Generally speaking, cheaper synthetic rugs will have cleaning instructions attached to them, similar to tags on clothing. For those products, just follow the instructions.
However, if you invest in a higher quality area rug, there are some common sense guidelines to help you maintain the value and beauty of your rug. Given the great variety of area rugs, no single set of instructions would cover all rugs, but there are some basics.
Area rugs, silk, Persian, and other Oriental rugs are all relatively easy to maintain. A few basic actions at regular intervals will help your rug keep its looks and value for many years. There are no difficult or unusual processes involved, just some common sense things, but surprisingly, many once valuable pieces of work are often just ignored and they deteriorate as a result. If you’d like your rug purchase to achieve family heirloom status instead of ending up rolled up and put out with the trash, here are a few tips.
First, try to protect your rug from direct sunlight. No, you don’t have to keep it in a darkened room, but judicious use of blinds or curtains can filter the light and keep your rug from fading over time. Fading is a kind of surreptitious damage that occurs over time – because it is a slow process, it’s not usually noticed until it’s pretty advanced. At that point, certainly some, if not all of the value has been compromised, along with the appearance. If for some reason it is impossible to avoid direct sunlight; for example, the rug is in a sun room, then at the very least rotate the rug periodically so that any fading is equally distributed rather than concentrated in one area.
The same thing is pretty much true of just regular wear from foot traffic. If your rug is in a place that receives heavy traffic, occasionally turn it around. Traffic patterns are predictable and repetitive, so rearrange the rug to direct the traffic path to a different area. It would be ideal to turn the rug at a 90 degree angle so that wear is evenly distributed throughout the carpet, wherever that’s possible. With hall runners or other rugs that have dimensions that don’t allow that, then at least switch ends.
It surprises many people to discover that the biggest threat to any rug, whether an antique rug or new, is mold. If your rug is exposed to dampness in your home, regularly lift the entire rug and support it above the floor, or hang it somewhere for a few hours to dry it out. Mold and mildew will destroy your rug, often beyond repair.
Dampness can also lead to insect infestation, like moth larvae or silverfish, also very destructive. There are various products available to get rid of them quickly, and you should use them at the first sign of infestation. These insects actually eat rug fibers, and damage can be both quick and severe. Remember especially to check rugs that get little traffic and infrequent vacuuming or sweeping. If you see a cobweb-like veil somewhere on the rug, along with fine, sand-like debris, you probably have an infestation. The good news is that moth damage can almost always be very satisfactorily repaired. However, it is far better to prevent damage than pay to repair it. Make sure you look at the backside of the rug as well as the surface, and here’s what to look for:
- Flying moths -- small, 3/8" long or less, and is usually silvery tan or soft brown in color. This moth flies slowly but with a rapid flutter of small wings.
- Bare spots in the pile -- moth larvae sometimes prefer the taste of one color yarn over another, so the bare spots in some colors but not others indicate moth damage, not wear.
- Webs -- white gossamer filaments covering a patch of the rug's pile
- Cocoons -- 1/8" diameter x 1/2" long slightly fuzzy cylinders usually “camouflaged” to the same color as the rug's pile
- Larvae in the pile -- slender, white, worm-like moth larvae about 3/8" long can sometimes be seen just after hatching, that’s the stage that does the damage
- Sand-like particles down in the pile of the rug -- this material, often tan or brown in color, regular in size, and granular in look, is the excretion of the larvae.
- Broken/loose plies -- where the larvae have chewed through yarn overcastings or bindings.
Rugs that suffer from dampness or lack of attention are at greatest risk, but don’t ignore the others. If any part of the rug is hidden from view, for example under a sofa or bed, regularly check that nothing is destroying your valuable carpet.
Vacuuming area rugs fairly frequently – like once a week or so -- helps to remove grit and dirt particles that can actually cut through rug fibers, so it is beneficial, but some care should be taken. If you have a very powerful system with strong suction, or if your vacuum has a beater bar or stiff rotating brush, use the nozzle attachment instead to reduce the power. This will prevent stretching the fibers of your rug, and with fringed rugs it will also prevent accidentally pulling out fringe or unraveling. So vacuum, but vacuum gently.
Washing rugs periodically is beneficial, but the frequency of washing depends on the amount of use the rug gets. For an average home where the rug receives moderate traffic, it should probably not require cleaning more than every two to four years; rugs in entranceways or which receive heavy and frequent traffic may need cleaning more often. Moreover, it’s important to note that higher quality area rugs – Oriental rugs, silks, wools, etc. – should be cleaned by people who specialize in them. Commercial carpet cleaners (and now sometimes drycleaners) will offer to clean those, but they often use chemicals or processes involving heat or steam. These processes do more damage than good. Specialists will use only cold water and hand techniques to clean your fine area rugs, processes which protect and preserve the natural oils and fiber characteristics that are essential to maintaining the beauty and value of the rug.