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Updated on April 22, 2010

Although the terms "rug" and "carpet" are sometimes used interchangeably, the term "carpet" has come to refer particularly to a fabric that covers the floor completely and is fastened down, as in wall-to-wall carpeting. The term "rug," on the other hand, is generally used to refer to a fabric that is not tacked down and does not cover the entire floor.

Although rugs and carpets are most often used as floor coverings inside homes, offices, hotels, and other structures, special outdoor carpets have been developed for patios, terraces, and boats. In addition, rugs and carpets are sometimes used for other purposes. Some of the more beautiful fabrics are used as decorative wall hangings, and in some parts of the world carpet and rug fabrics are used as beds, tent flaps, and saddlebags.

Photo by Kriss Szkurlatowski
Photo by Kriss Szkurlatowski


Over the years, rugs and carpets have been made of a wide variety of materials. Most early rugs were made of wool. In the East, silk was also used, and at various times rugs have been made from the coats of goats, camels, and llamas. Today the major natural fibers used in making rugs are wool and cotton. However, many synthetic fibers are also used.

All wool used in making carpets in the United States is imported from regions where hardy strains of sheep produce coarse wool—chiefly Argentina, New Zealand, and the Middle East. Generally, several different grades of wool are used. The pile of a rug, the upper surface, is usually a blend of grades selected for different properties. One type is chosen for luster, another for resilience, another for strength, and so on. Cotton accounts for only a very small percentage of rug and carpet production. It is used chiefly for small rugs.

The use of synthetic fibers in making rugs and carpets has increased steadily since they were introduced around 1950. By the mid 1960's, man-made fibers accounted for 80% of the total carpet production. Nylon is the principal fiber used for the pile surfaces of rugs and carpets, followed by the acrylic and modacrylic fibers, polypropylene, and polyester fibers. Rayon and acetate are used to a lesser extent and, like cotton, are used mainly for small rugs. Just as manufacturers use different types of wool, they may use different blends of synthetic fibers. In addition, some rugs and carpets consist of both natural and synthetic fibers. By using different fibers, manufacturers are able to produce a variety of rugs and carpets ranging in quality and cost.

In addition to the fibers used for making pile surfaces, several different materials are used to make carpet backings. Jute is the principal fiber used for this purpose, although many synthetic fibers, chiefly polypropylene, are also used. Kraft-cord (a strong yarn made of paper pulp), rayon, and cotton are used to a lesser extent for backings.

History of Carpet Making

The making of rugs and carpets has developed from one of man's most ancient crafts to a large modern industry. The art of rug making can be traced back to the early Babylonian and Egyptian civilizations, and there is evidence that carpet weaving was an established craft in China and India as early as 1300 b.c. The fabrics used were mainly flat, or tapestry, fabrics. A pile carpet with a surface composed of many small loops is believed to have been developed first in India before 1100 a.d. The method for weaving such carpets is then believed to have spread throughout the Middle East. See also rugs, oriental.

Spain and France. Rug making was introduced into Europe by the invading Saracens around 711 a.d., and the organized production of hand-knotted rugs by the Saracens in Spain was established as early as the 13th century. In the 15th and 16th centuries, rug production grew in the northern cities of Italy and then spread throughout the rest of Europe. Toward the end of the 16th century, carpet weaving was well established in Brussels and in Aubusson, a town in central France.

The first official support of carpet weaving in France came in 1605 when King Henry IV established a workroom in the Louvre. The project was so successful that in 1620 the weavers were moved into larger quarters in what had been a soap factory at Chaillot, near Paris. As a result, the name "Savonnerie," from the French word for soap, came to mean a pile carpet of soft coloring and elaborate design. These carpets were used to furnish the Louvre and also the Palace of Versailles when it was built by Louis XIV from 1665 to 1683. Like the tapestry, or nonpile, carpets made at Aubusson, the Savonneries were typically French and uninfluenced by Oriental design. However, the Aubussons were more delicate in design than the elaborate Savonneries.

England. After the Edict of Nantes was revoked in 1685, many French weavers fled religious persecution and established their craft in England. With royal patronage, carpet weaving became an important occupation in such towns as Wilton, Kidderminster, and Axminster. At each of these towns, different weaving techniques were developed, and these methods came to bear the name of the town in which they originated. At Wilton a method was developed for producing a carpet with a cutpile surface.

United States. The first factory for weaving carpets in the United States was established in 1791 in Philadelphia by William P. Sprague. Weaving at this time was still done by hand, although production was organized on a factory system.

