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The Incredibly Shrinking Rugs!!!


Rugs do shrink. Some slight – a fraction of an inch … some a lot – inches. Usually on their very first wash IF they have not been washed after being woven (good rug manufacturers generally wash their rugs after weaving is done).

How much will they shrink? This depends. You have to think about it as you would brand new clothing, that first wash will make it a bit smaller, but if you do a gentle cool clean, and easy dry, it’s less shrinking than if you hot water and hot dry the piece.

But with a woven rug, any shrinking will be slight. (FYI – a WOVEN rug is a rug that you can see the design on the back that matches the front.)

There is an exception to the “slight” rule though … and this is tribal rugs woven on a WOOL foundation, and in particular Afghan wool on wool rugs. Like this:

Back corner of an Afghan rug

Corner of an Afghan rug – wool knots wrapped around wool foundation.

With this rug, the wool face fibers are wrapped around wool warps and wefts as opposed to cotton warps and wefts.

Cotton is generally the foundation fiber of choice, because it provides a consistent twist throughout, and helps create a rug that will lay flatter in the floor. Wool, has a lot of give to it. Just think of a wool sweater, and how you can stretch it when you need to, or it can sometimes shrink up a bit. It does not keep it’s consistent shape as cotton would when laid out wet to dry.

Because of the war-torn conditions of Afghanistan, for decades there have been rugs not necessarily created under ideal quality control conditions. And this can lead to some of the rug product in contemporary Afghanistan to shrink more than would be deemed acceptable.

I actually had the owner of an Afghan restaurant try to convince me that washing a rug should never happen because it damages rugs. I had to correct him that rugs properly woven with quality fibers, dyes, and construction can be washed throughout its 100 or more years and not have damage from cleaning. (Honestly, NOT cleaning it and leaving abrasive dirt in the fibers will cut the face fibers and cause more damage that way. Cleaning is the best thing you can do for your rug because it removes this grit.)

With some Afghani rugs, however, a wash can mean a release of dyes not properly rinsed before being woven into a rug, and it can mean some buckling and shrinking or stretching of wool fibers with different tensions and twists.

Luckily for you, the worst of the possible dangerous rugs to clean from this region will show you warning signs. Sometimes slight, like this one where the edges and ends show definite variations in width and length:


Not symmetrical rug with wavy edges

Rug is NOT symmetrical – wavy along all edges.

Sometimes the warning signs are so strong – you need to make the decision to only surface clean the rug because immersing it in a bath will risk making the rug shape even worse. This rug is an enormous “don’t wash me” sign:

rug with buckled edges

End is buckled from a poorly executed weave, and it will get worse with a wash.

With rugs like these, you do need to get a release of liability if the owner insists on having it cleaned. Photo documentation that this rug was NEVER perfectly square, and never laid flat on the floor, would also be helpful.

Sometimes these rugs can be stretched to a certain extent on a stretching floor to help loosen up the shape. You can also tack out the rug and clean with a hand tool so that you can control the potential of shrinking. However, these problems are WEAVING characteristics and not the result of improper cleaning. There is literally only so much you can do. You cannot undo a bad weave, or inconsistent tension. All you can do is try to control the shape so that it does not become worse when cleaning.

The key here is to closely inspect the rug, and catch the warning signs BEFORE you clean the rug. Point out the characteristics of the rug to the client. (Everyone repeat after me!) When it is communicated before the wash, it is EDUCATION – when it is communicated after the wash, it is an EXCUSE.

Rugs from contemporary Afghanistan can be a wash challenge. Just keep an eye out for the signs.

– Lisa