Cleaning Those Beautiful Berbers

January 12, 2006
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Not since General Gordon of the British Army invaded North Africa in 1898 to defeat the nomadic, Arab-influenced herdsmen known as Berbers has there been so much discussion about the carpet style that originated there.

"Hold on a minute," you say. "I thought this was a carpet cleaning article, not a history lesson!" Well, just keep reading, and we both might learn something.

What is a Berber carpet? According to Wools of New Zealand, "The original Berber carpets are squares, hand-woven by North African tribes with yarn spun by hand from wool from local sheep. They contain a proportion of naturally pigmented wool (the sheep did the dyeing!) . . . The roughly finished, homespun style has been adopted by manufacturers, and the resulting products may more fairly be described as country style. A country style carpet is a wool carpet made from yarns in natural colors, containing effects such as nebs (pointed projections), slubs (a soft, thick, uneven place in yarn) or flames (irregular streaks of color). They are most often coarse-gauge, loop-pile, wall-to-wall carpets, but are also made in cut-pile, in shags and in designs."

Today, Berbers are made of wool and synthetics, and the term has come to describe any carpet with natural hues (whites, tans, browns, grays, blacks), which are intermingled within the rather bulky yarn system comprising woven or tufted carpet. Berbers are usually found in the loop-pile configuration.

So much for the description (and it's changing rapidly as manufacturers change their marketing verbiage). Next question: How do we clean them?

The answer depends on the type fiber that was used in the Berber carpet. If it's synthetic, we can continue to employ the same chemicals and procedures we use on any synthetic. That's the easy part! If it's wool...well, we'd better get back to the basics of cleaning natural fiber.

The typical wool fiber comprises 50 percent carbon, 22 percent oxygen, 18 percent nitrogen, 7 percent hydrogen and 2 percent sulfur (ever wonder where the wet-wool smell comes from?). Recall that the fiber itself has three parts: the epidermis, composed of overlapping scales; the cortex, comprising more abrasion sensitive cells; and the medulla, which provided nourishment to the fiber during its growth cycle.

Wool is always a staple (short specific length) fiber, 5 inches to 8 inches in length, as opposed to continuous filament (long indefinite length) fibers, which characterize most synthetic fibers and yarns. Like all staple yarns, it is subject to shedding and fuzzing, both when new and after a period of use. Shedding is the release of short fibers that are not removed during manufacturing. Usually, shedding is most prevalent with cut-pile styles.

Fuzzing, on the other hand, is a hairy appearance on the surface of any wool carpet, caused by slack yarn twist, or by fibers slipping out of the yarn bundle. It may be evident on Berber style carpet because of the thickness of the yarns and the inability of the latex laminate to penetrate the yarn bundle fully. Those fibers that are not fully adhered by the latex laminating the primary and secondary backing, or by complete penetration of the yarn bundle by the latex, simply slip out after a period of use and maintenance. This creates a "hairy" or "fuzzed" appearance on the carpet's surface.

Fuzzing may not be apparent until the carpet is cleaned and loose fibers are vacuumed and groomed to the surface. Then it becomes pronounced.

Literature from Wools of New Zealand specifies that shampoos and spray extraction (steam cleaning) cleaning agents should, "...conform to certain minimum requirements." They should:

  • leave a dry, powdery - preferably crystalline - residue
  • have a pH between 4.5 and 8.5 or be approved by WoolSafe
  • not contain bleach or fluorescent (optical) brightening agents

    There are two reasons why such specifications are important. First, alkaline agents are harmful to the dyes used to color wool. No longer are natural-colored yarns used exclusively in Berber carpets. Dark, contrasting colors which accent off-white or tan backgrounds in today's Berbers may bleed, especially if the cleaner fails to use a high quality, neutral pH detergent (the optimum being between 5.5 and 7), as recommended by the Wools of New Zealand or WoolSafe. This bleeding in the presence of alkalinity is progressive: it begins at the spots of dark color (dyed yarns) and spreads persistently to surrounding light-colored areas.

    Second, highly alkaline agents used in cleaning synthetics rapidly damage wool fiber. This damage involves dissolving the wool fiber's epidermis layer, exposing the cortex to accelerated wear from contact with abrasive soil. Alkaline exposure literally can cut the life of the wool fiber - read: Berber carpet - in half!

    Another point you should consider is that the loosely twisted, bulky, loop-pile wool yarns used to create Berbers weakens slightly when wet. Therefore, aggressive agitation during cleaning, and especially when spotting, can cause unsightly texture change.

    Naturally, Berbers should be groomed immediately after cleaning to keep brush or wand strokes from setting patterns that are difficult to remove when the wool carpet is dry. And although wool fibers experience temperature ranges from 212-390 F/100-200 C for 45-60 minutes in atmospheric stock or pressurized yarn dyeing, due to the potential for bleeding or distortion, it's best to "ease off" on temperature, say to around 160-170 F/71-77 C for truckmount operators.

