Home & Design October 22, 2010

It's Only Natural

Plant fibers have been used on floors for millennia. Ancient Egyptians wove the leaves of the bulrush plant found along the Nile into mats to cover their earthen floors. Centuries later, medieval European housekeepers scattered disposable layers of rush and straw over their stone floors to collect soil and ward off the chill. During the Age of Discovery, fibers such as jute and hemp—used in the manufacture of rope and sackcloth for the nautical trades—were adapted for use as floor matting on the ships and in the homes of sailors and merchants around the world. Natural fiber matting was gradually displaced, predominantly by the ubiquitous, mass-produced synthetic carpet of the industrial era. Only in the last two decades, as a result of modern production techniques and a renewed demand for all-natural materials, has this very organic floor covering become available as a serious and affordable alternative to carpet made of wool, nylon, and other conventional fibers.

Available in broadloom and rug form, natural matting of such materials as sisal, coir, and seagrass provides an excellent background for rugs, as well as a good common denominator for a mixture of furniture periods. And while it is appropriate in either the city or the country, its rustic appearance is particularly suited to locales such as ours.

Janet Todd, of Todd and Rothgeb Interior Design in Ketchum, has seen more interest in these materials over the last five years. “People who look for sisal and seagrass are usually from the West Coast, where these fibers are already familiar. They have a rusticity that works well with stonework or slate.” Todd cautions that certain fibers shouldn’t be used in high-traffic areas, and recommends knowing both your material and the person who installs it. “[Plant matting] can be more technical to install than other floor coverings. It is more likely to shrink if it gets wet, so it cannot be pulled as tightly as carpet. It can also stain, but since texture and irregularity are a part of its appeal, even stains generally don’t look too bad.”

Hanna Sjonsby, a decorator from Newport Beach, California, had Blas Espinoza of Espinoza Flooring in Ketchum install seagrass wall to wall in her East Fork home. “I chose it for its knobby texture,” she says. Antique wool carpets and other floor coverings were laid on top, providing a rich backdrop for Sjonsby’s eclectic décor.

Natural fiber floors can be dyed, interwoven with wool or other fibers, and laid wall to wall like carpet. Unlike carpet, however, natural matting contains variations in color and weave that reflect the variations found in nature—particularly seasonal growing conditions in the country of origin. However, a tightening of the weave at one end of a room, possibly due to an early monsoon in Indochina, will only add to the exotic appeal of a natural fiber floor. Non-dyed natural matting ranges in color from tan to light brown, with brighter yellows attainable by bleaching. All natural fibers will fade over time, especially when exposed to direct sunlight.

An intolerance for the rigors of steam cleaning and shampooing has given natural fiber floors a reputation for being “uncleanable”—and, in fact, a significant red wine spill would probably become a permanent feature of the décor. Excessive moisture will cause discoloration or breakage within the fibers of most matting materials, which is why they are generally recommended for drier climates. Sun Valley’s location on the edge of the desert is suitable, but don’t go tromping across the sisal in snowy boots during the winter months. One way to solve potential problems is to place another rug or runner on top of the matting in entry areas.

Another solution is to use fiber matting in the form of area rugs, which can be removed seasonally or left in place in less-traveled areas. A variety of borders can be sewn onto the cut edges, tying the rugs into the room’s furnishings and color scheme. Cotton twill, canvas, leather, and embroidered damasks are among the popular border materials that can complement any design, from traditional to contemporary.

Natural Fiber Options

Harvested from the reedy stalks of marsh plants, seagrass has a fresh, crisp texture. Irrigation with seawater has endowed it with a natural waxy layer that provides some amount of water and stain resistance. Although those qualities also make this fiber impossible to dye, weft strings of blue, red, green, or black can be added for accent. Seagrass can be slippery and should be used with caution on stairs, with the weave running perpendicular to foot traffic.

Farmed in the Philippines and elsewhere, these coarse fibers are made from crushed coconut husks. Coir makes a good background for furnishings, and can be bleached to golden yellow without losing its rugged look. Because of its knobby texture it is not recommended for children’s rooms or stairways.

Perhaps the most popular fiber for floor coverings due to its versatility, durability, and decorative potential, sisal is easy to dye and is available in herringbone, ribbed, and bouclé patterns. It is made from the fibrous parts of the agave plant, native to Mexico and Central America.


The jute plant comes from the marshes of India, where it has been used in rope making for centuries. The fine, lustrous fibers are braided thickly from unspun lengths, just as they once were for the ropes and burlap used on trading vessels carrying spice from the East Indies. Despite its strength when braided, jute is softer and less rugged than other natural-fiber matting materials, and is not recommended for heavy-traffic areas. It can be woven into tight patterns and takes well to dyeing.

Found primarily in China, where it is known as mountain grass, hemp has long been used in rope making. Abaca, sometimes called Manila hemp, is made from the broad leaves of a close relative of the banana tree. Very strong and textural, yet soft underfoot, hemp has only recently become available as a flooring fiber.

Made from the leaves of the bulrush plant, this fiber has roots in ancient Egypt, where it was used to make papyrus. It has a robust and rustic look and is used primarily for area rugs.
Tony Evans freelances from a 1969 Airstream Overlander in the Wood River Valley. The floors are covered in jute and seagrass.




This article appears in the Fall 2003 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.