ICS Magazine

Successfully Cleaning Oriental Rugs

March 8, 2001
Without the proper training and execution of precautionary measures, the next Oriental rug you clean may become your responsibility.



In my 30 years in the on-site carpet cleaning business, I have had countless opportunities to clean Oriental rugs. These have ranged from inexpensive imported rugs made with synthetic face fibers, to synthetic tufted rugs, to genuine hand-knotted Chinese or Persian rugs.

Knowing “when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em” has resulted in never being responsible for the replacement of any heirloom or investment grade rugs. There have been cases where I have turned down cleaning a rug, or took a rug to my local in-plant cleaner and more than doubled my money for just picking up and delivering it for the customer.

The trend to “hard” floors in many homes has led to an increase in loose rug sales, which translates into opportunities for knowledgeable cleaners. While much of the growth in rug sales is made up of tufted rugs, there is also a steady and respectable growth in sales of medium to high-quality handmade imported rugs. In many cases, both the foundation and face are made of natural yarns. Some are reasonably inexpensive, while others are very expensive and are probably best handled by cleaning in-plant. To decide which avenue to follow, let’s take a closer look at these rugs, the raw materials of the rug and how these materials may react with wet cleaning solutions. Characteristics While the term Oriental rug is often applied to any patterned rug, true Oriental rugs are a work of art. An important characteristic of handwoven rugs is their wealth of pattern and variety of colors. Since each tuft of yarn is added by hand, the weaver can use as many colors as they wish. These rugs can take thousands of hours to create, and their cost can be exorbitant.

The rugs are normally crafted from natural face yarns and foundation yarns. The dyeing techniques used are not as colorfast as those used with synthetic yarns. The potential for damage on these rugs is high, and replacement costs could bankrupt the small cleaner. The following factors should be considered before making the final cleaning decision.

Foundation Yarns: The yarns used to create a rug are the warp, weft and face yarns, and in some cases there are also filler/stuffer yarns. The warp, weft and filler/stuffer yarns are the most important factors in deciding how to clean these rugs. If these foundation yarns are partly or totally natural, such as jute or cotton, then shrinking and/or browning are potential dangers that must be considered. If the rug is lightly soiled and can be cleaned without overwetting, then most likely no problems will arise as a result of the cleaning process.

However, if the rug is heavily soiled and requires a thorough cleaning, then it’s not a likely candidate for on-location cleaning and should be transported to a plant for proper cleaning—and most importantly, proper drying! If the foundation yarns are synthetic, such as olefin, then shrinkage and browning are not factors with which you must deal. Rugs manufactured with synthetic foundation yarns are good candidates for on-location cleaning.

Face Yarns. The actual wear surface of the rug is composed of the face yarns. High quality, “investment grade” rugs will always have natural face yarns. These may include wool, cotton, or silk (this is where the burn test comes into play).

The primary problem that can occur when cleaning rugs with natural face yarns is dye bleeding. Dye bleeding can be caused by water, which is too hot; by using high pH cleaners; by slow drying; or a combination of these factors. If you decide to attempt to clean a heavily soiled rug with natural face yarns, then take it to your “plant” (garage, driveway, carport, barn, etc.). An important step in determining the risks of cleaning is to test for color fastness.

Color Fastness Test. Although this test can be done in 15-30 minutes, keep in mind that the shorter the test period, the less reliable the results. For the most dependable results, the test must last for at least 24 hours. The proper procedure is to apply the strongest cleaning agent that you will be using to the darkest colors of the rug.

Fold a clean white towel in such a manner that it surrounds the back and front of the test area. Put a weight, such as a brick, on top of the towel/rug sandwich and leave it in place for at least 24 hours. At the end of the test period (no peeking!), look for color transfer from the rug into the towel. If no color bleed is evident, then you should be able to safely clean this rug if you dry it properly (quickly).

If color has transferred to the towel, take steps such as: use a lower pH cleaner; use a dye-set to retard bleeding; switch to a dry solvent or dry powder cleaning process; or decide that this rug is not a good candidate for cleaning and return it to the client. If the rug is colorfast, lightly soiled, and you’ve determined that shrinkage and browning are not problems because of synthetic foundation yarns, then cleaning at the customer’s home or office should not be a problem.

Locate an area for drying the rug after cleaning. Ask the customer to fold the rug in half after the face yarns have dried to allow any moisture present in the backing to evaporate. The cleaning agents you choose should meet the recommendations of the face fiber producers: i.e. pH 5.5 to 8.5 on wool, under 10 for stain resistant nylon. Clean it like you would a tufted rug and don’t overpromise results. The cleaning results you can deliver won’t be in the league of in-plant or immersion cleaning, but you should be able to improve its appearance and remove some spots. I just pre-vac very well, apply a suitable pre-spray, and then agitate with a napping brush. A little dwell time and a rinse with the truck mount and VOILA! What you see is what you get.

If the rug isn’t colorfast, is heavily soiled or there is a possibility of shrinkage or browning, then it’s definitely not a candidate for on-location cleaning. It may be one you should walk away from or take to your local plant cleaner.

I hope this information will be of value when you’re called upon to clean an Oriental rug. Also, I hope it will eliminate your having to buy a new rug for one of your clients. Until next month, seeya!