When you're decorating a room, the list of furnishings you need to complete the space can seem almost endless. But a rug isn't just one of the many things you need to budget for—it's actually the foundation of your room, decor-wise, and pretty necessary for life at home, when you consider that rugs help muffle sounds and warm up your floors. "Rugs take up a large portion of the visual space in any room, and therefore are one of the most important design decisions you can make," designer Timothy Whealon tells House Beautiful.
That's exactly why you shouldn't save your rug purchase for last. In fact, if you can, you should find a rug you love before you buy anything else. "Ideally, the rug is the first thing you would purchase for the space," Sylvie Johnson, artistic director at Merida, says. "This way you can build the rest of the room around the color and shape of the rug."
So, how do you find just the right rug? It may be tempting to buy the first one you like, but there are a lot of factors to consider before you make that purchase—especially since rugs can get pretty pricey. This buying guide will help you narrow down your options until you find a rug that anchors your space and provides you the function you need.
Read on to learn everything you need to know about rugs, or jump ahead to a specific section:
- Rug Shopping Terms to Know
- Material Matters: Natural Rugs
- Material Matters: Synthetic Rugs
- All About Rug Construction
- Rug Sizing and Placement
- Shopping for Vintage Rugs
- Should You Buy a Custom Rug?
- What to Look for in an Outdoor Rug
Rug-Related Terms You Need to Know
First things first: If you're not super familiar with how rugs are made or what kind of rug you should look for, you'll want to get to know a few basic terms. These will help you understand the construction of the rugs you're considering, as well as to get an idea of what they'll feel like underfoot.
- Pile: The raised surface of a textile. Pile height refers to the length of the material that makes up the pile, so the higher the pile is, the thicker and plusher the rug will be.
- Yarn: A strand of material comprised of fibers, used in weaving.
- Warp: The vertical yarns that make up the base of a woven rug.
- Weft: The horizontal yarns that are woven through the warp to make a woven rug.
- Backing: A fabric on the back of a rug that helps it keep its structure. Not all rugs have a backing, depending on their weave and construction.
One of the most important things to consider when you're shopping for a rug is the material it's made from. Rugs can be made from natural fibers or synthetic, man-made fibers, and there are several popular options in each category. The material you choose affects the feel, the price, the durability, and how easy it is to clean. Read on about the different materials you'll find on the market, and as you're shopping, consider where you're placing it and what works best for your lifestyle.
Your Guide to Natural Fibers
Natural fiber rugs are a great option if you're willing to spend a bit more on a rug that's as durable and long-lasting as it is beautiful. While these aren't all of the options out there, these are the most popular natural materials you'll find when rug shopping:
- Wool: Wool is an all-around, designer-favorite natural material. Why? It's not just because it's super cozy—it's durable and has scales on the fibers that hide dirt, making it clean easily, and it's naturally fire-retardant, according to Kyle Corey, VP of floor coverings for Kravet. Johnson also notes that wool rug fibers contain lanolin, which is a natural stain repellent. For these reasons, wool rugs can be placed just about anywhere.
- Sisal: Sisal rugs have a beautifully beachy, boho look, but they're also quite durable. According to Johnson, they're great for high traffic areas since they're tougher and more resistant to wear. The only issue to note: since sisal rugs absorb liquids, they tend to stain easily when spills occur, so keep that in mind when you're considering placement—e.g., you might want to avoid the dining room or the kids' room.
- Silk: If you want luxury, go with a silk rug. It's quite soft, and shiny—which makes it great for detailed designs. Not to mention, it's the strongest natural fiber out there. But according to Bahram Shabahang, co-founder and designer of Orley Shabahang, while silk is super strong, but not the easiest to clean. A silk rug is a better investment for, say, the main bedroom or a formal living room, and should be avoided in areas where spills are a concern. It's also likely to be the most expensive option.
- Cotton: Cotton rugs are another soft option, and according to Annie Selke, founder and chief vision officer of her eponymous rug brand, they're also easy to clean and affordable. So, if you're looking for a more budget-friendly natural fiber that can stand up to stains, cotton might be a good bet for you. The downside? Cotton doesn't hold up quite as well as the others, so you'll probably experience more wear over time than with other natural materials. And since cotton is moisture absorbent, you'll still want to take care of spills quickly.
