Wool carpet to make life easier

Scientist Steven McNeil from AgResearch’s Textiles team

Does a busy carpet make walking difficult for elderly people? AgResearch scientists have tested this in recently published research. The work, published in the Journal of the Textile Institute, describes research in developing carpets that make walking easier for those with compromised eyesight or mobility.

It’s long been recommended in industry literature that brightly-coloured carpets or those with bold patterns should not be used in hotels and aged-care facilities because they can confuse human spatial perception, but that theory had never been tested.

Scientist Steven McNeil from AgResearch’s Textiles team worked with a student to design a carpet for an 80-year-old based on their expected vision and then compared it against other carpets in a controlled experiment.

“While the carpet perhaps looks a bit ‘busy’ for people with normal vision, for older persons who have naturally deteriorated vision it is less ‘busy’ but still interesting and clear,” Dr McNeil says.

“We asked subjects, who had normal vision, to walk on the carpets and closely observed them. The subjects wore a face shield with a yellow lens that simulated the vision of a typical 80-year-old. We got the subjects to carry a container filled with water which made them concentrate on two tasks (walking and carrying) and it also meant they couldn’t see their feet.”

The easier walking on the designed carpet was attributed to it having a border, a pattern that was not cluttered with detail, a feeling of walking in a lane (‘guided’ to stay in the centre of the carpet), and colours that were clearly visible without harsh contrasts.

“We think this is the first attempt at designing the carpet and experimentally testing it,” Dr McNeil says.

The results are useful because meeting the demands for independent living from the increasing number of older people is a major challenge. In fact, the recently launched ‘Ageing Well’ National Science Challenge recognises this point, with one of its themes being the development of age-friendly environments.

Dr McNeil’s research is part of broader work to look at the advantages wool has over human-made fibres and that includes the advantages that wool carpet has over other flooring alternatives.

Research has revealed that wool carpets play a significant role in reducing the levels of common indoor air contaminants. Polluted indoor air can lead to discomfort, reduced efficiency and even ill health amongst employees and residents in buildings. Wool carpet has been shown to rapidly neutralise formaldehyde, nitrogen dioxide and sulphur dioxide, which are often encountered as indoor air contaminants. Not only does wool neutralise these contaminants more quickly and completely than synthetic carpet fibres, it does not re-emit them, even when heated.

The acoustic advantages are also significant – wool carpets effectively absorb noise. Their porous surface means sound waves penetrate into the pile, rather than being reflected back into the room.

Improvements in physical safety have been documented through installing carpets rather than hard floors. The higher frictional properties of carpets result in fewer falls and research shows the cushioning effect of carpet means that if a person does fall there is less likely to be injury.