10 PM | 12 Mar

Shag Rugs. What You Need To Know

One of the frequent questions I get asked by cleaners and consumers today is “what about SHAG rugs?”

My answer to them is this: “Cool idea… BAD reality.”

Shag rugs out in the market today are far and away the most difficult rugs to clean and maintain.

In theory I understand the “fun” of it. You can get a crazy, cushy, unexpected look in a home that looks like it would be fun to walk on, roll on, and play on…

A few cool looking shag rugs from www.modernrugs.com

…but the coolness factor fades pretty darn fast for the owner, especially when they find out how hard it is to keep many of these rugs looking good, and how expensive it is to have these rugs professionally cleaned. (Though if they know these things before buying them, they can just get something cool and know they will replace it in a few years after it gets too dirty to enjoy anymore.)

At our rug cleaning facility we often charge more to clean shag rugs per square foot than we do to clean much more valuable silk rugs. That’s because there is a lot of additional hand work needed to try to clean what gets embedded in the fibers of these rugs.

The shag rug may be an inexpensive one from Pottery Barn or IKEA, or a pricier one from a designer shop like Modern Rugs (which has a wide selection). Shag rugs of all values ALL present challenges that take considerably more time to get these rugs truly clean.

And more time to clean unfortunately means more cost to the shag rug owner.

Here is what you need to know about shag rugs if you own one (or are thinking of buying one), or if you are a professional cleaner and are going to attempt to wash one.


Much cuter than a shag rug.

Some of the first “shag rugs” were woven Flokati rugs from Greece, which cleaners often refer to as sheepdogs, because it’s a big shaggy construction that is difficult to wash and brush out smooth, as a sheepdog can be.

Greek Flokati wool rug. One of the first “shag” rugs.

If you clean them regularly (before they look dirty!), you can keep Flokatis looking good and staying “fluffy” for years. There is extra time needed to groom and get the rug nice after a wash, so generally cleaners charge more to clean Flokatis versus regular wool woven pile rugs.

Here’s an even older shag rug that came into our shop that is not wool, but is SILK. This was crafted by a client’s grandmother during World War II with silk parachute cord strands:

Silk parachute cord – vintage WWII.

The problem is that this was woven on a burlap/jute foundation which over time has become brittle so the rug is slowly falling apart. But this may be the “oldest” shag rug I’ve seen in my rug career:

Silk parachute cord WWII “shag” rug.

It’s a shame the foundation is weak because this actually is a good fiber to build a shag rug from. The silk cords are strong, so they do not “mush” up and lose their shape. The slickness of silk also keeps the inside fibers relatively clean – you can shake the rug upside down and get much of the dust to simply shake away. The grit does not grab onto the fibers as they do wool or synthetic fibers with this type of shag construction.

Back to WOOL shag rugs…

Today we are beyond just the Flokati type of construction. We are getting rugs that many of us describe as NOODLE rugs, because the wool fibers look like pasta noodles. =)

Wool shag “noodle” rug.

These rugs have heavy twists of wool as the face fibers, and they are loosely woven into typically a heavy cotton backing. Here are some of the drawbacks of these wool shag rugs, both the “noodle” ones and the “shaggy sheepdog” ones.

=> These rugs have a felted type of wool, which wants to grab EVERYTHING and hold onto it.

This means if you have pets, you are NEVER going to get the pet hair out. If you have kids that crumble food on the rug, you are NEVER going to get all of the crumbs out of the rug with any vacuum you own. It’s almost like a microfiber cloth, it picks up everything and does not let go of it.

Wool shag that picked up black flecks from a husband’s socks – this won’t wash away, you will have to pick these fiber “dots” away one by one. YOU have to… because I won’t. =)

=> These rugs yellow over time.

Wool can yellow over time from exposure to light, exposure to certain chemicals (like laundry detergents), or due to being woven on a jute foundation or with a construction that has used latex to hold it together.

Wool shag rug is yellowing from latex backing and age.

Usually the wool used has been bleached to make it “whiter” in the beginning, and this does damage the wool so it will yellow over time as a result. Sometimes short term “whitening” can be done again using a low percentage hydrogen peroxide treatment, but all whitening attempts do add a little more damage to those already weakened fibers.

