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MODERN LIVING: On the Carpet

4 minute read

Since the war, despite the housing boom, rugs have not been selling well. Housewives who hurried out to fill their new homes with furniture, appliances and TV sets often put off rug buying. Such leaders as Bigelow-Sanford, Alexander Smith, James Lees and Mohawk, which once boasted a combined business of $339 million, have been hardest hit of all, seen their overall profits slump by 65%. Partly, the industry blamed its trouble on high costs and consumer resistance. But mostly it is due to a technological revolution in rugmaking that has left the old leaders and their woolen rugs far behind.

Last week the old-line companies were busy changing their ways to meet the new challenge. James Lees, which once sold as much as $71 million worth of wool carpets annually, has stopped all wool-yarn production at its Bridgeport, Pa. plant, because of “heavy inroads” by newer yarns and processes. It will spend $2,300,000 retooling to produce more modern rugs. A second big company, Alexander Smith Inc., has shut down its Yonkers, N.Y. woven carpet mill entirely, is moving to four newer mills (TIME, July 5), and is planning to buy a fifth to make new cotton and synthetic rugs. After a $27 million loss since 1950, it expects to be back in the black by July. Last week Bigelow-Sanford Carpet Co., biggest U.S. carpet maker, was closing down its century-old carpet mill at Amsterdam, N.Y. to consolidate production at Thompson ville, Conn., put more emphasis on the new synthetic and cotton fibers. Bigelow-Sanford reported that its 1954 sales were down 7%, its profits off by a staggering 97%, to only $108,000 last year.

China & Cotton. The changes are the price of survival for the old leaders. For years the biggest firms made only three standard types of carpets, all of them woolen and all on looms. The grades ranged from a low-price Axminster weave to a more expensive velvet weave, and a Wilton weave, costliest of all. The best wool for these rugs came from China, India and Pakistan. But in 1950 China slapped an embargo on all wool exports; India and Pakistan followed with stiff quotas on shipments, thus cutting off nearly 30% of the best grade of U.S. wool imports. Prices promptly quadrupled, to as much as $2.30 a lb., and the cost of finished rugs spiraled alarmingly. At the same time a revolutionary new method of rugmaking with material other than wool was tempting housewives away from the traditional favorites.

In the South manufacturers of chenille bath mats started making full-scale cotton rugs with fast tufting machines in which 730 huge needles did the work of the old-fashioned looms. Instead of a bobbin and shuttle, the new machines pushed loops of yarn back and forth through a mat like a sewing machine, and did it seven to eight times faster than looms.

Using cheap cotton, the Southern firms made rugs that cost as little as $4 a sq. yd. ($10 for the best grade), compared to $9 and $15 for good-quality wool rugs. The new cotton rugs matted easily, soiled faster and absorbed more moisture than wool, but they could be cleaned at home. U.S. housewives found cotton rugs a good substitute, and rushed to buy. One former carpet salesman named Eugene Barwick started a company in Georgia on only $4,500, now has expanded his business into a whole line of tufted rugs with annual sales of $32 million.

Moths & Saran. Today, such firms as Masland, Firth, and Artloom have all switched over to the new tufted rugs. Besides cotton, the industry is now using new synthetic yarns. Masland has an allrayon rug that, it says, wears better and stays clean longer than cotton and has about the same resiliency as wool. Cost: about $10 a sq. yd. Firth has coated wool with vinyl plastic to make it wear longer; Nye-Wait and others have brought out nylon rugs that cost more than wool ($15 to $45 a sq. yd.) but wear better, are mothproof, and have a rich, glittery shine that housewives like. The stylists have put synthetic rugs out in every pattern from standard flowered designs to tweeds, plaids and bright basket weaves.

Some of the rugmakers are even experimenting with Orion and Dacron as rug fabrics. One of the newest: Masland’s Saranette line ($11 a sq. yd.) made from Dow Chemical’s Saran, which is softer than nylon and has the advantage of being almost impervious to ordinary stains.

The new technology and synthetic fabrics may well run away with the market.

Sales of the standard loomed Axminster wool rugs have declined more than 20% in the last decade, and only the fancier wool grades are gaining in popularity.

At last count, tufting machines were busily turning out rugs in 150 mills through out the U.S., accounting for 29% of the rug market.

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