Machine-Woven Carpet in the United States

April 5, 2010
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Illustration 1

Machine-woven carpet can be fabricated into very expensive area rugs as well as budget floor coverings. So the Rug Specialist should have a good understanding of how they are produced and a bit of the background of a great American industry.

A number of significant manufacturers in the United States produced wool hand-knotted carpets and rugs from the late 18th to the mid-20th century. The manufacturing of pile rugs in the U.S. began in 1791 when William Sprague started making hand-knotted Axminster rugs in Philadelphia. At this point, pile rugs in both Europe and the U.S. were often hand-knotted and called Axminster, as this was where hand-knotted weaving began in England.

In the first quarter of the 19th century, U.S. machine-woven carpet production was only a small cottage industry. In the late 1820s The Lowell Manufacturing Co. (Lowell, Mass.) and The Hartford Manufacturing Co. (Thompsonville, Conn.) produced ingrain carpet (Illustration I). By 1840, 1,500 looms were in operation, the majority making ingrain carpet.

Ingrain carpet is a flat weave, reversible floor covering. It was first woven in Kidderminster, England in 1735, and became known as “Kidderminster,” ingrain or Scotch carpet; the term ingrain is used most often in the U.S.

The Bigalow Carpet Co. had its origins in the Clinton Co., started in 1838 in Lancaster, Mass., when Erastus and Horatio Bigalow started to manufacturer coach lace used in horse-drawn carriages. By 1840, the company was expanded to make ingrain carpets and changed its name to The Bigalow Carpet Co. These carpets were used as loose rugs as well as fitted wall-to-wall.

Erastus Bigalow developed the steam-powered carpet loom, making the first American-made Brussels carpet available for purchase in the early 1850s. Ingrain slowly lost favor as Wilton and Brussels power-loomed production was perfected and the carpets were more consistent and affordable.

Brussels carpet is a Wilton-constructed carpet (Illustration II) with a loop pile and takes its name from the capital of Belgium. By 1880, there were 215 carpet mills producing 40 million square yards.

Illustration 2

Until the second half of the 19th century, wood floors in finer homes were of such poor quality and so unattractive, they had to be covered wall-to-wall. As well-constructed, aesthetically pleasing varnished hardwood floors were introduced, the demand for area rugs increased dramatically. This demand coincided with the demand for oriental rugs and the resurrection of the hand-knotted industry in the Middle East in the last quarter of the 19th century.

At the turn of the 20th century, the trend moved from carpeted floors to hardwoods covered with wool area rugs (sounds like a familiar trend doesn’t it?). At the same time, luxury hotels such as the Waldorf-Astoria and the St. Regis in New York City were springing up all over the country and needed large wool area rugs and fitted carpet for the public areas.

Thanks to the invention and improvement of the power-loom for carpets by the Bigalow brothers, good quality carpet was mass produced and available not only to the rich but to the middle-class as well.

Woven carpet production declined through the late 1920s, and manufacturers struggled during the Great Depression in the 1930s. The Bigalow-Stanford Carpet Co. was formed in 1929 with the merger of Bigalow-Hartford and Stephen Sanford & Sons.

During World War II, most factories converted their machinery to produce materials and equipment for the war effort. After the war, despite the demand for new housing, woven wool carpet was more costly than most families could afford. Some of the larger mills move south to control costs. With the development of nylon and tufted carpet, sales of woven carpet never recovered.

According to The Carpet and Rug Institute, in 1950 only 10% of carpet and rugs were tufted, and 90% woven. Today, 90% are tufted, 2% woven and 8% by other methods.

Today, woven wool carpet is still the choice of discriminating consumers and commercial installations such as luxury hotels, exclusive high-rise condominiums, cruise ships and casinos.

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