A carpet is one of the most expensive buying decisions you’ll make. Our guide explains what to look for.

Note: this report does not contain test results or brand recommendations for carpets – it is a general buying guide only.

You want a carpet that keeps its appearance and will last at least 10 years? There’s more than just the fibre to consider. The way a carpet’s manufactured (its “style”) and how much foot-traffic it gets will also influence how well it keeps its looks.

Which fibre is best?

There’s no simple answer. A cheap wool carpet will always keep its looks and resist soiling better than a cheap synthetic carpet, but it may wear out more quickly.

At the other end of the scale, a premium carpet – wool or synthetic – is excellent at resisting wear and keeping its appearance.

Wool

Wool is considered the “gold standard” for carpets.
Wool is considered the “gold standard” for carpets.

Wool is considered the “gold standard” for carpets. It’s durable, keeps its looks and has a luxurious feel. Wool carpets are good for living areas where appearance is important.

Pros:

  • Wool has excellent resilience. So it recovers well from crushing and keeps its appearance.
  • Wool fibre is naturally flame-resistant. A dropped cigarette or a cinder from a fireplace may char a wool carpet but the marks can be clipped away.

Cons:

  • Wool can’t be treated for stain resistance – spills need to be treated immediately.
  • Wool needs to be chemically treated against moths and insects. Check the label to see that it has been treated to resist insect damage.
  • Some wool carpets may shed fibres for several months after being installed, especially cut pile types.

Wool/nylon blends combine the durability of nylon with the appearance and luxurious feel of wool. “Wool-rich” carpets have at least 80 percent wool content. Carpets with a wool content that’s less than this may not keep their appearance well.

Synthetic

Synthetic fibres are extremely strong and abrasion resistant.
Synthetic fibres are extremely strong and abrasion resistant.

Synthetic fibres are extremely strong and abrasion resistant. Some synthetic fibres have stain-resistant treatments applied during manufacture: this makes it easier to remove tricky stains from spilt food or drink. They’re good for homes with children or pets.

Better-quality nylon carpets mimic the appearance of wool with built-in stain resistance. Polypropylene carpets are a popular choice for spare bedrooms and rental properties. They’re cheaper than nylon carpets but have a rougher feel – and look cheaper. Polypropylene has a lower melting point than nylon.

Other synthetic fibres make strong claims for stain resistance and durability. But the best way to check whether a carpet will keep looking good in your home is to look for an independent grading on the label (see "Carpet durability", below).

Pros:

  • Synthetic fibres resist insect damage and mildew.
  • Carpets that are “solution-dyed” (colour is added while the fibre is still a molten liquid) keep their colour through cleaning and resist fading better than those that have their colour applied to the surface of the fibre.

Cons:

  • Cheap carpets may flatten and matt readily. There may also be problems with static electricity.
  • Synthetic fibres can melt when exposed to intense heat.
  • While synthetic fibres clean easily they also tend to soil faster than wool carpets.

Carpet types

The look and feel of a carpet depends on the way it’s made (tufted or woven), the density of its pile and the degree of twist.

Tufted carpets

Hundreds of needles thread the yarn through a backing, to form loops of the required length. The 2 main styles of tufted carpet are cut pile and loop pile.

Cut pile
Cut pile carpets have the tops of their loops cut.

  • Hard twist cut pile is a popular and hard-wearing style – the yarn is tightly twisted and set so the tufts won’t flatten.
  • Plush pile and Saxony carpets have cut pile with less twist, so they give a smooth luxurious feel. In plush pile the tuft ends blend together to give a velvety finish; in Saxony carpets the tuft ends are distinct.

All cut pile carpets may show footprints (tracking) or develop light and dark patches (shading). Both are more likely to occur in plush pile and Saxony carpets.

Loop pile
Loop pile carpets wear well and don’t show footprints – so they’re good for young families. However, they’re harder underfoot and less comfortable than cut pile carpets. Carpets with short densely-packed loops block out the dirt and are good for high-traffic areas. Longer loops look luxurious but can be snagged by high heels or pet claws. (Don’t pull the loops – they may unravel. Clip them with a pair of sharp scissors instead.)

Berber and sisal are popular styles of loop carpet.

  • Berber carpets have thick yarns in chunky loop tufts. They’re usually in earth tones flecked with coloured slubs.
  • The loops in sisal carpets are of uniform height or in lines of alternating heights. These lines give the carpet a definite direction – which means that joins across the width of the carpet may be more visible here than in other styles. You’ll need to discuss with the carpet-layer the way in which the carpet will run.

