Sisal is a natural fibre that comes from the agave sisalana plant, a cactus grown in semi-arid regions like Brazil and Africa. The fibres can grow up to 3 feet long and are harvested by hand. It is generally a more durable fibre than other natural rug fibres like coir and jute. Synthetic sisal usually has the look of natural sisal but is made from polypropylene or similar synthetic materials. Synthetic sisal is fade resistant and is often used outdoors where it will resist moisture, mould and bacteria.
The sisal plant that is now known to come from East Africa actually originated in the Yucatán, Mexico. It arrived in Tanzania in 1893 and then was sent by Kew Gardens to Kenya. Significant production of the fibre did not occur, however, until the 1960s when Tanzania produced over 230,000 tons. Production of the fibre in Tanzania has decreased over the years and by 2008 stood at just 23,000 tons. However, other areas produce similar amounts now. Brazil is the largest grower and exporter, producing 125,000 tons of sisal a year.
Sisal's durability makes it useful for a variety of items. Its strength and length make it a top choice for ropes that moor and lash small boats and tie down cargo. It is used for hay baling twine and has other agricultural uses. It is frequently used in carpets, dartboards, mattresses, speciality papers and handicrafts. Sisal is becoming more popular as a replacement for asbestos and fibreglass, particularly in the auto industry where being environmentally friendly (sisal is sustainably harvested) is increasingly important.
Sisal carpeting has many benefits that synthetic fibre carpets do not have. Sisal is sustainably harvested, grows quickly and is, therefore, environmentally friendly. Carpeting made of sisal is anti-static and sound-absorbing. The molecular structure is more dense and absorbs sound better than other types of carpeting. Sisal is naturally resistant to fire and sparks, making it a good choice for a hearth. Woven in many different patterns and dyed, sisal rugs can fit into most any decor.
Sisal carpeting is not perfect. If used in rooms where there is a lot of moisture or used outside, the carpets can mould or rot fairly quickly. The natural fibres are not water-resistant and will absorb water like a sponge, making them susceptible to mildew. While sisal is pleasant to walk on, it is not be a good choice for a child to play on because the roughness of the fibres make them uncomfortable to sit or kneel on.
Sisal carpeting is naturally stain-resistant (but not stain-proof) and does not require excessive care. Vacuuming a sisal carpet regularly will keep it clean. Smaller area rugs can be shaken outside to rid them of dust and dirt. If a spill or stain does occur, clean it quickly with soap and water or club soda. Blot it as much as possible and then dry it quickly with a hair dryer. Some carpet manufacturers offer dry cleaning powders with which to clean sisal rugs.