Rug Dye Difficulties


Today’s wool rugs have unique challenges that require rug cleaners to enhance their rug dye expertise.

We have addressed in the past different scenarios that can cause a wool rug to bleed, and how to protect against ruining those rugs (see the Cleanfax article, February 2012,Why Rugs Bleed). High heat, high alkalinity and extended periods of improper water exposure can all contribute to a rug’s dyes bleeding.

There are two styles of rugs of special concern to rug cleaners due to their after-market dye treatments. These are “over-dyed” and “tea washed” rugs. Without proper inspection and testing, both can lead to a wash disaster.

Over-dyed rugs = Extreme makeoversWagner

A popular trend in today’s home design is the look of an over-dyed rug. This is a rug that has had two dramatic treatments in order to give it a very different look from how it was originally woven.

The first treatment is an aggressive chemical wash stripping of the original dyes in order to fade out the colors. This treatment alone gives rugs what is referred to as a “distressed” look, which has gray and beige tones, and a very faint design. If the rug is already extremely faded from the sun, this step may not be needed.

The second treatment is to then apply dye over the rug using a very vibrant color. Instead of the rug having the usual variety of colors in its design, the result becomes one bright color and design elements that make it look like it was woven in varying tones of a single color.

These are referred to on rug sales and designer sites as “over-dyed” rugs and they come in tones that range from pink to purple to blue. They can sell for as little as a few hundred dollars to many thousands of dollars on popular rug gallery sites.

Cleaning concerns

The biggest concern, of course, is whether or not cleaning is going to release the added bright dye in a way that changes the look of the rug, and possibly damages the rug in the eyes of the owner.

It’s an interesting scenario because most often the aggressive chemical treatment prior to the dyeing has undoubtedly damaged — and devalued — the rug. However, some rugs that have no market value, due to current market tastes, are given this recoloring extreme makeover and then sold at prices they could never attain in their original state.

The question is: How good will the colors hold?

The answer is: Because you were not there to see if the dyeing process was correctly administered, you may not know until you get the rug wet.

Here are some steps to take to minimize the risks of having an over-dyed rug become a disaster.

1.     Inspect the fibers

Feel the fibers to see if they are brittle. If you can easily break them by scratching them with your thumbnail, then they are heavily distressed. Take a look in the traffic areas to see if areas are already wearing down just from several years on the floor.

In some cases, the rugs will be worn enough that cotton warps and wefts are showing through. These will be cotton fibers, and will have a dye application over them, most likely formulated to adhere to wool fibers.

This means worn over-dyed rugs on their first wash will release color more readily from those cotton areas and afterwards, as a result, have large white areas. The reason for this is because acid dye does not permanently adhere to cotton fibers in the same way it does to wool. You have to identify this problem before the wash, or your client will believe you have damaged their rug when it loses dye in these areas.

In the cases of the extremely faded rugs that did not go through the chemical bleaching process, you will find that the over-dyed colors hold much better. And, by the way, this means if you are going to over-dye a rug yourself, it is best to choose a naturally faded rug versus a recently aggressively “distressed” one.

Rugs that have been chemically stripped can sometimes have a strong odor that is released and more present after the wash. This can become a problem in your cleaning process, so inspect the foundation fibers and see if you detect any chemical odors. If the rug is newly purchased and has a strong odor, then you may recommend to the owner to return the merchandise as flawed due to the risk that the odor may become stronger after the wash.

2.     Test the dyes

As with all rugs, you want to test the dyes to determine how stable they will be during the cleaning process. This is an area where you cannot over-test.

Dyes that crock easily on a dry or damp towel may likely be an ink over-dye application rather than a proper wool dye application. Dye stabilizers and dye setting agents will not work with ink. If you encounter an ink over-dyed rug, it may not be cleanable except with dry compound cleaning, which will still remove color so it is not without its risks.

Poorly over-dyed rugs may not be helped with your usual dye stabilizing/setting products to prevent dye release, so you must be thorough with your inspections and your communication with your client on risks and expectations.

3.     Look for pets

If colorful over-dyed rugs have pet damage, they will bleed in the areas of long-term urine exposure due to the alkalinity of repeated contamination. Note this before the cleaning rather than after. These areas may lose the added dye and return to its “distressed” coloring, or “distressed” with urine staining added.

Over-dyeing tips for cleaners

The demand for this over-dyed look has led some cleaners to offer dyeing services for their clients who have sun-damaged, stain-damaged or worn/threadbare rugs.

Over-dyeing a rug requires two chemicals in your dye bath to help successfully adhere the dye molecules to the wool fibers: A pH stabilizer and a dye-set penetrant.

The pH stabilizer brings the rug to the acid side between 2-4, while the dye-set penetrant acts as a leveling agent, opening up the dye sites for the new color.

Dyeing professionals custom mix these solutions depending on their projects, but some solutions are pre-mixed for beginners or homeowners working on their own over-dye craft projects.

Uneven dye applications happen due to these common reasons:

  • The rug is not thoroughly washed and the pH levels are not even. Some alkaline stains may create a dye problem, so test the pH levels in different areas prior to the dye bath.
  • Not using enough dye set penetrant. If you cannot open up the dye sites successfully, the process will not hold as evenly as it should.
  • Not using hot water, or the water losing heat during the job. Ideal water temperature should be 150-degrees Fahrenheit because acid dyes bond to wool fibers at a high heat. This is why many over-dye rug retailers “distress” the rugs before their high heat dyeing process, because heat can often make the original rug dyes bleed.

