Wet Cleaning Procedures for Old Textiles and Rugs


I urge you to entrust valuable textiles to experienced conservators for cleaning.  If you indeed wish to undertake this yourself, however, please read the following suggestions. Be sure to look elsewhere for advice if you would like a "second opinion" concerning proper procedures. 

1.  Always test any problematic colors with a damp white cloth before you even consider wet cleaning.  Reds and oranges cause the most frequent problems, but blacks, greens, purples and others also need to be tested. (Dry cleaners should also be asked to test colors before they use harsh chemicals.) If the piece has frayed areas, they should be secured with stitching before washing is attempted.

2.  No old textile should be put in a washing machine.  Use a flat tray or tub, to minimize folds in the piece.

3.  A plain COLD WATER bath should be first.  A fragile textile can be placed between layers of fiberglass screening for support. The item can then be lowered into the water to soak, and the water easily changed as dirt comes out of the piece. This bath should be watched closely, but the process may need to continue for several hours if the piece is very dirty. Occasionally soiling may not be loosened until well into a second day of soaking. 100-year-old encrusted dirt and well-set stains can be tough!   With many pieces, such a cold water soaking is all that is required, or indeed prudent since plain cold water is safer for all old fabrics than cleaning agents or chemicals that may release potential migrant dyes. Limiting a wash to a cold water soaking also leaves desirable lanolin in wool items.  Professional rug cleaners of course do not have the luxury of time to spend with such a slow but safe procedure, and so must use more severe methods, sometimes adding agents at the end to substitute for the lanolin they have removed.    

4.   If any color runs occur during cold water soaking, remove the item immediately and put it for a few minutes into a clean, cold water bath that has had acid added.  Household vinegar will do. Agitate it well, then begin rinsing. Change rinse baths over and over again, as long as any faint sign of migrating color appears.  Rinsing should NOT STOP as long as ANY color appears in the rinse water. If ten or twenty rinses or more are necessary, so be it; no loosened dye color should remain that can migrate into surrounding areas of the textile.  (You may be aware that in tribal areas of the Middle East, rugs, kilims and bags were often washed in a river, where the flowing stream provided an ongoing and very thorough rinse.)  The textile should then be patted as dry as possible with clean towels and laid flat in the sun to dry quickly. A hair dryer may even be useful for small textiles.  DO NOT put antique or fragile textiles into a spin dryer!  Keep in mind that migrating dyes which have been allowed to run into surrounding areas and dry there become permanent features. 

5.  ONLY if there has been NO sign of any dye runs during lengthy cold water soaking should further wet cleaning be attempted.  Early textiles and rugs which may include yarns dyed with early synthetic colors (especially pieces produced in the 1870-1930 period) should be placed in a cold water bath that includes some acid (vinegar is OK) along with a neutral detergent.  ONLY NEUTRAL DETERGENTS SHOULD BE USED.  Never use TIDE, IVORY, WOOLITE, SHAMPOO, or any kind of SOAP, as the danger of loosening early, inadequately set acid dyes increases greatly.  The only appropriate wet cleaning agents are neutral detergents such as ORVUS or liquid JOY.  An old textile should be left in the detergent bath for only a short period--perhaps five or ten minutes.  Moving the solution around in the bath is helpful, and sturdy textiles may benefit from slight agitation.  Do NOT use warm or hot water at any time!  Then rinse very thoroughly, putting the piece through several clean cold water baths.  Pat the item as dry as possible with clean towels and lay flat in the sun to air dry.  Water may be squeezed out of most textiles, but they should never be wrung! Do not put fragile items into a spin dryer!

Some conservators object to even ORVIS and JOY, because it is so difficult to remove any cleaning substance completely from a textile. Fibers not rinsed properly can be left with a thin, dull film on their surfaces. One must realize that with even the safest wet-cleaning solutions, one should expect to spend a great deal of time rinsing.

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