    Unlike Berbers of past years, those found at carpet retailers today usually are tufted goods made of nylon or olefin fiber. Nylon is very resilient, and is reasonably spot and stain resistant - particularly if treated with acid dye blockers and fluorochemcial soil/stain repellents. Olefin is totally stain resistant, but it lacks resiliency. This causes it to appear matted and crushed after a few months of traffic. Bulky, Berber-style olefin yarns simply don't spring back when crushed repeatedly, and the resulting texture change causes rapid and substantial loss of appearance. Rapid...substantial...got that?

    Cleaning synthetic Berbers with fairly aggressive agents (pH up to 10 for nylon, higher for olefin) is quite easy. The same is true with spotting. There are, however, a few other problems related to synthetic Berber carpet:

  • Cleaning any light colored carpet is a challenge, and Berbers are no exception. Large bulky yarns collect a large amount of soil and, due to the construction of these yarns, soil is trapped in the yarn bundle when extraction cleaning is attempted. Result? Frequently a problem of soil wicking arises, which generates a need to re-clean, unless the technician is carefully to dry stroke and implement forced drying procedures (air movers). More on this later.
  • The bulky nature of the yarns create two problems for manufacturers as well. First, it is difficult to get latex adhesives to penetrate the fiber bundle comprising the yarns, thus causing fuzzing when unanchored staple fibers are pulled to the surface of Berber carpet during trafficking and use. Second, due to increased texture created by these bulky yarns at the back side of the primary, delamination, in some cases may arise. Often only 35 percent to 40 percent of the secondary, even when pre-coated or "kiss coated," is adhered to the primary. In many cases, only the base of the yarns on the back of the primary is adhered to the secondary backing.
  • Installers experience serious problems with seam peaking with Berbers. Due to the bulky nature of the Berber yarns, stress peaking at seams is almost inevitable when Berber constructions are power stretched as required by CRI 104/105. Even when six-inch seaming tape is used and seams run into the natural light source, some peaking will be noticeable.

    OK. Specifically, how are Berbers cleaned? Before we discuss that, let's review a few facts on the dynamics of soiling.

    Particle soils (sand, quartz, limestone, feldspar, gypsum, carbon) comprise 55 percent of the average carpet soil sample. These soils build up in the bulky Berber pile yarns and sift downward into backing materials over time, especially when routine vacuum maintenance is inadequate.

    We clean carpet two dimensionally (yarn tips and sides), not three dimensionally (tips, sides, bases), as would be the case in a clothes washing machine. When we clean to but not through he primary backing, fine particle soils that settle downward over time are suspended by the cleaning solutions. During drying, these fine particles wick up fibers comprising yarns to the yarn tips. At that point, the moisture turns into a vapor and continues into the air over the carpet. Since particle soils can't vaporize, they remain on the yarn tips.

    Berbers are light in color and even small amounts of soil show up vividly when they wick to the surface of the pile during normal drying.

    With soil composition and wicking in mind, technicians must remember a few important points when cleaning "Those Beautiful Berbers":
    1. Get rid of as much of the dry soils as possible. Vacuum meticulously and thoroughly. Think about spending 10 to 15 minutes vacuuming each room, hallways included, since that's where you have a concentration of particle soil. Get the majority of the particle soil out and there will be little left to wick up during drying.
    2. Precondition the carpet with an appropriate detergent solution. Use a pH range of 5.5 to 8 if yarns are wool. Cleaning solutions for residential stain-resist Berbers must be 10 or less in pH. Olefin Berbers may be cleaned with higher pH solutions, as long as they are neutralized and rinsed properly. Of course, precondition is followed by agitation and appropriate dwell time.
    3. Use normal wand stroking procedures when rinsing cleaning solutions and suspended soils from Berber piles. Slow down on rearward strokes and don't hesitate to double or triple stroke.
    4. Dry stroke over the carpet after each series of wet strokes in the block stroking sequence. In other words, clean an area that's five feet deep and six to twelve feet wide, then go back over the same area with careful dry stroking - twice! Yes, this takes a lot of time; yes, you have to charge more. But better to do that than to have to return and re-clean two or three times in sequence. Leave a Berber overwet and wicking streaks are inevitable.
    5. When you complete the first area of room, place an air mover in a corner of the room, blowing over the major traffic area. Forced air movement dries carpet yarns before fine particles of unextracted soil wicking up from backings is able to collect on yarn tips to form streaks.
    6. If slight streaking arises, it may be "polished off" with light bonnet cleaning or "buffing."

    Too complicated? Heavens no! In fact these technical details can make it easy for you to sell your cleaning expertise to those who have invested in quality wool carpet, Berber or otherwise. The "bait-and-switch" operators don't stand a chance when you inform customers of the risks involved in using anyone other than you to clean their "beautiful Berbers."

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