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Cleaning, Conservation and Restoration of Fine Rugs

May 18, 2006
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Who would you call to clean your museum collection of Navajo rugs, or a newly discovered pre-Columbian textile? Recently, I began a series of visits to unique rug plants around the country. This month we are going to profile two very specialized companies - Robert Mann Oriental Rugs in Denver and Talisman in Santa Cruz, Calif. Both companies specialize in cleaning museum-quality textiles.

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Recently, I began a series of visits to unique rug plants around the country. This month we are going to profile two very specialized companies - Robert Mann Oriental Rugs in Denver and Talisman in Santa Cruz, Calif. Both companies specialize in cleaning museum-quality textiles.

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Robert Mann Oriental Rugs started in 1978, moving to its present Walnut Street location in 1982. The company cleans all types of rugs and textiles and offers many service options, from picking up rugs at the owner's home to receiving out-of-state rugs to offering wholesale cleaning for on-location cleaners. The company also represents Woven Legends Restoration, which has 80 restorers in western Turkey. Rugs that require extensive restoration can be shipped to Turkey at a cost advantage compared to having the work done in this country.

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Bob Mann works with museum conservators and curators from around the country, including the Smithsonian Institution and the L.A. County Museum. When museums have work done, conservators will specify how a textile is to be cleaned. They will often require the use of de-ionized water and special cleaning materials. Museums also require extensive documentation, with before-and-after photographs, including all the steps involved in cleaning the textile.

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They first floor wash and rinse the rugs (Image 1), then use a Moore wringer before sending the rugs into an 18-pole dry room (Image 2). An exception is made with Navajo rugs, which are dried flat. The dry room must be turned over each day to keep pace with the demand from their customer base.

Mann has a large following with Navajo collectors and dealers, cleaning more than 100 Navajo rugs per week. They also do repair and restoration work (Image 3). Due to the high demand for Navajo weavings, today dealers are requesting cleaning and restoration of rugs that would not have warranted the expense 5 years ago. Good collectable rugs from the 1920s and 1930s can sell for more than $300 per square foot. Navajo Chief Blankets from the late 1860s can sell for more than $500,000. Blankets were the Navajo textile preceding rugs as we know them today (Image 4, a very rare Third Phase Woman's Blanket).

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Mann states that, "if you are going to clean Navajo rugs, you will need to know dye stripping." The company floor washes Navajo rugs and, if necessary, uses an aggressive dye stripper to correct overall dye bleeding (Image 5, 6 and 7). This procedure is not recommended for the novice rug cleaner.

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We now turn to Talisman. Founded in January 1980 by David Walker, the company boasts 17 employees, four of which are repair specialists. Talisman is one of the few rug-cleaning companies in the country running two shifts.

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Recommended by Sotheby's, Christie's and several museums, Talisman's specialty is archeological textiles from Central Asia, China and South America. The company also cleans several 16th and 17th Century tapestries each year (Image 8 and 9).

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As with Robert Mann Oriental Rugs, when cleaning for museums, Talisman must follow the very specific procedures required by each museum, documenting every step of the process. The standard of care for museum textiles is much more stringent than for other works of art.

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Walker states the company takes a very conservative approach when it comes to cleaning textiles, giving priority to preservation of the textile while achieving good appearance. However, this approach requires more labor and handwork in the cleaning process.

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Talisman only uses its rug duster for 20 percent of the rugs, and does not have a rotary shampoo machine in the plant. Well-made rugs from 50 years ago are now 50 years older, and may not be able to take the aggressive agitation. Newer rugs, in general, are not made with the same quality as in the past. As a result their cleaning process is mostly done by hand (Image 10). They do not own a Moore ringer, but rely instead on custom-made extraction equipment with high CFM (Image 11). The rugs are then off to a dry room (Image 12). They leave most rugs in the dry room for three days to insure the rugs are completely dry before storage and return to their customers.

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Both Robert Mann Oriental Rugs and Talisman are very gracious hosts, offering pre-arranged group tours and openly sharing their hard-earned expertise.

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