What About Synthetics?
Rugs made from synthetic materials are often a more affordable option than natural fiber rugs, though depending on the type you choose, they may not be as luxe or as soft. That said, synthetic rugs are often easy to clean and good for households with pets and kids. Here's an overview of some of the most popular synthetic rug materials:
- Polyester: According to Cyrus Loloi, principal at Loloi Rugs, polyester is a very affordable option that wears well and feels soft to the touch—especially if you purchase a polyester rug with a thicker pile (if a fluffy synthetic rug is what you seek, be sure to look at that pile height!). Polyester rugs are moisture, stain, and abrasion-resistant, retain their color well, and are easier to clean. You may also find rugs that are polyester and acrylic blends on the market—acrylic, Loloi explains, is moderately priced and durable, though not as durable as some of the other options on the market.
- Polypropelene: Perhaps the most durable of the synthetic options, polypropelene rugs are a great option for busy homes with pets and kids, Selke says. "They are fabulous for any space where dirt, fading from sunlight, or exposure to the elements are a factor," she adds. Polypropelene rugs are also quite affordable, and as Loloi notes, you'll often find that outdoor rugs are made with this material because it's UV, mildew, and stain-resistant.
- Viscose: Viscose blends, Selke says, are "glamorous and soft underfoot" but are best-suited for lower traffic rooms. Why? They shouldn't have any exposure to moisture. Viscose, Loloi adds, is often used as an affordable substitute for silk, noting that you can find 100-percent viscose rugs on the market, but it's typically used as more of an accent fiber mixed in with another synthetic or natural material.
All About Construction
Okay, so you know what kind of material you want your new rug to be. But do you have a preference for its construction? The material you choose may depend largely on your lifestyle and budget, but the construction of the rug—whether it's woven, tufted, or what have you—will impact how it looks, feels, and where it should be placed, too.
- Flat-weave: Flat-weave rugs are made on a loom (either by hand or by machine) by weaving the warps through the wefts. Since they're flat, you don't have to consider pile height when you're shopping. According to One Kings Lane, these rugs don't have a backing, which also makes them reversible. Flat-weave rugs are durable and easy to clean, making them great for high traffic areas and spaces where you're concerned about stains.
- Knotted: As Frontgate points out, knotting is the most labor-intensive type of rug construction there is. Knotted rugs are handmade on a loom, where the weaver knots yarn around the wefts, which creates the rug's fringed pile. The more knots there are per square inch on a rug, the more durable it is. Because of the labor involved, knotted rugs are expensive and best saved for more formal spaces.
- Tufted: Tufted rugs are made with loops of yarn that are pulled through the rug's backing, then sheared. That shearing gives them a soft, fluffy pile—but it also means they can shed more than the other constructions, so they may require more frequent upkeep. These rugs can be made by hand using a special tool, or by machine. Tufted rugs are typically less expensive since they're a bit easier (and faster) to make, and work in most rooms.
- Hooked: Hooked rugs are made using the same process as tufted rugs (both by machine or by hand, as well), but with one main difference: the yarn loops are not sheared. This gives them their signature knobby, embroidered look, according to One Kings Lane. Like tufted rugs, hooked rugs work well in most rooms and are moderately priced.
- Power-loomed: Power-loomed rugs are woven on a loom by a computer-controlled machine which gives them precise designs, according to Frontgate. Like tufted and hooked rugs, power-loomed options are made with threads that are pulled through the rug's backing. Of all of the constructions, these are generally the most affordable as well as being quite durable, so you're not limited in placement.
The Easy Guide to Rug Size and Placement
The size of the rug you buy, and how you plan to place it in your space, depends on the type of room as well as the size and shape of the room you're putting it in and how you want it to work with your furniture arrangement. To help, there are some expert guidelines you can follow based on which room you're decorating.
