manufacturing of carpet began and it quickly became an industry and end user favorite due to its inherent performance and durability attributes. Shortly after nylon, polyester made its way into carpet, and while its inherent stain resistant properties made it a desirable fiber, it didn’t have the benefits that came with nylon and became associated with lower-end products.
In the mid 1980s, when built-in stain resistance was made possible for nylon, its popularity exploded to untold heights and has since been king of all carpet fibers.
In the last decade, though, as oil prices rose to unprecedented highs and the economy sank into its worst economic slump since the Great Depression, carpets made with fibers in the polyester family have grown tremendously. This has mainly been so on the residential side as technological advancements in extruding, spinning and heat-setting have allowed manufacturers to produce polyester carpets that are increasingly durable and able to perform up to most consumers’ active lifestyles. Plus, it is less expensive to produce a polyester carpet as opposed to one made from nylon. And, as consumers have become more budget-conscious the need to provide more value-oriented products has caused many to shift their focus from nylon to polyester.
But, the simple fact is, each fiber type has its strengths and weaknesses and these determine where they can be used and how they can be constructed. End users need to be reminded carpet is a fabric that is subjected to incredible abuse—foot traffic, spills and environmental contaminants—meaning there is no perfect fiber.
That doesn’t mean fibers can’t be improved. Fact is, over the years manufacturers have modified all fiber types—from altering their molecular structures to finding ways to embed additional features and benefits into them.
While manufacturers can create polyester carpets to perform like never before, companies are quick to note retailers shouldn’t abandon nylon. In fact, they encourage dealers to take a second look at these products because of the benefits nylon offers when trying to help customers get the best product for their needs.
“Polyester fibers have been the darling of carpet manufacturers over the last decade or so, but as good as today’s polyester yarns are, nylon still has the reputation for performance and remains the top seller,” noted Mike McAllister, director of marketing for Beaulieu of America.
“Although all of today’s carpet fibers have their respective strengths, decades of testing and real-world use have led Shaw to determine that nylon is the best overall carpet fiber available—and the most environmentally responsible,” noted Trey Thames, vice president of residential marketing.
Paul Engle, vice president of marketing for Royalty Carpet Mills, added, “Royalty believes other fibers have their place, but if you want the best, ask for nylon. It is simply the best man-made fiber in the world to manufacture carpet and rugs out of; it is the strongest molecular fiber, with the best overall ratings from any series of tests one might want to run.”
Steve Griffith, CMO, Invista Surfaces, maker of the Stain-master and Antron fiber brands, agrees polyester has made tremendous strides in recent years and acknowledges its market share regarding face fibers is above 40% on the residential side. “But it is still in the very low single digits in commercial.” Why? “Nylon is substantially better than polyester in higher traffic. That’s why when you’re putting in a half-million dollars worth of carpet in a large building you use nylon 6,6, because you want your investment to last as long as possible. This is why you don’t find polyester in too many commercial applications.”
Seth Arnold, residential brand director for Mohawk, noted, “Historically, nylon has been a popular choice for modular carpet because of the fiber’s durability. Its ability to withstand weight and movement make it a great choice for commercial environments and high traffic areas.”
Griffith added it is not just commercial where nylon’s durability and performance attributes shine. In residential, there are numerous high-traffic areas in the house, “such as stairs, hallways, in front of the sofa,” where a nylon carpet is best suited.
“If you have major traffic paths in your home or pivot points that are constantly being compacted,” McAllister explained, “nylon will, over time, perform better than polyester to keep your carpet looking newer, longer.”
There are two primary reasons executives give as to why nylon holds up better under high traffic conditions than other synthetic yarns.
“Nylon’s primary feature has always been resiliency,” said Arnold. The recent innovation of premium soft nylon, such as Mohawk’s Wear-Dated Embrace carpet, “has made resiliency all the more relevant.”
Griffith said this means nylon has more “memory. If you move a piece of furniture off a polyester carpet the dent left is very difficult to get out. With nylon it will go away over time, as the fiber will eventually spring back. Or, you can accelerate it with some hot steam and simply fluffing it up.”