Cut pile and loop pile may be combined for a sculptured effect.

Woven carpets

These have their yarn and backing woven at the same time. Woven carpets are generally more luxurious – and expensive – than tufted carpets.

The best-known types (Axminster and Wilton) take their names from the type of loom on which they’re woven.

Traditionally these carpets feature intricate patterns – Axminster in a wide range of colours and Wilton in fewer colours (usually 5). Axminster and Wilton carpets are often 80/20 wool/nylon.

Durability

The best guide to durability is the carpet’s grading, which should be on a label on the back of the carpet sample.

Woolmark, Fernmark and Australian Carpet Classification Scheme logos.
Woolmark, Fernmark and Australian Carpet Classification Scheme logos.

The Woolmark or the Wools of New Zealand Fernmark schemes grade wool carpets and the Woolblendmark grades 80/20 wool/synthetic blends. The Australian Carpet Classification Scheme (ACCS) grades all carpet fibres and blends. These schemes test the carpet for its appearance retention, its durability, and its resistance to dirt and insect damage and fading.

Residential carpets are graded for “medium”, “heavy” and “extra heavy” use. In an area which has light foot-traffic (such as a bedroom or study) a “medium” residential-grade carpet should keep its appearance for more than 10 years. But in a heavy-traffic area you’d need an “extra-heavy” grade to last this long.

If you want a carpet for a staircase, make sure it’s graded “suitable for stairs”. If it’s not, the carpet may gape and expose the backing fabric when the carpet’s folded around the edge of the step. Longer-pile carpets are considered unsuitable for stairs: you’re more likely to slip or trip when the pile’s longer.

Tip: Be wary of any label or grading that hasn’t been issued by an independent certifying body.

Weight

Don’t be misled by claims about a carpet’s weight – the weight of the fibre in a square metre of carpet.

A carpet which claims a heavier weight won’t necessarily keep its appearance longer: other factors like yarn construction, pile height and density of the tufts play a role in this. And a carpet with longer tufts but fewer of them per square metre may become flattened and matted sooner than a carpet with short closely-spaced tufts.

Fading

All carpets graded by Wools of New Zealand, Woolmark or the Australian Carpet Classification Scheme must also meet specified requirements for resistance to fading.

However, any carpet exposed to large north-facing windows will show some colour change. Think twice before placing mats or furniture on carpet in front of a picture window – you may get a nasty shock when you move them.

Dark colours are less likely to fade than light pastels because they have more dye, which gives the fibre extra protection. Pastel shades of blue and green are especially susceptible to fading.

Tip: If you don’t want to block your view with blinds or curtains, think about installing solar-control glass or coating the window glass with solar film. These don’t have to be tinted – you can get clear glass or film that’s been treated with a UV absorber.

Underlay

A good-quality underlay prolongs the life of your carpet and makes it feel softer and springier. It also helps soundproof a room and provides extra insulation against heat loss.

The British and Australian standards (BS5808 and AS 4288) grade underlays for home use as “light", “general” and “luxury”. The “general” grade is suitable for all areas. Don’t be seduced by the “luxury” grade – in heavy traffic areas it could feel as if you’re walking through a swamp. Watch out too for underlay that’s graded “commercial”: it won’t necessarily last longer than other grades. It simply means the underlay offers firm support.

There are 2 common types of materials used to manufacture underlays – rubber and foam chip. Each type comes with its own grading scheme.

Rubber waffle underlay
The different grades of rubber waffle underlay can be identified by their colour – but the colours and gradings vary between manufacturers so you’ll need to discuss your choice with the retailer. In general the grading of most rubber waffle underlays can be described as "basic", "better" and "best", and is determined by the amount of rubber latex used in the backing. So the best product in the range will have more rubber latex in the backing compared to the basic, which will have less latex and more clay fillers.

Slab rubber underlay
Another type of rubber underlay is generically known as slab rubber. It looks like a solid material and unlike rubber waffle underlay it doesn’t have a corrugated appearance. This type of underlay offers a very high density rating especially compared to foam chip. Unlike its waffle cousin it should have a density rating (kg/m³) supplied by its manufacturer.

Foam chip underlay
Foam chip underlay is graded by density (kg/m³) – the higher the better. The density of the product is the information to look for – don’t be misled by claims about the thickness of the underlay. For example, a 10mm thick foam chip underlay with a density of 120kg will perform better over its lifetime than an 11mm thick 95kg density one. As a general rule, the minimum density for foam chip underlay is 95kg. Anything less than this could seriously impact on the life of the carpet installed over it. Most foam chip underlays sold in New Zealand are 95-130kg density.

