Carpets fight back after being floored by laminates

After more than a decade fighting a losing battle against laminates, linoleum and even leather flooring, the British carpet industry has been left in a threadbare condition.

Shifting tastes towards smooth and Scandinavian finishes has cost thousands of jobs and last week the UK's largest manufacturer, Carpets International, went into receivership.

But the British carpet industry aims to reclaim a larger share of the £2 billion flooring market as it caps a £1m promotional campaign with a series of television advertisements.

The film features a woman in a black dress writhing on a deep-pile burgundy carpet before imploring viewers in a husky voice to "Come back to carpet". It will be screened from 16 September as the culmination of a campaign by the Carpet Foundation, comprised of firms totalling some 50,000 employees.

The campaign promotes the virtues of carpet and takes a swipe at "cheaper" imports - both laminated and rugs - and aims to counter a bid to smear British rugmakers with a series of health scares.

Michael Hardiman, chief executive of the Carpet Foundation, said: "We are trying to get people to have a rethink. Carpets are not thought of as a contemporary product but from a practical point of view it cannot be beaten.

"There is no question that over the last ten years there has been a move towards more smooth flooring. This has been driven by a lot of imported, cheaper laminated products which is sold through DIY and is seen as trendy."

The decline of the carpet in British households is largely blamed on cheaper pine flooring which started flooding into the country about 10 years ago. Economies of scale have led to tumbling prices and demand has been fuelled by a plethora of DIY television shows featuring minimalist designs and smooth finishes.

The Kidderminster-based Carpet Foundation says Swedish manufacturers even resorted to underhand business practices when faced with a glut of the product. A campaign by the Healthy Flooring Network claimed carpets harboured allergens and mites that could exacerbate asthma. But the network admitted it was funded by the lobby group New Harbour which received tens of thousands of pounds from Pergo, a leading Swedish floor manufacturer. The network said it did not know about the Pergo link and has since broken ties with New Harbour. "There were all these health messages running down the image of the carpet and it turned out that Swedish money was promoting this message. The market elsewhere in countries like Germany was saturated and they targeted Britain with the help of scare stories", an industry spokesman said.

Last week Carpets International, which has 1,200 staff producing brands such as Wilton Royal, Abington and Kosset at its Bradford factory, blamed administrative receivership on "increased competition from imports" and the growing popularity of wood floors.

The amount of carpet sold in the UK fell from 212 million square metres in 1990 to 197 million square metres in 2001, while sales of "smooth" flooring - 70 per cent of which is laminate - rose from 22.8m square metres to 59.9 million square metres, worth £393.3m.

Around 65 per cent of carpet now sold in the UK is imported compared with virtually none in 1970, resulting in the number of people employed in carpet making in the UK falling from 45,000 to 7,500 over the same period.

Mr Hardiman added: "The irony is that British carpet is the best in the world. If you arrive at Hong Kong airport or you go on the QE2 you are walking on British-made carpets."

FLOOR WARS

LAMINATES Styles include bamboo, herringbone and bevelled edge. Resistant to water and sunlight, the planks snap together for glueless installation. Good for most rooms except utility and bathrooms.

PARQUET Although slightly more expensive, this sealed, solid hardwood is more durable and can be restored through sanding and re-treating. Blocks are available from sustainable forests.

TILES Tiles made from linoleum, vinyl and cork are popular for DIY jobs because they are small, easier to fit around obstacles than sheet flooring, and are cheap, hard-wearing and easy to clean.

LEATHER "Leather floors soften sound, warm the room, feel great underfoot and improve with age, becoming a good friend," says one maker. Available in shrunken buffalo, big foot crocodile finishes.

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