You’ve heard of sisal. You’ve heard of seagrass. So what’s the difference between the two?
People often use these terms interchangeably–and even more frequently mispronounce “sisal”. (Say “sigh-zhel” quickly and with a slight slur and you’ve got it right.) The confusion is understandable as the two do have quite a bit in common. Both are natural, renewable fibers used to create rugs and wall-to-wall flooring. They are somewhat similar in appearance with their woven texture and natural hues and look strikingly rich–although each generally costs less than most nylon carpets and certainly less than wool. But perhaps their greatest asset is their stylistic versatility. Sisal and seagrass are idea candidates for nearly any design direction from chic to shabby, modern to traditional.
Chevron-patterned seagrass. Photo source: Lonny.
However, as someone who has lived with both, I can tell you these two are not the same, nor do they wear the same. They’re not even made from the same plant! And that’s just the beginning of their differences. Here are the rest, including pros and cons.
Memorize this: this is sisal.
Agave Sisalana: Sisal fibers are extracted from the crushed leaves of the agave plant. (Nope, not the one used to make tequila.) The telltale look of sisal flooring is tight, neatly woven rows that are natural in color; however the absorbent fibers can also be dyed and/or woven into patterns such as a chevron pattern. These same fibers are used to make rope and scratching posts for cats which gives you an idea of how soft it’s going to be: not very. So maybe not ideal for still-crawling children, but the problem isn’t lack-of-softness as much as it is sisal’s sensitivity to stains.
Sisal stair runner. Photo source: J.K. Kling Associates.
You spill, you stain: Sisal and seagrass both start out as beauties, but, unlike seagrass, sisal is so absorbent that it can soon turn beastly with blemishes. If you spill wine on sisal, you have two options: learn to live with the stain or throw the flooring out. If you think the third option should be clean with water or carpet cleaner, think again. Most cleansers will discolor the sisal, and water, as odd as it sounds, may stain sisal, leaving a watermark behind. The one way to “fix” a watermark is to wet the entire surface which is not, of course, a great option for wall-to-wall installation (as moisture can be trapped below the flooring leading to mold, mildew and/or subfloor damage). For rugs, make sure the rug has an arid, sunny spot to dry or a mold/mildew problem may trump any stain issue you were originally trying to ameliorate.
The splendor of seagrass: Like sisal, seagrass also comes in a chevron pattern, but its classic and most common look is a basket weave (although the spacing and thickness of the weave will vary). Unlike the crushed fibers that comprise sisal, seagrass is a marsh-growing weed and no stranger to water. During production, the slick skin of the reed is kept intact making it somewhat impervious to stains. Seagrass is also inherently static-free and therefore dust and dirt repellent. A clean, damp cloth can be used to blot away most spills if you catch them right away. Note: I have used 5 parts water to one part bleach to remove stains of the potty-training-a-dog-variety. 🙂
Memorize this: this is seagrass in its most common, classic form.
Seagrass woven into a chevron pattern.
Soak it up: Seagrass’s resistance to moisture makes it equally resistant to dye. This is why you will almost always see it in its natural state which is slightly green when first unrolled; in a week or so, after interior exposure to light and air, it will dry and turn a shade of wheat. Note: When sisal or seagrass are insalled wall-to-wall, they can be treated as a hard surface with rugs thrown atop them; however, seagrass, more than sisal, needs to breathe. Any areas you cover with a rug will stay green longer. You will also want to avoid placing plastic mats, like the ones used to protect a floor from rolling office chairs, on top of seagrsass, as you risk trapping moisture (again with that pesky potential for mold and mildew!).
Seagrass flooring. Photo source: Architectural Digest. Designer: Suzanne Kasler.
Sticky situation: Both sisal and seagrass can be cut and bound into custom-sized rugs (have the edges bound or they will fray and unravel) or installed wall-to-wall. The edges can be bound in anything from plain cotton to a leather that has been tooled to resemble alligator skin. If you choose cotton, select something in the dust color family which will show dirty footprints less than darker shades–even if that sounds totally counter-intuitive! it is important to note that sisal and seagrass come with a latex backing that helps hold the rug together and provides a built-in cushion. If you have hardwood floors, do not lay your rug directly on them since over time the latex back may stick to the hardwood. Note: when selecting a rug pad, use one that is rated to go over hardwood floors as some of the perforated rug pads have been known to (gulp!) adhere to hardwood floors, as well.