Power Looms

The great revolution in carpet weaving came in 1839 at the Lowell Manufacturing Company in Lowell, Mass., when Erastus Brigham Bigelow devised the first power loom. This steam-driven loom was used for making a flat-weave fabric with a reversible pattern, a carpet known as "ingrain carpet." This type of carpet was very popular in the United States during the 19th century but it is no longer produced.

About 10 years after he developed the power loom for making ingrain carpets, Bigelow devised a similar loom for making a carpet with an uncut pile surface, a type of carpet known as "Brussels carpet." This loom produced more than 25 square yards (about 20 sq. meters) of carpet a day. Until this time, a single handweaver and an assistant could produce only about 7 square yards (6 sq meters) of carpet a day, and the handmade carpet was not of so high a quality as the loom-made carpet. Soon power was added to other handlooms, making it possible to produce carpet at a volume and price that handweaving could not match.

In 1856, Halcyon Skinner of West Farms, N.Y., perfected a power loom for making the Axminster rug, a complexly patterned type of rug. Skinner's loom was developed from an idea of a Yonkers millowner, Alexander Smith. By the end of the century, Axminster looms of this type were producing from 40 to 60 square yards (35-50 sq meters) of carpeting a day, compared with the 11/3 square yards (1)4 sq meters) previously woven in a day by the hand labor of two men and a boy.

The first power looms produced carpeting in narrow bands, usually 27 inches (68 mm) across. These bands were then seamed together to make large rugs. Gradual technological developments led to the use of wider looms that could produce "broadloom" carpets in widths up to 30 feet (9 meters). The term "broadloom" is still used as a term of measurement for any seamless carpet 6 feet (1.8 meters) or more wide. It is simply a designation of width and does not describe any particular construction, style, or quality.


The next major advance in carpet manufacturing came in the United States in the 20th century with the development of tufting. The tufting process, pioneered around 1900 by Catherine Evans of Dalton, Ga., was a revival of the handicraft of colonists, who saved wicks trimmed from candles and worked them into fabrics to make "candlewick" bedspreads. From this process of inserting yarns into fabrics, the tufting machine was developed. By the 1920's, ordinary sewing machines were adapted for making tufted fabrics, but it was not until the development of wide-width, multineedle machines about 1950 that tufted carpets and rugs were produced in large volume. The use of these machines increased rapidly, and by the mid-1960's, 88% of all the rugs and carpets made in the United States were made by tufting. The high-speed tufting process also expanded greatly in Canada, Britain, and West Germany. Today, many tufting machines are capable of producing 800 square yards (nearly 670 sq meters) of carpet a day.

Knitting and Other Methods

The knitting of carpets was developed commercially in 1951. Although the production speed of a carpet-knitting machine is not so high as that of a tufting machine, it is still much higher than that of a conventional loom.

Two other methods of carpet making were developed during the 20th century. These were the needle-loomed, or needle-punched, process and the use of electrostatic flocking. Both of these methods, however, are presently used to only a limited extent.

The three basic methods used in the manufacture of rugs and carpets are weaving, tufting, and knitting. Much less widely used are the needle-loomed process and electrostatic flocking.


Weaving, whether done by hand or machine, is a process of interlacing or crisscrossing strands of yarn to make a fabric. The basic weaving tool is the loom, which in its simplest form is a rectangular frame for holding and stretching strands of yarn that are held vertically. This yarn is called the warp, and it forms the lengthwise strands of the finished fabric. By passing other strands of yarn, called the weft, over one warp yarn and under the next, a fabric is formed. The weft yarns form the crosswise strands of the finished fabric. In making some rugs and carpets, extra lengthwise yarns, called stuffers, are used to make the fabric thicker and heavier. On a handloom, the weaver passes the weft yarns back and forth across the loom by hand. On a power loom, a shuttle carrying the weft yarn is shot back and forth through the warp.

In pile carpets and rugs, another type of yarn is used. Called the pile yarn, or face yarn, it stands erect from the backing fabric that is formed by the warp and weft. In handweaving, the pile is formed by tying the pile yarns around one or two warp threads and then cutting the yarn so that the two ends of the knot protrude upward. The weft threads are pulled down tightly against the knots to hold the pile yarn in place. On power looms, four different methods are used in weaving pile carpets: velvet, Wilton, Axminster, and chenille.

Velvet Weave
Velvet Weave


In making a velvet type of carpet the pile yarns are formed into loops over raised "wires," strips of steel that are moved back and forth across the loom. Sometimes the wires have a sharp edge that cuts the loops as the wires are withdrawn, producing a cut-pile fabric. If the wires are not equipped with a cutting edge, the pile yarns remain looped.