Nylon’s other advantage, he said, is its inherent anti-soiling properties. “Soiling is different than staining. Soiling is something that happens over a larger traffic area, whereas stains are specific spots on the carpet. In the area of soiling, polyester doesn’t perform as well as nylon.”
The reason for this relates to each fiber’s affliction for oil. Griffith said regardless of the kind of polyester used, or even polypropylene, they are all attracted to oil, whereas nylon is not. “Take a tuft of polyester and touch it to a drop of Italian dressing and you’ll see all the dressing get sucked up. That won’t happen with a nylon fiber. That’s why polyester soils easier. Most dirt comes from the outside and is brought in on the bottom of shoes, and the greater percentage of this is oily.”
The attributes for nylon—resilience and anti-soiling—apply to both nylon 6 and 6,6. “6,6 is more durable than 6,” Griffith said, “which is why it is used more in commercial settings such as airports, but both are similar in stain protection. It’s akin to traditional polyester and triexta, the later is more durable to regular polyester but the soiling properties are similar.”
The one area where polyester inherently beats nylon is in staining. Whereas nylon doesn’t like oil, it is attracted to water; just like polyester does not like water but is attracted to oil.
This matters because most food and beverage stains tend to be water based. “That is why stain resistant treatments like Stainmaster needed to be developed,” Griffith said.
Color is another compelling feature of nylon, Arnold noted. “There are a wide range of dye methods that can be used on nylon and the fiber’s dyeability allows for compelling variety and stunning depth of color.”
This is especially true with solution dying, which is why all carpet tiles are made this way, Griffith added. “With solution dyed nylon there is reduced fading and you can do more aggressive cleaning because you are actually coloring the fiber, not dying it. When you dye something, you are adding a pigment to change the color, but with solution dyed you are chemically changing the color.”
McAllister agreed, noting that this is why the company’s new Indulgence nylon carpets can be cleaned with a 50/50 bleach and water solution if needed to remove a stubborn stain.
Shaw’s Thames pointed out, in overall performance characteristics, nylon is “the most versatile of all fibers, providing excellent flexibility in creating a variety of styles. Nylon can be found in a wide range of both cut pile and loop pile styles. It is durable, resilient, and receptive to dyeing for color versatility and uniformity; many new nylon yarn systems are also exceptionally soft.”
As such, he added Shaw utilized a unique fiber cross-section and modification ratio (fiber shape) and advanced tufting technology to create its new Anso Caress. “Carpets with Caress achieve an ideal balance of softness, resiliency and durability.”
Old is new
There is one other area where executives say nylon holds the advantage over other fiber types—sustainability.
“Nylon is arguably the most environmentally responsible carpet fiber being used in the world today,” said Thames. “It’s the only fiber that can be recycled repeatedly into dyeable carpet fiber, and can be recycled again and again with no loss of beauty or performance.”
He added while carpet manufacturers have worked for years to develop fibers that are environmentally friendly, “none can really compare with type 6 nylon—the kind Shaw uses—in that regard. For example, much polyester fiber is derived from plastic bottles, thus diverting these products from the landfill. This form of down-cycling is beneficial in the short term, but polyester carpets currently have limited recycling value after their useful lives.”
Griffith pointed out there is also a misperception about nylon 6,6 and being able to recycle it. “Invista reclaims and recycles our fibers and so do others. Our TruBlend contains a mix of pre- and post-consumer content. Beyond that, nylon can be repelletized and put back into an extruder. Because 6,6 has such a high melting point the black plastic used under the hood in cars is made from it, and more and more now contain nylon from post-consumer carpet.”
From new dyeing and manufacturing techniques to adding stain resist properties and the ability to recycle nylon, mills say for a fiber that has been around since WWII days, its story is still being written.
“Nylon keeps reinventing itself with new improvements and today’s consumer is the benefactor,” noted Royalty’s Engle.
Griffith concluded, “There’s actually going to be more things coming out in the next six months. We have a lot of work in the pipeline. We have to keep innovating, it’s part of our brand promise.”