Seagrass rug. Photo source: unknown.
Wall to wall: Unlike regular carpet, instead of resting atop a pad and being stretched in place with tackstrip, the latex backing of sisal oar seagrass is glued directly to the subfloor. If a spongier surface is desired–after all, this tightly woven floor is less cushy than regular carpet to begin with–a urethane pad can be added. This is a special pad is made specifically for use with natural fiber flooring. One side will be glued to the seagrass with a permanent adhesive and the other side, the one that will rest on your subfloor, must be glued with a pressure-sensitive adhesive. This step is crucial so if you ever decide to remove the pad and flooring you can, without pulling up part of your subfloor (whether wood or concrete) with it. A notable benefit of wall-to-wall sisal and seagrass is that they are so tightly woven that dirt is less likely to penetrate through to the backing, which means dirt and debris are kept mostly on the surface where they can easily be swept or vacuumed.
Seagrass installed wall to wall. Photo source: Lauren Liess. Designer: Lauren Liess.
Shrinkage: The fact is, natural fibers shrink. While they are stored on a roll, moisture is retained, but once the material is unrolled and exposed to light and air, seagrass can shrink up to 3″ on each side. It is imperative that not only is shrinkage accounted for when your rooms are measured but that the installer who cuts your flooring waits at least 24 hours for the material to shrink to size before the final trimming and gluing commences. Any sooner and your carpet will gap at the walls!
Natural fiber rugs (likely sisal or jute). Source: Eric Olsen Design.
Hold it down!: Even well-installed sisal or seagrass needs something to keep its raw edges from fraying at the walls. If you already have baseboard, shoe molding can be installed to the base of the baseboard or, for a touch of whimsy, natural rope, 1/2″ or thicker, can be hot glued in place.
Seagrass runner in chevron pattern bound with light colored cotton binding tape. Photo source: Shine Your Light.
So-so seams: While most nylon carpet is 12′ wide, sisal and seagrass generally span 13′ 2″. This is a big plus as many bedrooms are 12′ or narrower, meaning no seams are necessary. (As with any woven or looped flooring, seams on sisal or seagrass are harder to hide than on thick, cut-pile carpet.) However, if your rooms are wide, don’t worry. A good installer can work wonders with side seams. Cross or T-seams are another story, though, and should be entirely avoided to prevent an obvious split or frayed seam later on.
Sisal rug. Source: Emily Henderson.
Sisal rug. Source: Serena and Lily.
What’s that smell?: Unlike sisal, seagrass has a strong, basket-like smell that becomes especially pungent in humid weather or when a house has been sealed up for a while. This is a natural smell that is pleasing to many, but make sure you can include yourself in that bunch before you have it installed in your home. Take a close whiff of the sample and then imagine that smell concentrated and hitting your nose like a wall when you open your front door after an extended vacation.
The finicky foot: Whether you choose sisal or seagrass, understand that both are highly textured and thus very bumpy underfoot. The texture falls under the “love it or hate it” category. Before purchasing either, walk on a sample barefoot. This is especially important if you don’t wear shoes at home. Some will find the nubby texture like a massage (interestingly, usually women); others may actually find it painful (men).
Seagrass. Source: Lauren Liess.
Personally, I love seagrass and I love sisal, but I love seagrass a bit more for its stain-resistant properties. It’s a great compromise between carpet and a hard surface flooring (such as wood or tile). I am fairly anti-carpet so whenever I can talk a client out of installing carpet in a bedroom or living room I feel I have done a public service (carpet holds dirt, dust mites, and is, in general, just very unhygienic), but when there isn’t enough money in the budget to replace carpet with a hard surface like wood, stone, or tile, seagrass is a great alternative as it is stain-resistant, natural, classic, and just so good to look at!
This post is an adaptation of my column, Design Intervention, and first appeared in the Santa Barbara News-Press.
Happy decorating! 🙂