=> These rugs are very tough to vacuum and to spot… and the tufts can pull out easily.

The construction of these wool pieces makes it impossible to vacuum with a regular vacuum. A Dyson on these rugs would be a disaster. You need a canister vacuum, or an upholstery attachment, to try to literally vacuum the sides of these fibers and in between them row by row.

Wool shag construction tough to get the “grit” in the base of the rug out.

Spills also can be a disaster and need to be gotten to immediately otherwise they work their way down into that heavy cotton foundation, and this is much harder to get clean afterwards.

If your vacuum (canister) is too strong, or your spotting attempt too aggressive, you might pull some tufts out because they are typically not in there very securely.

A good tug on a tuft can yank it out of a rug like this.

Though wool by far is the superior fiber for rugs on the floor, that is when you are discussing short pile woven rugs. With the shag construction, the looser weave construction with wool can grab a lot of lint, hair, dust, and general mess and embed it deep in the fiber base to where you may not be able to keep it clean and sanitary.

There are some higher quality wool shag rugs that have much more fiber density that helps protect that grit from easily falling into the base like these other wool examples I’ve shown.

Here is a sample of a high quality wool shag rug from Unique Carpets Limited, their Shagtastic line:

Shagtastic wool rug.

I had a client bring in this sample to show me because I was trying to dissuade her from buying what I thought was a “typical” wool shag rug. This UCL construction has a very high density of wool in it (8 pounds of yarn per square yard). It also has a very strong backing construction that is not the loose and absorbent cotton style.

But it is also not cheap. The price was $50 per square foot. I have to say though, I was very impressed with the quality of the construction and it’s the first time I’ve told someone “that is a good shag rug.”


The synthetic knock-off of wool is acrylic.

For those who “know” wool, they can spot acrylic right away. It lacks the luster and vibrancy of dyed wool, and the texture is scratchier (which makes sense because it is plastic).

Acrylic white shag rug.

As with some of the comments made before about shag “felted” wool, acrylic also (even more so) grabs lint, hair, and “gunk” and does not let it go. These rugs are very hard to keep clean, and the tufts are even easier to pull out as well. These rugs are usually quite cheap to buy, so we are seeing them pop up more and more because they are a cheaper way to have the “look” of wool without the price.

But unlike wool, a big danger of acrylic is that it is HIGHLY flammable.

Up close acrylic fibers.

Wool as a fiber self-extinguishes when lit with a flame. It will literally put itself out (this is due to the high moisture content in the fiber to begin with).

That is one of the pluses of wool as a fiber for clothing or for a rug on the floor or any other fabrics in a living environment. (I don’t know if you’ve noticed when you fly that the interior floor and seat fabrics are generally all wool, which will not burn unless under constant and continuous strong flame, unlike most other fibers.)

Acrylic when it was first used in clothing was discovered to be highly flammable, and government standards had to be established (especially for children’s clothing) which brought the addition of fire retardant to fabrics in clothing and on furniture. You usually see this referred to as “modular” acrylic.

But I am not seeing that same treatment reaching the rug world in our area.  I can tell you that the last few acrylic shag rugs I’ve fiber tested by burning a tuft, have not just burned – they have IGNITED into a big flame and burned very fast.

Anyone purchasing a rug made of acrylic needs to be aware that the screaming deal they got on the price might actually be bringing a serious fire hazard into their home. We’ve seen two client fires this past Christmas holiday, one where a grandchild playing with fire dropped it on to a blanket that caught fire, and then spread to the rug, and then another where a cat knocked over a candle onto a rug that caught fire.

A low pile acrylic would obviously be difficult to “ignite” – but these shaggy construction acrylic rugs, I would not even allow one into my home.

DESIGNER SHAG = PRICEY… and can be COSTLY to maintain.

Then you have a lot of whacky construction shag rugs using synthetic fibers, artificial silk, and even leather strips.

Leather shag rugs.

I like the look of the shaggy bomber jacket on this rug.

Leather shag rug.

The challenge with leather shag rugs is that as they age, they lose their sizing, their color, and their “look.” When brand new the strips of leather are perky and bright and stiff, and they are quite cool looking.