Avoid cheap underlays of either type. Clay fillers may have been added to basic rubber waffle underlay to keep down the manufacturing costs. In time the waffle structure may collapse as the fillers break down. Cheap low-density foam underlays with a density of less than 95kg will quickly lose their resilience.

"Free underlay!" deals may be a false economy – make sure you are getting the best match for your carpet. A good underlay is a cost-effective way of improving your carpet’s feel and durability. Nearly all underlays feel great when they are first installed, but it’s how they perform over the next 8-10 years that is the key. Most professional flooring retailers should be able to explain the differences in underlay types. If they can’t, or they don’t offer you a clear explanation about how you can enhance your carpet’s performance by choosing the right underlay, then beware – you might not be getting good advice.

Tip: Never re-use existing underlay when you replace your old carpet – it’ll have the same wear patterns as the old carpet and these will quickly reappear in your new carpet. You may also be voiding your carpet warranty.

Keys points for choosing your underlay:

  • For foam chip – make your choice based on density not thickness.
  • For waffle rubber – compare the "basic" with the "best".
  • For rubber slab – check the density.
  • Match your underlay to your carpet.
  • Follow the carpet manufacturer’s recommendations if available.
  • New carpet = new underlay.

Carpet shading

In some carpets, patches of pile lie in a different direction from the rest of the carpet (“permanent pile reversal”) and reflect light differently. This gives a watermark effect known as shading.

It isn’t a manufacturing defect and doesn’t affect the carpet’s durability; but it’s permanent and can’t be removed by vacuuming or brushing.

Your carpet retailer should warn you before you buy about carpets that may develop shading. If you’re not warned and your carpet ends up with unwanted shading, you may have a case against the retailer under the Consumer Guarantees Act.

Getting a quote

If you’re in the market for new carpet, make sure all your quotes are calculated on the same basis.

  • If your preferred carpet’s available from more than one retailer, get quotes in writing from several of them. Make sure the quotes are all on the same basis (you’ll want to compare like with like) and that they include GST. If one of the quotes suggests less carpet will be used, ask why.
  • Retailers may talk in terms of square metres or “linear” (broadloom) metres. A linear metre is the length of a standard broadloom carpet 3.66 meters wide. To find out its square metre price simply divide the linear metre price by 3.66.
  • A quote should give details of carpet and underlay – and it should include the costs of measuring, removing old carpet and underlay, cutting, and the final fitting and installation. Ask if there are extra charges for floor preparation, grippers, door bars, shaving your doors so that the carpet fits, or moving furniture.
  • The quote should state that the carpet will be laid to the Standard AS/NZS 2455.1:2007 Textile Floor Coverings Installation Practice. Most manufacturers state their carpet must be installed to this standard. A poorly installed carpet will look unsightly and wear quickly – and it may invalidate the manufacturer’s warranty. Most of the carpet complaints we receive are about carpet laying.
  • Don’t necessarily choose the lowest quote. It may be lowest because it uses as little carpet as possible and has poorly placed seams.

Installation

Get your carpet installed professionally, to AS/NZS 2455.1:2007. The standard requires the contractor to prepare a plan of the area to be carpeted showing where the seams will go.

Get your carpet installed professionally, to AS/NZS 2455.1:2007.
Get your carpet installed professionally, to AS/NZS 2455.1:2007.

Seams shouldn’t be placed where they’re conspicuous or where they’ll receive a lot of wear. Be especially cautious if you’re considering a strongly directional carpet style such as sisal. It’s not possible to fully disguise a seam but a mis-aligned pattern will draw attention to the join. If you want the carpet to run along a narrow hallway you may have to sacrifice 2/3 of the carpet width – patching shorter pieces together is likely to be unsatisfactory because the joins will show.

The plan should also show the direction of the carpet pile – all carpet cuts must lie in the same direction.

The standard states that the installer should use a power-stretcher, not a knee-kicker or tubeless re-stretcher, to lay the carpet. In many cases, where a carpet becomes wavy it’s because a power stretcher hasn’t been used.

Tackless installation which uses a gripper to anchor the carpet is the usual and best method.

Tip: Keep an eye out for wrinkling. If this happens, ask the installer to come back and re-stretch the carpet.

Report by Bev Frederikson.