Recessions generally are a time when an industry buckles itself in to weather the storm but within the carpet industry winds of change have been taking place that have altered the landscape to the point where it may never be the same again.

In this case it has to do with the fibers used to make carpet. It’s no secret in recent years that polyester (PET) has been growing in use as more and more manufacturers and fiber producers introduce products with this fiber—especially in the residential sector.

This had to do first with the spike in oil prices, as PET is a less expensive fiber to produce than nylon, and then came the improvements in machinery—from the way the fiber is extruded to how it is twisted and heatset. The resulting combination has allowed manufacturers to create carpet styles made from polyester unlike never before, allowing them to successfully compete with their nylon counterparts.

At the same time, other developments, from a new fiber classification—the first in 50 years by the government—to how nylon is being used in the commercial sector has shifted the pie chart in ways never seen before.

The first true picture of this emerged in 2012 when, for the first time since nylon took over as king of the fibers a couple of generations ago, its share of the carpet and rug market, based on face yarn only, fell below 50%, and that number dropped even more this past year.

One needs to glance back 30 years ago to better understand how far things have shifted. Back then nylon had a market share upwards of 80%.

Nonetheless, nylon remains as the most used fiber in the industry, with an overall market share of approximately 45%, but for the first time in nearly 60 years it is no longer the lion on the residential side as polyester’s market share has hit or surpassed 50% depending on whom you survey.

In fact, when it comes to the residential side of the market, some say nylon’s share is in the low 30-percentile range. And while there is no debating PET’s market share has risen sharply, there is still debate as to its percentage since some group Triexta, the fiber used by Mohawk to make its SmarStrand branded carpets, with polyester.

Made from DuPont’s Sorona polymer, Triexta is technically a cousin to polyester as it shares attributes with the material, but it also shares some of nylon’s attributes as well. As such, in 2009, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) ruled Triexta can be classified under its own label as opposed to being grouped with traditional polyester.

This ruling was both significant and historic for the carpet industry in that it was the first extension the FTC approved for textiles in five years and the first extension for residential carpeting in 50 years—since nylon was established under the Textile Fiber Act in June 1959.

As a result of this ruling Floor Trendscounts Triexta as its own fiber and its success in just a short amount of time has allowed it to take what many feel is a permanent spot on the carpet fiber chart alongside PET, nylon, polypropylene (olefin) and wool, which continues to hold a 1% to 2% share of the market. Though Triexta products have started to enter the commercial market, for argument sake virtually all its sales are still on the residential side.

Therefore, on the residential side, the combination of PET and Triexta, whose market share is debated between 6% and 12% depending on the company surveyed, is somewhere in the 55% to 60% range. Throw in the small amount of polypropylene that is used in residential face fibers as well as the natural fibers such as wool, and one can see how nylon share of residential carpet can be in the mid 30% range.


Commercial Perspective

The reason nylon still maintains an overall edge in fiber usage has to do with the commercial side of the business as virtually all specified, or non Main Street products are made with nylon.

But even here there has been a tremendous shift in terms of the way fiber is used.

When nylon was first discovered in the 1930s it was what is called type 6,6 based on how the polymer is made up. In the 1940s, a new version, type 6, was created. Over the next 60-plus years the two types were traditionally divided between type 6 being used for residential carpets and 6,6 for commercial due to it being able to stand up to heavier traffic conditions.

But just as manufacturing equipment has improved the way PET can be extruded and constructed so has it been for nylon 6. This, combined with the fact the major carpet mills have become their own fiber suppliers, along with a growing shift to both carpet tile over broadloom and lower face weights, and the pendulum has swung to where type 6 now accounts for two to three times the amount used compared to 6,6.

Another shift has to do with how nylon is being made. Synthetic fibers are made in long filaments or what is known as bulk continuous filament (BCF). But, when synthetic fibers first came out in the 1930s and ’40s, they needed to match their natural counterparts in order to be used on the same equipment. Natural fibers are short, so the synthetic fibers were cut to match their lengths. This is known as staple fiber.

Though staple was more expensive to produce than BCF it hung around because textile companies—from apparel to flooring—had their money invested in machinery to handle stable.

Over the years manufacturers and suppliers realized the savings of BCF over staple was too hard to ignore and since the 1970s the industry began slowing switching.

While the changeover was slow in the making, the industry was on a pace to where sometime around 2020 nylon staple would be no more. But the Great Recession kicked things into full gear and gave mills the opportunity to close their staple facilities sooner than they initially planned. As a result, if there is any nylon stable left it doesn’t even register a percentage point.

Though it does not impact the commercial side, the same concept has been seen in PET, as it too is being converted to an all BCF industry. While there is still some stable left it is less than 5% of the industry. Just as an example, at the turn of the millennium it was around 15% of the total PET used.