Area Rugs 101

Fundamentals for choosing what goes underfoot

An area rug is a defining feature in any room, whether you view it as artwork for your floor, you want to tie a room together, or you desire a cozier feel. 

And when it comes to options, the sky’s pretty much the limit. You’ll find area rugs in everything from plant-based and natural fibers, such as cotton, sisal, jute, seagrass and wool, to synthetics, including nylon and acrylic, in all types of colors and patterns.  

So where to begin? Start with the basics: pile, durability and size. 


Types of Pile

Pile are the little fibers that stick up from area rugs. The pile length affects how much cushion you get from a rug, as well as how easy it is to clean. 

Flatweaves (no pile) and low pile (¼ inch long) rugs are easy to clean and good for high-traffic areas. Flatweaves don’t offer any cushioning, while low pile offers a bit. Indoor/outdoor rugs are typically flatweaves, while natural fibers, like jute or wool, are low pile. 

If you want a soft rug that looks luxurious and cushions your feet, medium to high pile (over ½ inch long) or shag rugs (longer than ¾ of an inch) fit the bill. These rugs are harder to clean than low pile or flatweaves, so you may need to have them professionally cleaned.

Medium to high pile rugs work well in bedrooms, as well as a layered accent over a low pile rug.


Floors that see a lot of action from kids, pets (or both), need to be able to stand up to heavy-duty traffic. Flatweaves are ideal, as these rugs don’t trap as much dirt as do rugs with pile. When you need to clean them, run a vacuum over them, wipe them down, or, if applicable, throw them in the washing machine. 

Today’s indoor/outdoor rugs are also a good indoor-only option. They’re soft underfoot and hard to distinguish from rugs designed solely for the indoors. They’re also super easy to clean—just take them outside and hose them off.

Wool is a good low pile option, as it’s incredibly durable and can last for decades with regular vacuuming. Its natural fibers help prevent stains from penetrating—though you should still treat and clean up any stains immediately. 

Sizing Rugs by Room

Sizing rugs for a particular room can be tricky. If you have no idea where to start, the following ground rules can help you lay a good foundation. 

(A helpful hint: use painter’s tape to outline the area that you’re considering for your rug, so you can see how the sizing will work with your furniture.) 

In the living room, the front legs of sofas and chairs should sit on the rug; also make sure that end tables or floor lamps are completely on or off the rug. Allow at least a foot of bare floor around the perimeter of the room.

Of course, if you have the space, all of the furniture legs can sit on the rug. If you do have a large room, you might want to consider a less-expensive “base” rug in a fiber like jute, layered on top with a smaller statement rug. 

A dining room rug should extend 24 to 30 inches beyond the edge of the table, so that the chairs fit on it, even when they’re pulled out. For a look that complements your dining room, choose a rug shape that matches the shape of your table. 

A soft, thick rug makes a bedroom more comfortable. Here, the rug should extend out at least 12 inches on every side of the bed frame, except the headboard. 

In the kitchen, a durable runner (or two) is the ticket. A good rule of thumb is to leave about 6 inches of space between the edge of your rug and the edge of your wall or cabinets. 


Don’t Forget a Rug Pad

While some area rugs come with a rubberized backing, many don’t. That’s where a rug pad comes in. A rug pad prevents the rug from slipping across the floor or rippling when someone steps on it. A pad also adds cushioning and protects the fibers on the underside of the rug, reducing wear and tear. 

Look for a rug pad that’s about ¼ inch thick and 2 inches smaller than your rug on each side.

Copyright © Hunter Douglas
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