How to tell the difference between sisal, seagrass & coir.
I have been in the Natural Flooring trade for over twenty years. I recently decided to start selling our sisal rugs on Ebay & I have been astounded at the rugs sold under the description sisal, which are patently NOT sisal.
I have seen a polypropylene rug, described as sisal, a picture of a coir runner, once again described as sisal & I have lost count of the number of "sisal" rugs which are actually wool look-alikes. So, I thought it was about time someone explained the different types of natural fibre used for rugs & carpets.
First of all- polyproylene is a man made fibre - a chemical by-product of the petroleum industry, it is not considered a natural product , it should never be confused with sisal, & a sisal look alike is NOT sisal.
Right, so what are the different types of Natural Flooring which people confuse with sisal?
WOOL is a natural product, after all, it does come from sheep, but whilst it is possible to produce something that looks like sisal, it does feel like sisal & it does not wear like sisal, so please do not call it sisal.
COIR is the outer husk of the coconut shell, sometimes called coconut matting, it is produced by soaking coconut husks in water until they start to soften, at which point the hairy fibres can be scraped off, spun into coir yarn & woven into coir fabric. This usually comes in one of three patterns, basket weave, herringbone or boucle (the bobbly one). It can also be natural or bleaches; subjecting the coir fibres to hydrogen peroxide gas produces bleached coir. One of the disadvantages of this process is that over time the coir returns to its natural colour. Coir is suitable for use in most areas of the house, however, like all natural fibres, it reacts to changes in humidity & so can expand & contract if it is in a room such as a kitchen or conservatory. Coir can be fitted on stairs but only if you know how. Life expectancy of all natural fibres is difficult to assess, as it depends on many factors, but as a rough average say about 10 years.
SEAGRASS as its name implies is made from a grass, which, as part of its growing cycle is flooded with water in a similar way to rice paddy. Many people say that is why it is called seagrass, however, I was always told the reason for its name is that it comes from South East Asia, hence it is South East Asian Grass i.e. S.E.A.Grass. The grass is harvested at two intervals during the year. The early young grass is quite supple & gives a very tight weave; this is usually referred to as Fineweave seagrass. The later older grass is much thicker & so the weave is larger & more open. Both types still retain the outer sheath of the grass & as this is quite waxy, the grass is naturally stain resistant. It is also impossible to dye, so seagrass only appears in its natural colour. When it first arrives in the UK it is still quite green in colour, but over the course of a few months, as it dries out, it becomes a lovely pale golden colour. Seagrass is not as hard wearing as coir, the average length of life on a flat area is about 5 -7 years, whilst in a heavily trafficked area such as a doorway or in front of a chair, it can sometimes only last a couple of years. If you have a chair with castors, this can reduce to a matter of months. Whilst it is possible to fit seagrass on stairs, it does nor have a very long life span over the nose of the stair, so our normal advice is that it is not cost effective to put seagrass on stairs.
JUTE is a very soft fabric, like sisal it is made from a plant, in this case the stalk of the corchorus palnt. It is a very soft fabric & very susceptible to staining & retaining smells, so it is really only suitable for lightly trafficked areas such as bedrooms.
SISAL is the name of the fibre prduced from the Sisalana Agave plant. This plant was originally a native of Central & South America, but for many years now has been cultivated in Africa & the Far East as well. The leaves of the plant are harvested & the fibres stripped from the leaves using a process called decortication, the fibres are then washed to remove the starch & left to dry in the sun. At this point the sisal fibres are pure white. Most manufacturers then dye & weave it. Only once the product is finished do they consider that it will probably stain if things are spilled onto it, so, as an afterthought they spray a stain inhibitor onto the surface. However, a South African company - Rebtex - decided to do things differently, they stain inhibit the fibres before weaving them. This means all the fibres are treated rather than just the surface ones. The outcome is that Rebtex Fibregard sisal is much easier to look after as any liquid stains sit on the surface allowing you time to collect a cloth & mop spills up. Sisal is by far the most hardwearing Natural Fibre; it will last as long as 25 years & I have been in a number of old houses where the sisal has been down for longer than that. It is suitable for anywhere in the house, but I personally find it a little too rough underfoot for use in a bathroom. Sisal is perfectly suited for stairs, as long as it is fitted correctly.
Sisal is produced in many countries & there are hundreds of different colours & patterns available. It undergoes more processing that the other types of natural fibres & so is more expensive to produce, also, as the quality of sisal can vary greatly, the price variations for sisal are much greater than for other types of natural flooring.
Although I have given approximate life expectancies for the different types of flooring, this is only a very rough generalisation. Life expectancy depends on many factors, number of people & pets in the house, the way they live, how the flooring is cared for & how well it is fitted. I have seen seagrass over 20 years old & sisal in holes after 5 years, so please do not take life expectancy as gospel.
Most sisal is produced in 4 metre width, so any rugs & runners are made by cutting from this width, this means they are usually bound with fabric or braid to finish the edges. It is also possible to make a runner by cutting from the 4 metre width, stripping back the warp threads & sticking the remaining weft threads onto the back of the runner. There are also one or two companies making narrow looom sisal, in this case, the runners are not bound but finished with a selvedge. Binding a runner or stripping back is time consuming & quite expensive, so bound runners will always cost more per square metre than narrow loom sisal.
Most natural flooring used in the UK has a latex backing. There are a number of very good reasons for backing, it holds the fibres together when they are cut, it stops dirt falling through & it gives the fibre some dimensional stability. All plant fibres react to changes in humidity & in the UK we get a lot of changes in humidity (we call it weather). The latex backing does not stop all movement but without it you would never know from one day to the next how big your rug was going to be. It also has the advantage that if you are going to fully fit your sisal, it gives something for the adhesive to stick to, because, the correct way to fit a natural fibre, is to stick it to something. We usually use an underlay, so that you can remove it at some point in the future.
If you want to know more about sisal there is a web site sisal4u & from there you can link to sites where you can see pictures of the different types of natural flooring.
SO, in conclusion, if you are looking for an environmentally friendly flooring, made from a plant & therefore fully sustainable, that will last a long time & keep looking good. Make sure you are looking at SISAL, the real thing, not a look- alike.