A: Sisal rugs seem to be everywhere these days, a popular choice not only for enclosed porches and other informal spaces but also for any room where a richly textured, neutral-hued floor covering is desired.

Sisal is a natural product made from the leaves of the agave plant. Sisal rugs come in a wide range of styles and usually cost anywhere from $30 to $180 a square yard. They are available locally at Rexx Rug (3312 N. Lincoln Ave., 773-281-8800), Peerless Imported Rugs (3033 N. Lincoln Ave., 773-525-9034), Crate & Barrel, Pottery Barn, and many other places.

You might imagine that, as a natural product, sisal would be the ideal floor covering around food, water, and pets. But in fact, water makes the fiber buckle and encourages mold growth, which makes cleaning tricky—one of the chief limitations of the material.

The best way to attack spills and stains on sisal is to blot whatever has spilled with a clean white cloth, scraping up any solid matter with a knife. (No water!) For stains, some manufacturers recommend a dry-cleaning method that involves an absorbent powder. You can be proactive and have sisal sealed, according to Lisa Greenberg, a fabric-care specialist at Sealmaster (847-480-7325, sealmasterinc.com), with a dry solvent-based product. That will give you a little more time to blot a spill before it stains the rug.

For many people, the look of sisal rugs more than compensates for their touchiness about cleaning. Interior designer Gerri Wiley (911 Green Bay Rd., Winnetka, 847-784-1003) uses them most often in living rooms or sunrooms where there isn’t much traffic or food. “They add another layer of texture without adding color,” she says.

The texture is also what appeals to senior designer Lynn Boutross, of Blutter/Shiff Design (Merchandise Mart, 312-467-9054). She recently used sisal bound with linen velvet in a formal living room decorated with toile and plaids. “We needed a little grounding, a little earthiness,” she says. “It zapped the seriousness out of the room.”

And the appealing texture can soften the maintenance headache by helping to hide dirt and camouflage stains. Some designers recommend certain colors or patterns to clients who have pets so that certain-colored stains will blend in with the background. Sisal can be dyed many colors, though most people prefer the natural tones.

The texture is something you need to be prepared for, if you walk around in bare feet much. Some call it a good massage and put sisal in the bedroom; others find it hard on their bare soles. You might consider a wool-sisal blend if the pure-sisal feeling troubles you.

Did you know that there is synthetic sisal? And many designers give it a thumbs-up. It comes in scores of colors and permutations of vinyl, nylon, and polypropylene and can be used indoors or outdoors, in the kitchen or the bathroom, as well as in the living room. You can spill red wine on it, get it wet with water, whatever. Synthetic sisal is widely available and generally costs anywhere from $35 to $100 a square yard.


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