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News Attics and Basements and Closets, Oh My! Part 7: Rugs and Carpets

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While those of us in the conservation department are working from home, we are finding comfort in our family heirlooms and treasures—many of which require our attention. Like so many around the country, we are finally taking the time to clean out our closets, sort through our attics, and look through our family albums. While we all turn to our family treasures for comfort during these trying times, the conservation department would like to share tips on ways to care for your personal collections.

Each week a different student from the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation will address ways to care for the collections in your cupboards. The next five posts in the Family Treasures series will address caring for textiles in your home. These were written as part of the First-Year Textile Conservation Block. The first post in the group is written by Abigail Rodriguez, First-Year Objects Fellow, and Margalit Schindler, First-Year Preventive Fellow.

Care of Rugs and Carpets 

The art of making carpets was likely developed on the plains of Central Asia several thousand years ago. It began as a nomadic tradition, with people utilizing their flocks of wool-covered sheep for source material and simple horizontal looms, which could be easily dismantled and transported.

Rugs are described using a unique terminology. (Diagram courtesy of Margalit Schindler.)

As cultures crossed paths, weavers were influenced by different motifs and styles. Utilitarian artifacts soon became functional art objects, increasingly intricate and decorated. In addition to serving functions in nomadic life and homes, carpets became important during festive and traditional ceremonies, and, eventually, an essential part of people’s lives.

Whether a carpet is in a museum or in your home, its caretaker should understand what fibers the rug is composed of and how it was constructed. This informs how the rug should be cared for or displayed and the type of damages that are likely to occur.

Key Terminology 

There are several different types of carpets and rugs, including woven, knotted pile, flatweave, and more. Pile, or fabric loops, can be cut or looped into the woven structure of rugs and carpets to create the texture.

On a knotted pile carpet, the structural weft threads alternate with a supplementary weft. This supplementary weft is attached to the warp by knots.

Flatwoven carpets include kilim, soumak, plain weave, and tapestry weave. These carpets are created by interlocking warp and weft threads without a pile.

A way a rug is knotted provides information about where it was manufactured. (Diagram courtesy of Margalit Schindler.)

Agents of Deterioration

Rugs and carpets are susceptible to many agents of deterioration that will impact both the structural integrity and overall aesthetics of the object. Light exposure will cause dyes and colorants to fade and cellulose to become brittle. Pests enjoy eating both animal- and plant-based fibers; dermestids (protein-eaters) are known to cause significant damage to rugs. (They are called carpet beetles for a reason!)

Excessive levels of temperature and relative humidity can cause accelerated deterioration of all the materials found in rugs; especially high RH can lead to increased risk of pests and mold. Pollutants can cause staining, and water damage can ruin colors and weaken supporting fibers. Holes, tears, and snags are bad - the textile base can abrade or tear, and the pile can deform when compressed.

The world seems like a scary place! But all of these risks can be lessened with careful storage and informed practices. Some materials and storage choices are more ideal than others but doing something is almost always better than doing nothing!

A quick note: Before placing a textile into storage, examine it thoroughly for any sign of insect infestation or mold. If either of these conditions is detected, place the infested textiles in sealed, clean, polyethylene bags and isolate them from the rest of the collection.

Left: Wool rugs are prone to pest damage. (Image courtesy of Abigail Rodriguez.) Right: An upholstery cup attachment can be used to vacuum a large rug at home. (Image courtesy of William Donnelly.)

Rugs and Carpets in Use

In some home and museum settings, carpets are used as floor coverings. This role makes them more susceptible to wear. It is important to note that while all rugs will deteriorate over time, a rug in use will deteriorate even more quickly.

Rugs can also be hung for display. While these rugs may not be stepped on, hanging displays can introduce points of weakness depending on the weight of the textile. When a carpet is in use, there are several ways to prolong its life with simple maintenance strategies.

For floor coverings:

  • The use of furniture cups is recommended to mitigate the deformation of the carpet’s pile. If commercial furniture cups cannot be purchased, small discs of archival corrugated cardboard can be used in place. 
  • Using a synthetic padding beneath the rug can protect it from abrasion and staining from wooden floor finishes. Synthetic underlayers can also reduce the risk of insect infestation by serving as a barrier layer. 
For hanging textiles: 
  • Creating a safe textile suspension system is key to keeping your rug or carpet from developing deformations or points of weakness. Most institutions recommend the use of a Velcro suspension system as it is relatively easy to use and minimizes the points of stress along the hanging edge. Additionally, this method allows for adjustments and repositioning to compensate for any dimensional change caused by changes in relative humidity. 
For all textiles in use:
  • For regular maintenance, vacuums with beater attachments should be avoided. Ideally, a vacuum with variable suction would be used instead. If this is not possible, use an upholstery attachment and vacuum in the direction of the pile. The back of the rug, any padding, and the floor beneath the rug should ideally be vacuumed at least once a year.