The texture of a velvet carpet may be varied by cutting the pile loops at different heights or by using twisted yarns for a nubby texture. Most velvet carpets are solid colors, but sometimes different color combinations are obtained by using moresque yarns, yarns with different colored strands plied together.

Wilton Weave
Wilton Weave


The Wilton loom follows the same principle as the velvet loom, but its distinguishing characteristic is the Jacquard pattern mechanism, which was invented by Joseph Marie Jacquard, a French weaver, in 1800. This system employs a series of pattern cards, operating like perforated player piano rolls, which regulate the feeding of the pile yarns to the carpet surface. As a particular color is needed for the pattern, the correct pile yarn is automatically raised to the surface while the others are buried in the backing. Usually Wilton carpets are limited to a combination of five or six colors.

In addition to the color pattern, Wilton carpets may also have a carved or sculptured design made by varying the pile height or by combining both cut and uncut pile yarns. These carpets are often noted for their sharply delineated patterns and textures.

Axminster Weave
Axminster Weave


An Axminster loom is generally used for carpets with intricate designs involving many colors. The method is similar to that used in the handweaving of Oriental rugs in that each tuft of yarn is inserted separately into the carpet by the loom. The pile yarns are wound on long spools that are assembled in a frame across the width of the loom. From the spools, the yarns are fed to the loom in the proper sequence from an overhead chain device. Except in a few special variations of the weave, the pile yarns are then cut. Axminster carpets may be distinguished from other woven carpets by their heavily ribbed backing, which can be rolled up lengthwise but not crosswise.

Chenille Weave
Chenille Weave


The chenille process, now used only to a limited extent, requires two looms. One loom is used to make a fabric that is then cut into many furry strips. These strips are used as the pile yarn and are woven into the base of the carpet on the second loom, producing a thick carpet that may be made in seamless widths up to 30 feet (9 meters). Chenille rugs and carpets are now made only in Scotland.

Needle-Loomed Process

In the needle-loomed process, a sheet or layer of loose fibrous material is attached to a fabric base. A coating of latex or some other sizing material is then applied to the back. Flat outdoor carpets are made by this method. Other outdoor carpets are made by tufting.


In tufting, a precontracted backing is used for the basic carpet structure. The backing may be made of jute, kraftcord, cotton, or various man-made fibers, and it is usually woven, although some nonwoven fabrics have been developed for this purpose. As the backing fabric moves through the machine, the pile yarns are stitched through it by a long bank of needles working simultaneously. Pile yarn is supplied to the needles from cones of yarn that are set on a large rack, called a creel. In the finishing process, the pile tufts are firmly locked to the backing by a latex coating that is applied by roller machines. (Latex is also used on some woven carpets and the backing of all knitted carpets.) High-quality tufted carpets also have a second backing fabric that is laminated to the primary backing for extra strength and stability.

Originally restricted to plain textures and solid colors, tufted rugs and carpets can now be made in a wide variety of styles. Through electronic control of both the yarn feed and the needle action, the tuft height can be varied to create texture patterns. In some styles, a carpet is tufted with some loops higher than others; in the finishing process, these loops are then sheared for a "random-sheared" or "tip-sheared" texture. The tufting machine may also be equipped with knives to form cut pile, and some tufted carpets have a combination of both cut and uncut pile. In addition, special electrically operated hand-tufting equipment can be used for "overtufting," or tufting a raised design on a pile background.

Some tufted carpets are made with different colored yarns. Others, made of all-white yarns, are "piece-dyed" after the carpet is made. Some manufacturers use special chemically treated yarns that produce a multicolored effect after being soaked in a single dye bath. Methods have also been perfected for screen-printing patterns on a carpet tufted of all-white yarns.


In knitted carpets, like woven carpets, the backing yarns and pile surface yarns are interlocked simultaneously. Knitted carpets are constructed by using three sets of needles to loop together pile yarns, backing yarns, and a stitching yarn, or locking yarn. They are made on wide, multiple-needle machines and are generally made with looped pile. Most knitted carpets are made in solid colors, although some color variations are possible by using moresque yarns. The height of the pile may be varied, and both cut and uncut pile may be produced.

Electrostatic Flocking

In this process, positively charged fiber "flock" (chopped fibers) is projected toward an adhesive backing material that is supported on a negatively charged metal plate. The fibers are then adhered in a vertical position. Flocked fabrics, made in limited quantities, are used chiefly for car carpeting.


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