Carpet is a textile floor covering that is distinguished from the more general term "rug" by being fixed to the floor surface and extending wall to wall. The earliest peoples covered the floors of their dwellings with animal skins, grass, or, later, woven reed mats. When people learned how to spin cotton and wool, woven mats of these materials largely replaced earlier coverings. Around 3000 B.C. Egyptians sewed brightly colored pieces of woolen cloth onto linen and placed it on their floors.
The first carpets of note were woven by nomads. The thick carpets were easy to transport and were placed over the sand floor of tent dwellings. Early looms were similarly easy to transport. Two forked branches were joined by a crosspiece holding the suspended warp, and a wooden bar was used to flatten binding weft threads, while the loose warp ends formed the carpet's pile. The Pazyryk carpet has been documented as the earliest hand loom carpet, dating back from 500 B.C. and discovered in a tomb located in the Alti Mountains in Central Asia.
From these early beginnings, carpet weaving rose to its highest art form in Turkey, Iran, India, and China. Using cotton, linen, or hemp as the foundation, and wool or silk as the luxurious pile, weavers would make a knot out of the pile thread, then form a row of knots that was tightly beaten down. The process was time-consuming: some of the finest handmade carpets have as many as 2,400 knots per square inch (372 knots per sq cm). The brilliant colors of these ancient carpets came from natural dyes such as madder, indigo, genista, woad, and ocher. Some weavers added alum to these dyes to fix the color, and a few wove gold and precious jewels into their carpets.
While Europeans for centuries eagerly received carpets ready-made from the Middle East, carpet making itself did not find a firm foothold on the continent until France imported Moorish weavers around A.D. 1300. By 1600, carpet guilds were flourishing around Aubusson and Savonnerie. England also imported Persian weavers, as well as French ones, and by 1700 both Wilton and Axminster, known for their wool, were chartered carpet-making towns. Carpet making in Europe started with the "Brussels weave" in France and Flanders. This weave is formed by putting yarn over rods to create uncut loops. Wilton carpets are cut by a blade that replaces the rod in the Brussels weave. In 1801, Joseph M. Jacquard invented a device for handlooms that used punch cards to place up to six varieties of yarn colors in textiles, thus increasing production. This technique was adopted for carpet looms in 1825.
The first carpet factory in the U.S. was built by William Sprague in Philadelphia in 1791. His looms, based on English inventions, could make 27-inch (69-cm) runners that could be sewn together to make larger carpets. By 1800, 6-8 yards (7-9 m) of carpet could be made in a day. Erastus Bigelow built a mill in 1825 in Clinton, Massachusetts, and invented the power loom in 1839, which doubled carpet production. He also invented the first broadloom in 1877. Power looms improved over the years; soon one loom could make 75 yards (82 m) of high quality carpet a day.
Carpet production changed dramatically at the beginning of the 20th century, beginning inauspiciously with a burst of tufted bedspread production in Dalton, Georgia, led by young entrepreneur Catherine Evans Whitener. Tufting is the process of punching yarn into a ground fabric to create many uncut loops at a very fast pace. Tufted bed-spread factories dominated the Dalton area by World War II, and they soon began producing tufted rugs as well. Demand for these roughly made rugs was as great as that for the bedspreads. At first using cheap, readily available cotton before switching to synthetic yarns, the number of Dalton carpet makers grew as they produced great amounts of relatively easy-to-make broadloom tufted rugs and, eventually, carpets. Carpet, once a luxury, became affordable for most Americans. Today, carpet makes up 72% of all flooring, with tufted carpet being 91.5% of production, and the city of Dalton is responsible for over 70% of the world's production of carpet.