How to Clean Antique Rugs

Persian carpets (Iranian carpets and rugs)

It is tempting to try and save money by cleaning a dusty or soiled antique rug at home with common cleaning products. However, rug experts agree that it is safest to send the rug to a professional for an overall cleaning. Cleaning at home, even carefully, can cause the rug to warp and fade, and some fibers, including silk, can be permanently damaged by exposure to seemingly innocent substances. A professional will keep your rug’s fibers from warping, dyes from fading, or even worse, holes from appearing, during the cleaning process.

However, there is an exception to the rule: if you’ve spilled something on the rug, you should spot clean the soiled area at home as soon as you can, before the stain sets permanently into the material.

Spot Cleaning

To spot clean a rug, experts suggest avoiding commercial carpet cleaners because they usually contain harsh chemicals that can damage the delicate fibers and cause the dyes to fade in your rug. Depending on what is spilled, your best bet is to simply use club soda or a little dish soap and cool or lukewarm water. Hot water should be avoided as it can cause the fibers to shrink and warp, permanently damaging your rug. Cool water is also less likely to cause the colors of the dyes to fade.

Always do a spot test in a small hidden area to ensure that the solution you’ve chosen will not damage the rug before cleaning a larger area. Before you begin, see if you can locate a label on the rug that confirms the composition – it’s likely made of wool, silk, or a blend of silk and rayon. Proceed with special caution if your rug is silk. Silk is the most delicate fiber and it can be damaged very easily.

kelim Image: Kelim, Turkey, 2nd quarter 20th century


When purchasing an antique rug, it’s a good idea to choose one that is made of wool if you are concerned about its ability to hold up against normal use and spills. Wool fibers contain lanolin, an oily, waterproof substance naturally secreted by sheep to keep their coats dry when they get wet. This means that wool fibers are naturally resistant to absorbing spilled liquids that would seep into a cotton or silk rug and create a stain.

Cleaning Solid Material

If you spill solid material on your rug, immediately scoop up as much of it as you can and discard it. Take care to keep the material from seeping deeper into the rug as you remove it from the surface (use a “lifting” motion), and try not to damage the rug’s fibers with any kind of rubbing motion or sharp friction.

Next, take a clean cloth and wet it with club soda (or a little dish soap and cool water, if you’ve done a spot test and are confident the soap will not remove the dye), and gently blot the stain. Then take a clean, dry cloth and press the excess liquid out of the carpet. Again, take care not to rub the area, as this can both damage the fibers and make the stain worse by rubbing the spilled material deeper into the rug.

rugbanner1Detail of Antique Isfahan Rug, Central Iran, first quarter 20th century; Persian Sarouk Rug, Western Iran, 2nd quarter 20th century; Qum Tree of Life Rug, Persia, ca. 1970


Cleaning Liquid Material

If the spill is liquid, you will want to take a dry cloth and blot as much of the liquid out of the rug as soon as you can. Then, use another clean cloth with a little club soda or cool water and dish soap and blot the area. Finally, blot the area again with another clean cloth. You can gently repeat the process a few times until the stain is gone, but remember to use caution when doing so.

In both cases, finish by letting the rug air-dry naturally. Never dry your rug with a heat source such as a hair dryer or space heater, as this can cause the fibers to shrink and warp, permanently damaging the rug.

If the stain still remains after the rug dries, send it out for a professional cleaning. If you’re located in New York City, we recommend Heirloom. This company provides a full range of cleaning services for fine handwoven rugs of all materials, including wool, cotton, silk, viscose, and rayon. Pickup and delivery services are available.

When in doubt, don’t risk ruining your rug by attempting an overall cleaning or spot treatment yourself. With proper care, your beautifully crafted antique or Oriental rug will survive a lifetime!

Featured Image: American Cotton and Wool Figural Hooked Rug, c. 19th century