Today’s area rugs are most often machine-made on computerized looms that can imitate the more intricate handmade rugs… but at greatly reduced costs. They are generally made out of wool, silk, nylon, olefin (polypropylene), or a blend of any of these. Occasionally rugs are even made of bamboo. The Backing System or what is adhered to the back of a rug, serves as a rug’s critical foundation providing dimensional stability, strong tuft bind, delamination protection, and antimicrobial protection.
Rugs need to breathe in order to help air, gas, and moisture move through the rug. Without the proper type of rug backing, a rug may succumb to mildew, mold, extreme wear, and some types of rug backing may even ruin floors. The most common types of rug backing are heat-set, woven, felt, and latex.
Most machine-made rugs include heat-set backings. These backings are applied to a rug through a high heat process. Heat-set backings allow a rug to breathe properly, which makes this type of rug backing an optimal choice. Most wall-to-wall carpet is of this construction as well. This backing has the common square matrix pattern you see on many rugs and carpets. It also has a course feeling.
Olefin rugs can be inexpensive rug options. After all, Olefin is plastic! These rugs are usually made with heat-set backings of polypropylene (also plastic) that can actually damage hardwood floors (scratch). Placing a rug pad under an olefin rug can help protect a floor from damage. When Olefin rugs curl on their edges or corners, they can be easily corrected by taking advantage of the fact they’re made of plastic. Using a damp rag, apply moist heat by covering the curl with the rag, covered by a hot clothes iron. Soften the plastic with heat, but let it come back to room temperature flat by laying some books on the warm spot you created. Your rug will be reset for months.
Other backings that allow air to flow are woven and felt rug backings. If the back of the rug is not covered with any other kind of material, it is probably a woven rug. Woven backings actually allow you to see the weave of the face fibers (pictured below). Felt is an inexpensive (pressed wool or acrylic fibers) backing and it is either glued or sewn into place on the back of the rug (picture).
A simple fabric (usually a natural fiber) may be attached to the back of any of these rugs, hiding their actual backing.
The absolute worst backing on area rugs is latex. The main drawback is that the latex won’t allow the rug to “breathe”. These rugs trap any moisture or gas and damage the carpet, stone, hardwood or laminate floors beneath. The latex backing actually attracts moisture. Carpet yellows, stone or concrete shows physical damage, hardwood warps and the finish is ruined, laminate yellows and warps. Common Latex backed rugs are bath mats, but it can also be found on various area rugs and runners. Do not use Latex backed rugs except on floors of ceramic or porcelain tiles!
Before shopping for any kind of rug, make sure to pay attention to the type of rug backing that is attached to a rug. While most consumers only research types of rugs, the back of a rug is extremely important. Two general rules:
- The rug you choose should be able to breathe
- Heat-set and woven backings need pads (see related article)
If the material used to cover the back of a rug cannot be easily determined, speak with the manufacturer of a rug. When it comes to rug backings, it is far better to inquire about a rug than to ruin a floor with the wrong kind of backing.