Cleaning Your Oriental Rugs
We are the stewards of handmade antique and semi antique Oriental rugs, and with thoughtful care they will outlive us. They can be gifted to our heirs and become part of a multigenerational family legacy when we pass. These rugs are truly works of art and must be treated as such. Preserving these treasures requires regular care. This care is not complicated, but it is critical. It’s how we protect our investment in these beautiful pieces. One of the most important things - possibly the most important - is regular, professional, cleaning of your rug.
Much of when to clean the rug will depend on where you have it in your house; high traffic vs no traffic. If you place a rug where you usually come into the house, for example, it will need to be cleaned every six months. If you have a formal living room that only gets used at Christmas, the rug can go up to five years between cleanings. A good rule of thumb - if a rug gets daily traffic, like a family room, clean it every two to three years.
There are a lot of unscrupulous people who will tell you that they are professionally cleaning your Oriental rug when they are not doing it properly. I believe that professionally cleaning a rug is the most important thing you can do to maintain its value; but if a rug is cleaned badly, it can do much more damage to the rug than never cleaning it. This is why I absolutely advise taking your Oriental rugs to a trustworthy professional.
At Sara's Oriental Rugs, our cleaning process is in three steps. First, we flip the rug upside down and "dust" it. In earlier days, rugs were beaten to get the sand and debris out of it.
Now we have a commercial vacuum that does this work much more effectively. Half of it is a beater bar made of metal and the other half is a brush. With the rug upside down, based on the thickness of the rug, we adjust the height of the vacuum so it shakes the rug. Essentially, this is a modern “rug beating.” The shaking makes all the dirt and particles that are trapped in the pile of the rug vibrate out of it. Depending on how much the rug needs to be cleaned, this can take quite a while. Sometimes we need to work half a day on one rug to finish this process.
This is the critical part of cleaning a rug. If a rug isn’t “dusted” before it’s wet down, it would be better not to clean it at all. The dirt and grit that accumulates in a rug, if it’s still in the pile during the “wash” phase, the water will push the dirt down into the rug.
That dirt and grit has sharp edges, like little razors. Now that it’s been wet and hardened, deep down in the rug, it will cut the fibers. Your footsteps are going to move the sharp grit back and forth, and this will wear away the pile of your rug. This is why it’s better not to have the rug cleaned at all if it’s not done properly. It’s an invisible destruction that you won’t notice for years, until one
day you do, and by then it might be too late to cost effectively repair the rug. Like a child growing day by day, you don’t really see it and then all of sudden, the child has grown beyond his or her clothes, they’ve completely changed. It’s the same with this hardened grit. You won’t see the destruction until you go to vacuum your rug one day and the pile starts coming up.
Once the rug is fully dusted, with no more dirt falling out, we vacuum the top thoroughly. At this point we need to be extremely careful with the top and bottom edges of the rugs, where the fringe is. I can't tell you how many rugs I've seen that have been torn beyond repair because someone goes too close to the fringe with the vacuum. This must be avoided at all costs.
After the vacuuming is complete, we wash the rug. And this step is so important too. I’ll tell you something; I’ve seen couples get divorced because of a bad cleaning. Twice in 40 years. Instead of taking a rug to be professionally cleaned, a couple decides to take the rug into the driveway and hose it down. The colors bleed and the rug is ruined. So is the marriage.
Before we wash the rug, we test it to see how fast the colors are. Then we use cool water to do the actual washing. Hot water will dissolve the vegetable dyes. And the worst thing, something I’ve seen countless times, is the owner trying to save a dollar by using a steam cleaner on these rugs. No matter how well the colors are set, the steam heat will ruin them. So often in our lives we lose money or value trying to save. An investment requires investment. If you have a great rug, treat it that way and it will last generations.
Depending on how fast the colors are we wet the rugs. Some rugs can be really soaked with water, some need to just be damp. We then scrub the rugs with an extremely high quality detergent, which is very mild - so mild it's used on rare museum pieces. We use a hand scrub brush and gently clean the entire rug. Once that is done, we rinse the rug, and in most cases, we use suction to get the rinse water out of the rug. At this point, the rug isn’t wet anymore, just damp.
We then let the rug dry flat. We never hang rugs. Even if the colors are well set, they can still run a little, and by hanging them to dry, you risk the colors running. Last, while the rug is still wet, we use a special brush to bring all the pile in the correct direction. Once that’s done, we let the rug dry, usually with a fan with a bit of heat. Once it's completely dry, we can roll the rug back up to be delivered to the client.
The entire process takes about three to five days depending on the size of the rug and how much dirt it has accumulated. If you take your rug in to be cleaned and they give it back to you the next day, I promise you it hasn’t been cleaned properly - you need to take it somewhere else. And you’ll be glad you did; cleaning your quality rugs professionally and properly ensures they will last for generations.
Sam Ramazani is an Oriental carpet educator, appraiser, broker, and skilled repair craftsman. With his daughter Sara, he owns Sara's Oriental Rugs in Louisville, KY, providing beautiful handmade rugs, as well as expert rug cleaning and repair.