When sisal first became popular on the home scene some twenty years ago, it was as the signature statement of designers looking to make their mark in upscale dwellings. These days, the average homeowner is turning to this fiber—and not only because it looks good.
Sisal fiber comes from several species of the agave plant, which is native to Central America and is now grown primarily in Brazil, east Africa, and Mexico. For decades the material was used primarily for utilitarian purposes such as floor mats and rope. But in recent years, sisal, considered one of the strongest fibers available, has been recognized as a natural for area rugs, carpet, and even wallcoverings, surpassing other plant fibers—coir, jute, and seagrass—on nearly every count.
But its advantages as a resource begin long before it shows up in anyone’s home. “Sisal is grown on plantations, so it’s controlled,” says Jennie Wood, who does product development for Boston carpet specialist Merida Meridian. “And when you harvest it, you’re not tearing down the rainforest. It’s processed in a fairly simple, non-chemical way, and they have machines that do that out in the field. It doesn’t require trucking to some big mill in the city.” Environmentalists note, however, that it wasn’t always so. From the late nineteenth century to the late 1950s, when synthetics replaced sisal in many applications, the forests of Yucatan were clear-cut to make way for sisal plantations. Today, abandoned fields have been recovered and are providing work for local people again. Also in its favor, sisal requires no fertilizers or pesticides to grow well. Because sisal is a natural product, it contains few, if any, allergens and chemicals when manufactured properly. Finally, sisal wins high marks for appearance and durability.
Sisal: Is it For you?
The key to answering that question, says Susan Jones, spokesperson for Sisal Rugs Direct, lies not so much in the “who” but the “where.”
Given its tendency to stain, sisal is not a good idea for places where there’s likely to be water, such as a bathroom, and you certainly want to think twice before installing it in a room where Junior is likely to be dropping food from the high chair. Likewise, sisal is tough on the skin and not the material you want toddlers crawling around on.
Otherwise, it’s purely a matter of personal taste— and effort.
“Some people don’t recommend it in a kitchen,” says Jones, “However, I have it in my kitchen, and it’s been fine. It works out wonderfully as long as you get any spills up quickly.”
Aside from where in the house, you may also want to consider where in the world. Because sisal doesn’t hold heat, it’s somewhat more popular in warm climates, and coastal homeowners love it because it’s great for hiding sand.
“It has a natural, wonderful look, a look that isn’t duplicated by any other fiber,” Wood says. “And it’s hard to wear it out. We cut rugs to the size the customer wants and put on edge finishes. We can put on an inexpensive cotton trim or a European tapestry that runs $25 a linear foot, but whatever you put on, it will wear out before the rug. The rug just won’t die.”
Depending on the weave, which can be an intricate raised pattern or a flat texture, sisal lends itself to both casual and elegant settings. And while sisal has traditionally come in natural tones, bolder colors are now surfacing. Tom Fields, spokesman for Design Materials in Kansas City, says the bulk of his clients want tones of beige to golden wheat and coconut. “We have a few colors—greens—but we’ve stayed away from the reds and blues,” he says. “I was in Holland recently, and they sell bright orange sisal.”
And there’s a final, somewhat surprising, benefit. The natural fiber doesn’t burn easily, so it gets high fire ratings.
Sisal does have its disadvantages—and critics.
James Stinnet, president of Earth Weave Carpet Mills, a company that makes carpet from wool, hemp, and jute, calls sisal “very bristly and hard to work with.” In other words, those coarse fibers—the very quality that lends the material its durability—also make for a fairly harsh surface. “It’s not something you’d want to scoot along on your bare bottom,” agrees Wood.
And, as with other fibers, sisal stains easily and is susceptible to shrinkage if it gets wet. It will expand and contract with changes in humidity, so it has the potential to curl if not secured or trimmed with a fabric border.
“It’s absorbent,” Wood explains, “so water or liquid will bead up only for a short time. You need to get to spills quickly. We have spilled things at work—red wine, once—but we got it up, and it was invisible. You can have sisal treated with various things that are the equivalent to ScotchGuard, which essentially will buy you more time.” But that, of course, means adding chemicals—the very thing sisal lets you avoid.
Sisal on the Walls
While you’ll most likely find sisal on the floor, it’s also used as a wallcovering, an application that was initially favored in commercial buildings for its noise-muffling qualities, and is gaining popularity in homes. “People have used sisal as wainscoting; that’s probably the most popular use,” says Fields. “I have it in my recreation room. It looks fine in a rec room or as an accent wall. It acts as a bulletin board. You can drive nails through it or hang pictures. Or you can use it to cover a cement wall in a basement.” Design Materials makes a 100 percent sisal wallcovering treated with borax to increase its fire resistance. Innovations in Wallcoverings carries what president Rudy Mayer believes is one of the first manufactured, paper-backed sisal wallcoverings “It comes in eight colors and is laminated to the face of cellulose paper,” Mayer says. “The inks are all water based—no heavy metals—and as a result there is no offgassing. It’s biodegradable, and it’s a renewable resource.” In addition, it can be secured with a water-based adhesive.
As a wallcovering, the fiber’s limitation is that it doesn’t resist abrasion very well, and you can’t scrub it clean. Nonetheless, if you’re looking for something both affordable and cutting edge, sisal is a viable option. “People buy it because they like the look,” says Mayer. “It’s almost like a fashion statement. It’s just a beautiful aesthetic.” nNH
SISAL Flooring, $26 to $80 per square yard; Paper-backed wallcovering
$29 per square yard
SEAGRASS $18 to $26 per square yard
COIR $20 per square yard
JUTE 6-by-9 area rug with finished edge, about $200
MOUNTAIN GRASS $22 to $30
per square yard