Luster-Washed Wool Rugs: What You Need to Know
By Lisa Wagner
When rugs are woven, there is often some additional work done to help create a particular finished look. With wool rugs, “luster washing” is a common treatment we see come into our rug facilities, and it is one to make note of in pre-wash inspections as luster-washed rugs present unique cleaning challenges.
Luster washing is a chemical wash to help give a wool rug more sheen. Using solutions that are often bleach-based, the process dissolves the outer cuticle layers of the wool to make them smoother. This softens the colors, makes the wool softer to the touch, and gives the fibers more shine, like silk. In fact, with extreme chemical work, these rugs are often mistaken for silk by consumers.
Luster washing done well creates a beautiful effect; however, this process to add luster to rugs has a cost.
The price of high sheen
The chemicals used in luster washing are removing the natural protective layers of the wool. Under the microscope, the layered scales of wool become smoother after this process.
The unintended consequence of removing the outer cuticle layers is that it also reduces the natural strength, durability, and repellency of the wool. This makes the wool more susceptible to UV fading, more prone to permanent stains from spills, and more likely to wear from foot traffic.
The most familiar example of the consequences of a strong luster wash are Chinese hand-knotted wool rugs woven in the 1980s. These were rugs made with excellent wool and dyes and given a strong chemical wash to create a heightened shine and softer feel.
Since the chemical wash affected only the surface pile of these rugs, it’s possible to see the exact physical impact on the wool fibers when you compare their chemically affected tips to the base of the fibers.
This particular production of Chinese wool rugs is known to be very sensitive to sun fade. They are rugs that cannot be dried in the sun after cleaning because they will dramatically lose their color.
Due to the high sheen of these Chinese wool rugs, they can continue to look attractive even when they are especially dirty. The shine can hide damage that is occurring to the fibers, in particular fading of colors or pile wear. If you are not detailed with your pre-wash inspection, you might uncover some surprising problems as the damage will be much more evident after cleaning.
This particular Chinese rug (below) had not been cleaned for more than seven years.
The wool had a strong shine despite the layers of “life” embedded in the fibers. It was important to prepare the client for the fact that several areas of sun fade from the windows were going to become more noticeable after the rug was cleaned. Additionally, a plastic chair protector that was used along the right side of the rug caused some fiber damage due to small plastic teeth on the underside that cut away at the weakened wool.
Knowing that the rug is luster washed and sensitive to fading and wear, these areas could be discussed with the customer before the wash proceeded to help manage expectations. As anticipated, removing the years of soiling revealed all the areas impacted by sun and use.
Luster-washed wool rugs are also much more prone to creating pooling effects in traffic areas. The wool is less resilient so it will wear in incorrect directions, which can create shadowing due to the change in light reflection.
In Chinese rugs, you tend to see this effect particularly along the edges and in high use areas. The friction of traffic breaks away the lightest tips of the wool and reveals a slightly darker tone underneath. This can become a darker shadow in front of a sofa with regular foot traffic. The weakened wool can also lead to pile distortion in traffic areas where fibers lay in the wrong direction, creating color difference.
With stronger wool, pile distortion can often be corrected. With luster-washed wool, it is a bigger challenge to try and improve these areas because it is not just temporary distortion, but fiber wear and damage.
It is important to be aware of how these rugs are being used in their setting to spot potential areas of concern BEFORE you reveal them with your great rug cleaning work.
How to help customers protect the look of luster-washed wool rugs
You cannot bulletproof these rugs, but there are strategies that can minimize and even out wear, as well as protect the fibers to buy an owner time for effective cleanup of spills before the rug stains permanently.
Rotate regularly: These rugs in open areas will wear faster and develop shadowing (light/dark areas) as the tips of the fibers break away from years of traffic. Recommend that customers rotate luster-washed rugs regularly to help even up this wear over time.
- Vacuum regularly: It is the fine grit that cuts at the wool to cause wear, so regular vacuuming by owners of these rugs is especially important. A quality rug pad will also act as a shock absorber to help slow down wear.
- Use fiber protector: Applying a fiber protector to luster-washed rugs will help repel spills and soils, giving owners more time to clean up while limiting permanent staining damage.
- Clean spills promptly: With the chemical wash having removed the wool’s natural repellency to spills, immediate cleanup is more important than ever.
- Use professional cleaning products: Clients need guidance to avoid grocery store spot and stain removers on these rugs, as many are not safe for use on wool. With these chemically-weakened wool rugs, consumer products often create cleanup disasters.
- Limit UV exposure: Recommend that clients use window treatments to limit UV exposure to these rugs to slow down the fading process. Some wool protectors offer UV protection as well.
In the past, luster wash work was performed only to the face side of wool rugs. This made them easier to identify in an inspection process because the back side would be much darker than the front side. A rug cleaner could grin open the rows of wool and see that the tips of the fibers are lighter than the base.
Today with the popularity of “distressed” rugs, chemical work is being performed to BOTH sides of rugs to fade the front and back. This aggressive chemical work makes the rugs harder to identify and creates new challenges for both rug owners and professional rug cleaners. We will dive into that topic in my next article.
Lisa Wagner is a second-generation rug care expert, NIRC Certified Rug Specialist, and an owner of Blatchford’s Rug Cleaning in San Diego, California. For rug course and training details, visit www.rugchick.com.
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February 21, 2023