Why is ink a problem?

Acid dye will adhere to the molecular structure of the wool fiber dye site because of the negative and positive ionic charges, and the affinity this creates.

Disperse dye from ink does not have the same affinity and will not adhere in the same way. This is why ink will crock onto a dry or damp towel. This is also why ink does not allow as much of the natural sheen and shine from a fiber to come through, and instead gives a more flat/matte appearance.

Tea-washed rugs

Many rug cleaners have already had experience with over-dyed rugs in the form of “tea-washed” rugs. These are also referred to as “henna-washed” and “antiqued.”

In this process, the rug is often not distressed prior to application of the additional dye, so it normally has a full, strong pile. A dark brown or gold dye is applied to the rug in order to make the rug darker or more golden.

Though this began as dyeing with tea, or packing rugs with tea leaves to darken them, most tea wash treatments today are dye solutions that look like tea but are not.

As with any process in the rug world, there are very good, and very poor, quality examples. The better tea wash applications are done with washing them in stronger dye solutions in order to deepen the tone throughout the rug. The lesser quality tea wash applications are sprayed on only one side, and tend to wash away much easier than with the better quality dyed rugs.

On your pre-inspection, if you see that the dye is uneven along the fringe base, along the edges of the rug, and that it is not visible on the back side, then you will know that you are dealing with a poorer quality application. This means that you may lose the “look” of this rug more easily in the wash, and that may be a problem for your customer.

One common danger with tea washed rugs is that the cotton fringe does not hold the dye well, and so it washes away more easily than from the wool pile. This can be re-dyed with a dye formulated for cotton. Sometimes, several applications are needed to reach the right tone. It is better to apply several layers of dye to an area to achieve the right tone than it is to go too dark too fast and have to try to strip out your work and start over.

Another danger with tea washed rugs is spot removal. Even the gentlest cleaning solutions can pull away the brown/gold over-dye and create a light spot on the rug.

With color loss in wool, there is more expertise required to do color repair in a way to where your work is not worse than the original damage caused by the customer’s spot removal attempt.

In dyeing workshops, students learn to understand which colors/tones are missing in a damaged area. You rarely have a “white slate” to work with when dyeing, so you need to be able to recognize what color has been removed in a discolored area.

When trying to find the right “tea” tone, apply a small amount to the outside edge of the lighter damaged area to see if you match the original over-dye color. Make your test areas small, because you will need to make some color adjustments.

When you have the right color, applying in varying stripes of color can help “hide” the spot. Rugs naturally have a striping of color (abrash) from side to side that are natural dye variations from weaving a rug. By breaking up the color into strips, you can help camouflage the area to trick your eye to not notice it as much as it noticed the big white spot removal area that was replaced.

Stained versus discolored

With wool rugs, most acid spills can result in darker stains as color is added to those fibers. Wine, coffee, tea, juice and pet urine are examples of common household accidents that lead to stains. These spills, if not acted on promptly, can essentially re-dye the wool fibers. These create color added problems.

With wool rugs that experience alkaline spills, we have the opposite effect. High pH from bleaches, detergents, many household spot removers, or from old pet urine stains can lead to a loss of color, or what we call a discoloration.

Color loss discolorations cannot be corrected with a wash. The area needs to be neutralized and washed, but the dye that has been damaged due to the high alkalinity needs to be replaced.

In both situations, a dye specialist needs to decide the best course based on the rug, the quality of the fibers and the color challenge.

With a darker stain, a stain removing solution may be needed to try to strip away the color from the spill area. However, this can sometimes also strip away the wool rug’s original dye. A customer needs to be informed of the risks to then decide to either live with the stain, or move ahead with a process that may or may not work to their satisfaction.

With a lighter bleached area, dyes must be added, and there needs to be a determination on which shades have actually been removed due to the alkalinity to understand which tones need to be added back. In this case, the customer also needs to be informed and allowed to decide whether to live with the discoloration or to allow color repair efforts.

Skilled rug dyeing specialists have a collection of rug remnants to practice their art, so that they understand how solutions vary based on different types of wool. They gain an understanding on how heavily chemically treated wool differs from less processed wool in terms of reactivity to stripping agents and the success of dye absorption in color repair work.

They also practice the art of under-promising on their work to hopefully over-deliver. The sheen of a freshly cleaned wool rug can often hide many flaws, so even a little bit of improvement in lightening a darker stain, or adding a bit of dye to a discoloration, can help create a fantastic result.

Dye opportunities

Learning wool-dyeing skills offers you another tool in your toolbox to show that you are the rug expert in your town.

It allows you to help improve the look of impossible stains, or to completely change the look of a client’s rug with an extreme makeover that can generate you many times the amount of the wash invoice.

Take a workshop and start collecting your rug remnants to start on your path to becoming a wool rug dyeing specialist.

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. Her blog at is the most visited and referenced website on rug education in the cleaning industry. If you would like more information about her online and hands-on rug courses, please visit

Melody David is president of Americolor Corp, located in Tigard, OR. She has experience in all facets of carpet dyeing and color repairs as well as the manufacturing of dyes and specialty dye chemicals. Being a second generation carpet dyer, David has trained hundreds of carpet cleaners in the United States and is appreciated for her no-nonsense approach to color repair. You can reach her at (800) 445-5143.

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