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Several months ago, I made a post on the Cleanfax magazine Bulletin Board about a rug made from spider silk strands.
It is a fascinating story behind a beautiful, unique rug currently being showcased in a New York museum.
I posted to share something unique. But someone asked, "Would you clean it?"
Now, I''ll be the first to admit, I have never washed a spider silk rug. However, I am confident enough in my inspection, cleaning and troubleshooting skills to answer, "Yes, I would clean it."
We may not come across a piece that unusual or valuable in our careers, but we have all had rugs come our way when our first response has been, "Huh?"
A rug we''ve never seen before, one that challenges our skill level.
The trick is to have a system in place to do three things:
Inspect to direct your cleaning decisions
Protect through testing to keep from having a rug damaged from your efforts
Communicate to the owner so he or she is aware of why you are making the decisions you are, and work to manage expectations in the more difficult cleaning scenarios you face.
Consistent systems — and checklists — can keep you from inadvertently making mistakes.
Trusted peers can assist you with strategies and insight to help you do the job, or to turn it down. But it begins with the initial inspection; that gives you the certainty of whether you can tackle the job or not.
The majority of woven and tufted rugs that cleaners come across are made from wool, because it is a superior fiber.
Cleaners also come across the other usual suspects: Natural fibers like cotton and silk in handmade rugs and synthetic fibers like nylon and olefin in machine made rugs.
There are always exceptions to every rule, except one: There will always be one crazy person that decides to make a crazy rug that sounded like a good idea at the time.
I''ve seen rugs made from paper, jute, acrylic, polyester, hemp, sisal, sea grass, leather, torn rags and… the worst fiber (next to paper) in strength for rugs… rayon/viscose.
I''ve also seen rugs woven with gold and metal thread, beadwork and even sequins.
Without very close inspection, a cleaner might treat one fiber in a way he knows is safe, and then end up with disastrous results if he was wrong about the fiber type.
Paper will fall apart with washing. Plant materials can discolor (from released oils) with uneven moisture use. Leather can lose its sizing, or color, with cleaning. Rayon can brown horribly without the right precautions, if a cleaner accidentally cleans it, mistaking it for real silk.
If you are not 100 percent positive what you are working on, clip off a small tuft and perform a fiber identification test to make certain of the face fibers.
Also, do not forget to inspect the inside fibers — warps and wefts — so as not to miss any fiber concerns there.
Dyes that are not colorfast can be a pain, but this doesn''t necessarily qualify them as "weird."
Weird is the unexpected. Dyes that migrate, despite applying a dye stabilizing solution on them, qualify as weird.
Most rug disaster scenarios in this arena come from being lazy about the dye testing process.
Cleaners who eyeball a rug and say with 100 percent certainty, "I know that won''t bleed!" are setting themselves up for disaster. Even the best of us allow one to occasionally slip by and our confidence costs us a rug because we don''t want to invest the few minutes it takes for a dye test.
The dye scenarios to keep an eye out for are: Over-dyeing (tea wash and antiquing treatments), excess dye (lack of thorough rinsing before the weaving process) and ink (used to cheaply recolor a rug or to cover up flaws).
Tea wash treatments essentially apply a brown dye over a rug, through spraying or dipping, to give the rug a more muted and sometimes older look.
Opening up the fibers, and inspecting the fringe tassels, can show you if this treatment has been applied. Most cleaning efforts will wash away some of this application. A more aggressive cleaning can remove enough of it to change the entire look of the rug, which can create a problem with the client.
You need to identify the situation first, give your client options and realistic expectations, and then let him or her decide what they''d like to have you do.
Excess dye, usually present to a certain extent in rugs that have not yet had their very first cleaning, is simply excess dye that needs to be washed away.
With enough water flow, and a dye stabilizing solution, you can generally protect the neighboring fibers from grabbing the migrating excess dye molecules. You may have to color correct the cotton fringe, but in most cases that won''t be a noticeable problem.
Problems with excess dyes tend to come most often from tribal rugs out of places like Afghanistan. And if the designs are dark, this may not be noticeable if migration happens in the field.