In the bedroom, Loloi says the sizing actually depends on the size of your bed. Per his advice, these are the ideal sizes you'd want to aim for:
- Full: A 5' x 8' rug should suffice.
- Queen: Go for an 8' x 10' rug.
- King: A 9' x 12' rug is your best bet.
As far as placement goes, the most preferred way is to place the rug partially under the bed, laying the rug perpendicular to the bed and pulling it under, stopping a bit before your nightstands. This makes the rug sit around halfway under the bed, with the bed centered on top. "This maximizes the amount of useable rug space, and gives you a soft surface to step onto when getting out of bed," Loloi says. If your room is particularly small, try placing the rug in the middle of the room or at the foot of the bed. Selke also suggests adding two runners on either side of the bed, for instances when you don't want to place a full area rug under the bed.
Placement in a dining room is fairly straightforward—you want the rug to be big enough to fit the whole table centered on top of it, as well as plenty of space around the edges for the chairs to sit, even when pulled out. In order to choose the best rug size for your dining room, you'll want to measure based on the size of your dining furniture, and of course, the size of the room.
In the living room, Loloi suggests several options that depend on the size of the space you're in:
- Large rooms: Frame the whole space with a large rug that can fit all of your furniture on top with room along the outside to walk around the furniture comfortably on the rug.
- Mid-sized rooms: For mid-sized rooms, get a larger rug and then place your large furniture around it (like the sofa) so that the front legs are on top of the rug and the sides of the rug extend beyond the sofa.
- Small rooms: In a smaller room, if you don't want a big rug, you can float a smaller rug in front of the sofa and under the coffee table to anchor your space.
If you're unsure which route you want to go, choose a larger rug. "When in doubt, go big," says Missy Strear, design director at Scott Group Studio. "A larger rug can really pull a room together, grounding the furniture and making the space feel bigger."
General Rules for Rug Sizing
Outside of these guidelines, there are some other general rules you'll want to consider as you're choosing a size for your rug. First, you'll want to make sure that you're mindful of the leftover space around the rug. "Generally, rugs are used over hardwood floors and as such, should allow no less than 12 inches of wood flooring to show beyond the carpet perimeter," advises Haynes Robinson, vice president of product development for Stark.
Along with leaving some space between the walls and the rug, rug designer and ceramicist Malene Barnett notes that you should consider the space between the furniture and the rug, too. "For most rooms I would suggest adding about two feet on each side outside of furniture placement, so there is space around the furniture to sit on the rug."
And at the end of the day, it's really all about what you like! "There is no right or wrong—it's all a matter of taste and look and what feels right for the room," Susanna Joicey-Cecil, marketing director at The Rug Company, says. "Rugs can be used in so many ways to highlight, elevate, and connect different aspects of a room. They play a pivotal role in defining the aesthetic and feel. They can be a statement piece, or a quiet companion, subtly pulling a room together."
How to Buy Vintage Rugs
If you're considering buying a vintage or antique rug, the first thing you should keep in mind is what actually constitutes a rug (or any item!) being either one. A piece must be at least 100 years old to qualify as antique. Vintage pieces, on the other hand, are generally between 20 and 99 years old.
It should go without saying, but because of their age, don't go into shopping for a vintage or antique rug expecting it to look brand new—imperfections from over the years are what give a rug the character you're probably looking for, anyway. "Don’t let the age and distress of a vintage rug scare you, as long as it is minor and consistent throughout the rug," Strear says. "It can add character and tells a story." However, she also adds that there are some imperfections you should avoid. "I would caution against purchasing vintage rugs with major defects such as bad repairs, large stains and frayed edges, as these take away from the beauty and value of the rug and are costly to repair."
If you've never purchased a vintage rug before, Barnett has some tips. Alongside keeping in mind that imperfections are part of the deal, she notes that it's helpful to focus on a specific style, construction, or time period when you're shopping. You should also be sure to do your homework. "Research the design and construction characteristics of the rug so you are knowledgeable about it," she says. That, and work with a dealer you trust—or at least, make sure you see the rug in person.