It is possible to clean these rugs with leather cleaner and not have to fully wash them (washing can remove the sizing that makes them stiffer, and can remove color) – but usually when we see leather shag rugs there has been a dog in the home, and there are pet puddles in the backing material (usually absorbent cotton) and that rug just flat out needs a serious bath or it will just have to be thrown away.

This is an example of a cool idea… but a not super practical choice for a home with pets. And these rugs are understandably expensive if the quality of the leather is good.

Synthetic shag rugs (polyester, nylon, and viscose).

Then you have a whole host of synthetic designer shag rugs, which even though synthetic fibers are much less hard cost to use, does not mean that the custom rug designs are cheaper. You see prices all over the map depending on the “designer” brand.

Some synthetics are made to look like leather strips:

Synthetic shag rug.

Others are made to look like silk, like this viscose and polyester blend:

Side view construction of viscose-poly shag.

One of the “pluses” of synthetic rugs is that they are all primarily plastic fibers, so they can take the heat (and chemicals) of hot water extraction (“steam” cleaning) which natural fiber rugs like wool cannot. This means synthetic rugs can be surface cleaned this way at much less cost to the owner because steam cleaning a rug takes a fraction of the time as thoroughly washing it does.

Unfortunately, with this type of shag synthetic construction, even with the powerful tools at a carpet cleaning company’s disposal, they also would need to literally try to clean these rugs with upholstery cleaning hand tools because full carpet wands and machines would not work on those long strands. They would pull the tufts out and unravel the rug.

It’s a lose/lose situation.


Here are the challenges facing professional rug cleaners AND rug owners when they have a dirty shag rug on their hands:

1) You can’t really vacuum them. Even if you have a canister vacuum, or an upholstery attachment tool, you have to literally vacuum in between the fibers row by row to try to get most (but not all) of the “gunk” out of the middle of these rugs. It’s time consuming, but if you love the look of the rug when you buy it new, then you have to commit to the regular upkeep… or plan to replace it in a few years.

You just can’t vacuum it… and it NEEDS it badly!

(For tips on vacuuming all types of rugs, read my post on “How do I vacuum my wool rugs?”)

2) You can’t spot clean. Spills have to be quickly blotted up or just give up. The cotton construction of the backing material can quickly suck up a spill, and if it’s anything food-related you can attract bugs with the contents not removed from the rug right away.

3) You can’t D-I-Y clean. These rugs are much too heavy to move, and impossible to dry if you own one and try to clean it yourself. If you are a professional rugs cleaner, sometimes in a full wash system you can use a softer pressure washer spray (700 p.s.i) to try to clean in between the rows – with some constructions that will help the grime release. Just take care to not cause pile distortion or loss.

Incredibly tough to get this rug super clean. It’s going to flower and fuzz with scrubbing, so what’s a cleaner to do? Sometimes some slightly higher pressure water can help.

4) You can’t get odor out easily. The cotton foundations of many of these shag rugs absorbs urine easily from pet accidents, and you need A LOT of water to get those contaminants out. Surface cleaning is NOT going to solve this problem, in these cases the shag rugs must be fully and professionally washed.  Even then, if the backing has latex adhesive in it, you may not ever get all of the odor out of the rug. That is why these are not the ideal rugs for homes with pets that are not trained.

5) There is no quicker, cheaper clean. Even synthetic shag rugs, which should be steam cleaned, can’t because of the construction. That means the only option is washing them, which is a labor intensive service. So if the cleaning price is more than the price of the rug, you might just plan to buy a new one every 2 or so years. (Rugs under regular use should be cleaned every 18-24 months. If you dust/vacuum them regularly, you can extend it to 30 months, and any longer than that the rug is truly not sanitary after all of the feet, shoes, and paws walking all over it. Just buy another new, clean rug.)

There used to be shag wall-to-wall carpet several decades ago until everyone realized what a nightmare it was to live with and keep clean. Sometimes kids even got lost in those fibers! =)

The same fate will happen with today’s shag rugs… they will go out of style when it becomes apparent how tough, and how expensive, it  is to keep these rugs looking good.

Happy Rug Cleaning!

– Lisa

P.S. If you are looking for rugs and do not know what to buy, here’s a past post on what to look for when buying rugs, and another on the pros/cons of synthetic rugs versus natural fiber rugs.

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