That being said, if the dye dry crocks on to a white towel during a dye test, or on a damp towel, you need to decide if this is a risk you want to take.
Ink is a more serious situation, especially on natural fiber rugs. Removing an ink stain on a wool, silk or cotton rug can be a tricky task.
Having a rug that has had ink applied in large areas (as a shortcut to recoloring the field) can create stains that you may never be able to fully correct, not to mention the problems the ink can contribute to on other surfaces.
With ink, there is a blotchiness that comes across on the worst of them (the rug just looks weird), and in many cases it dry crocks on a white towel, just as with excess dye or tea wash applications.
The point to remember with weird dyes is not unlike that with unknown fibers … test!
Test to identify problems beforehand. Test for cleaning effectiveness with your chosen cleaning solutions if you are worried about your cleaning results.
At some point in your career, you will come across a rug that was made by a client''s grandmother or aunt.
It will be a latch-hook rug, or a needlepoint rug, or perhaps a braided rug made from torn strips of old clothing.
Items like these have high sentimental value, but can be made with inferior fibers, dyes and construction methods.
The fibers and the dyes you can test, but the construction is something that requires a keen eye and touch to determine what it can or cannot withstand during cleaning.
Inspections need to be conducted from the top side, the backside and then the inside of any funky rugs.
You want to test the strength of the tufts, to make sure they will not release with scrubbing or rinsing.
You want to inspect the back to look for any telltale signs of potential problems such as creases or unevenness in width or length, which could mean a potential for buckling or shrinking during cleaning (depending on the fiber type and cleaning method used).
You want to grin open the tufts or loops to see if there are any dangers lurking beneath the surface, such as stenciling ink that might wick up during cleaning or a jute foundation that may be deteriorating with age.
Just looking at the front and back is not enough. You need to literally feel for problems inside the rug.
Other construction weirdness comes from independent makers of "custom" rugs. I''ve seen rugs that look like a patchwork of different fibers and styles, literally a "Frankensteined" rug that required different solutions because they were made with incompatible fibers.
I''ve seen sisal rugs with decorative borders held together with only seam tape, and fabric on the borders that required different cleaning methods than the body of the rug.
Some rugs, due to their construction weaknesses, have to be dry cleaned. Not because that is the best method for cleaning rugs, but because that is the only way to clean the rug without causing any structural damage.
Many rugs today are made without regard to whether or not they can be safely cleaned.
You have to expect that some rugs will come your way that are truly not cleanable with any of the methods you have to offer.
Sometimes the rug is not weird, but the owner of the rug is another story. Once in a while, I have a gut feeling that something is not right with an order.
Perhaps I have a feeling that I''m being set up to uncover a problem that is hidden under heavy soil, so they can try to get me to replace the rug.
Here''s a big hint for you: If a customer is not willing to sign off that there may be problems hidden under heavy soil that you can''t be held responsible for, then take that as a sign they are hiding something from you.
I''ve had first-hand experience with unscrupulous customers who were unable to sell their rugs for cash, and looked to have some unknowledgeable cleaner steam clean and ruin it as their way to try to get the cash through insurance coverage.
Don''t assume that everyone shares your ethics and integrity. There are scam artists out there looking for a free ride.
When something feels wrong, or sounds too good to be true, don''t be afraid to turn away a job. You can simply say you don''t feel you are the right person for the job. Much nicer than, "I think you are weird."
People communicate through much more than just words. Trust your instincts when something feels wrong, and protect yourself accordingly.
However, if you can see no clear danger from the order, and you have your documenting systems in place to protect your interests, you can go ahead with the work because sometimes working with weird customers can be entertaining… and we all could use a little more fun in our companies.
Lisa Wagner is a second-generation rug care expert, NIRC Certified Rug Specialist and an owner of K. Blatchford''s San Diego Rug Cleaning Company. Visit www.RugSecrets.com to request her free publication "RUG SECRETS: The Insider''s Guide To Successfully Adding Rugs To Your Cleaning & Restoration Business."