When you do check out a rug you're considering, Shabahang notes what to look for. First and foremost, you should ask the dealer about the rug and any repairs that it may have had, noting that it's important to have an idea of the work that has been done on a rug before you buy, especially if you're purchasing it as an investment. Then, take stock of the rug yourself. "That means looking at the carpet front and back, making sure to check the sides and the ends, and looking at both sides to see if there are any areas with mismatched yarns—especially in the foundation where it may not be as obvious that a spot has been patched."
If you do notice any issues (think: spots that are coming apart, or unraveling around the edges) on a rug you have your heart set on, Shabahang says that you should inquire about getting it repaired before you make the purchase. "It's worth asking if the dealer can have that repaired or reinforced before you purchase it so aren't dealing with having to undertake that yourself in a few months or years."
At the end of the day, Barnett says the most important thing is that you buy what you like. And as Robinson points out, when you're decorating with vintage rugs, you can have fun with it. "Vintage rugs serve a purely decorative function," he says. "There are no rules here. They can define a space, they can overlap each other, they can be thread bear or over-dyed." The only thing that matters when you're buying vintage is that it tells a story. "A good vintage piece will convey a sense of curiosity, history and value," Robinson adds.
Should You Buy a Custom Rug?
Buying a custom rug means you can tailor it to your space so that it fits perfectly and has the look you're going for. "I prefer custom-sized rugs in every room since they are such a large and important part of any space," Whealon says. "If you’re able to have equal margins it makes a room feel much more considered and bespoke."
On the budget side, however, it's no secret that a custom rug will also cost you more than buying one off-the-rack, which is why you should consider going custom an investment—and one that's probably not best-suited to an apartment you're only going to stay in for a year or two.
"If you plan on staying in your home for at least five years, invest in a custom rug," Barnett advises. "Once you move you can always take the rug with you—rugs can be cut to size in order to fit a new space." This way, she says, you're able to get exactly what you want in size, color, and shape.
That said, Barnett also notes that you should get to know the companies you're thinking about buying a custom rug from before you commit. "It's good to know the company's creative abilities, so you understand the custom capabilities," she explains. "Sometimes custom options are only available in size and color, and not in the overall design."
Whealon does have a trick for going custom on a budget, though. "If a custom rug isn’t in your price range, a simple trick is to buy a solid rug that is larger than the room, and then have an installer cut it down or around features like fireplace hearths on site." Corey also notes that having an installer fit the rug on-site is an option, but reiterates that you have to be okay with cutting the rug and making those alterations. If so, the end result will be a rug that fits your space perfectly without buying an entirely customized rug.
What’s the Deal With Outdoor Rugs?
If you're decorating your patio or yard and it feels like it's missing something, an outdoor rug might be just the thing you need to tie in all of your outdoor furniture together and make it feel like a welcoming, comfortable, and stylish extension of your home. But you can't just put any old rug outside—you need one that's specifically made for the outdoors. Outdoor rugs need to hold up to UV rays from sunlight and, depending on where you live, all sorts of inclement weather like rain, snow, and beyond. Most outdoor rugs are made with polypropelene (if you skipped the materials section, click here to learn more about it!) because it tends to be UV and stain resistant as well as resistant to mold and mildew. Regardless of the material, make sure you look for those qualities and only buy a rug that was designed specifically for outdoor use. And no, there's nothing stopping you from using outdoor rugs inside—especially if you need one that's durable and easy to clean.
Don't Forget a Rug Pad!
No matter what rug you buy or where you place it, a rug pad is key. "Most rugs would benefit from a pad, as it keeps the rug in place," Johnson says. "A pad also extends the life of a rug by preventing the fibers from being crushed, as it acts as a buffer between the rug and the surface under it." Go with a rug pad that's either felted or made from thick rubber (skip the cheap webbed kind), so it stays secure to the floor for safety and feels extra comfortable underfoot.
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Brittney Morgan is a noted land mermaid and a Virgo with a penchant for crafts, red lipstick, and buying way too many throw pillows. Her work has also been published at Apartment Therapy, NYLON, HuffPost, Hello Giggles, Elite Daily, and more.