Ideally, rugs should be stored rolled in museums (left) and at home (right). (Images courtesy of William Donnelly.)

Storage for Rugs and Carpets

In general, storing rugs rolled, pile-side out, in the dark and off the floor are all good ideas and can help prevent some deterioration.

Carpets and rugs should not be folded as folds create weak points which will eventually wear and break. It is therefore preferable to roll rugs and carpets around a wide-diameter tube. Acid-free archival tubes are preferable, but Mylar, Tyvek or a similar interleaving layer can act as a barrier if other tubing materials are used.

  1. Select a tube with a diameter suitable for the object being stored. For rugs and carpets, usually a larger diameter is better. If necessary, wrap the outside of the tube with cushioning material to increase its diameter. The tube should be longer than the width of the textile in order to provide a handling margin.
  2. Cover the tube with Mylar or polyethylene sheeting, and then wrap the roll completely with unbuffered, acid-free (neutral-pH) tissue paper or with prewashed cotton muslin. If using tissue paper, choose an unbuffered, acid-free option as buffered materials contain alkalis that can damage proteinaceous fibers like wool and silk.
  3. Begin by rolling a piece of cotton once or twice around the tube. Leave a flap of the cotton (a "leader") to place beneath the edge of the textile. This leader will help draw the textile smoothly onto the roll and is useful for keeping fringe in place before rolling.
  4. Lay the textile out on a table, making sure that there are no folds or creases.
  5. Place the tube parallel to either the warp or the weft threads.
  6. Interleave rolled textiles with acid-free tissue paper or prewashed cotton muslin.
  7. Roll pile carpets with the pile-side face down so that the pile appears on the outside of the roll. Roll in the direction of the pile so that it does not become crushed. Roll flat textiles onto the tube face up so that they roll inwards. 
  8. Two or more people should work together to roll large pieces to maintain a uniform tension. When moving large rolls to and from storage, two people should carry the roll, one at each end, using the handling margins.
  9. To protect the roll from dust, cover it with prewashed cotton sheeting. The advantage of using cotton dust covers is that they can be laundered periodically and reused. Opaque sheeting also offers protection from light.
  10. To prevent accidental unrolling, tie the roll loosely in several places with white cotton tape.
  11. Because rolled storage limits accessibility, good identification is important for easy retrieval. Each roll should have an identification tag attached. A recommended method for identifying rolls is to place a photograph of each item and a card with its accession number and dimensions into a plastic sleeve tag and attach the tag to the roll.
  12. Suspend the rolls so that there is no direct contact between adjacent textiles. Supports can be custom built to hold individual rolls up and remove pressure from the textile.

Additional Resources

Ballard, Mary. “Textile Suspension System.” Museum Conservation Institute, Smithsonian Institution, 2003. https://www.si.edu/mci/english/learn_more/taking_care/textilesuspensionsystem.html

Blyth, Val. “Carpet and Rug Care.” Victoria and Albert Museum, 2016. http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/c/carpet-and-rug-care/

Canadian Conservation Institute. “Rolled Storage for Textiles – Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI) Notes 13/3.” Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI). Government of Canada, February 22, 2019. https://www.canada.ca/en/conservation-institute/services/conservation-preservation-publications/canadian-conservation-institute-notes/rolled-storage-textiles.html

Canadian Conservation Institute. “Velcro Support System for Textiles - Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI) Notes 13/4.” Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI). Government of Canada, February 22, 2019. https://www.canada.ca/en/conservation-institute/services/conservation-preservation-publications/canadian-conservation-institute-notes/velcro-support-system-textiles.html

Institute of Conservation. “Care and Conservation of Carpets and Rugs.” Institute of Conservation (ICON), 2006. https://icon.org.uk/system/files/documents/care_and_conservation_of_carpets.pdf

National Park Service. “Appendix K: Curatorial Care of Textile Objects.” In NPS Museum Handbook, Part I Museum Collections (2006). https://www.nps.gov/museum/publications/MHI/Appendix%20K.pdf


We hope you are enjoying these entries in our series focused on caring for your family heirlooms. This series will continue throughout the summer and cover a variety of items and materials. If you have any comments on the series thus far, including materials you’d like to see covered in future posts, please email us at art-conservation@udel.edu.

You are in our hearts and minds as collectively we focus on saving lives. We hope you and your loved ones are safe and healthy. When we emerge from this global crisis we must and will rely on art and culture, preserved for today and for future generations, to foster joy, well-being and hope. We encourage you to visit our web site for regular updates on our department of art conservation and news coverage of our treasured students and alumni at home and abroad.

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The next five posts in this series will address caring for textiles in your home. This week’s post focuses on the care and storage of floor and display textiles.

​The next five posts in this series will address caring for textiles in your home. This week’s post focuses on the care and storage of floor and display textiles.

5/12/2020
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