Q. I bought one of those beautiful, fluffy white shag rugs you seen in every shelter magazine but it’s looking dingy and dirty. Can I hire a carpet cleaner or should I just rent a steam cleaner?

A. Those high-pile woolen rugs or shaggy flokatis are beautiful to the touch and can instantly warm up your cold floors. But when it comes time to getting it clean you may find that you simply can’t pull out the vacuum cleaner or rent a steam cleaner. Do you remember why shag rugs went out of style in the 70’s? I do: because they are incredibly difficult to clean. Whole trays of hors d’oeuvres have been lost in a sea of shag rugs! Just like your wall-to-wall carpeting, shag rugs absorb dust mites, allergens, soil, pet hair and odors. Here’s what you need to know to get those fluffy rugs clean.

How to remove dust and dirt from a high pile shag rug

Even in a room with no eating or drinking, dust and dirt will fall onto a rug and make it look dirty. Dust mites and other allergens float around your home through windows, doors and the ventilation system. So even an infrequently used rug will need some dust removal from time to time. Dirt, especially sandy dirt, is incredibly abrasive to fibers like wool (think of how sharp the edges of glass can be). When you walk on a dirt-filled rug you are actually contributing to the wear and tear of the fibers because the sandy grit actually cuts the wool fiber. Have you ever seen an older Oriental rug with bare spots? That’s what sand will do over time. According to The Rug Chick, the characteristics that make wool fibers so valuable in rug making are the same characteristics that can contribute to wear and tear: wool is great at hiding dirt. A well made wool rug won’t look dirty because the fiber is hiding the dirt. This is exactly why it’s important to regularly clean them as best you can before you actually see the dirt with your eyes.

Essentially you want to suck the dirt out of the rug but you should not use your vacuum’s power brush head on a shag rug or even a medium high pile. And if you have a true shag rug, the best way is to not use the vacuum at all but rather clean it the old fashioned way: take the rug outside and shake it. You can hang it over a railing, a sturdy clothesline or a fence or invite 3 friends over and have them each grab a corner. You can still purchase rug beaters, like this sturdy yet flexible rattan version here. The key to remember is that you must regularly remove the dirt and powerful vacuum cleaners may pull and damage the fibers.

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How to remove spills, stains or stuck-on debris from a high pile shag rug

Wool is naturally stain resistant however the depth of the pile may make it difficult to hand clean. Spot cleaning your rug is the best first approach.  If you know what the spill is (like red wine or oil-based) then treat it with the appropriate cleaner. If your rug is made from really shaggy wool, like flokati, keep in mind that water will take a very long time to dry out of the fibers and there’s a good chance mildew could form. You may need to remove dirt or pick debris out by hand. If the spill or stain is large, or you just don’t know how to deal with it properly, you should consider bringing your rug into a professional rug cleaning service. Keep in mind that low pile wool rugs or wall-to-wall wool carpeting generally cleans up very easily and can be great in high traffic areas. It’s the design of the shag that makes it a challenge to clean.

Why do I need to bring my shag rug in to be professionally cleaned?

The old fashioned method of removing dirt and cleaning by hand still works best. Professional rug cleaning companies invest a lot of money into the right equipment to clean the rug without damaging it. Some companies have shallow, sudsy pools in which the rugs can be washed by hand. This is a very labor intensive procedure but it’s the best way to thoroughly clean both the top fibers and the underlayment. Most homeowners who use this service are probably washing Oriental, Persian, Beni Ourain Moroccan rugs or other hand woven, hand dyed rugs; their value is such that a service like this is the best way to maintain them over decades. Hand cleaning won’t tear or damage the fibers or the weave, and a professional can adjust the cleaning method according to the age and condition of the rug. Read more about cleaning shag rugs here.

Always buy the right rug for the right room

This falls under the “buyer beware” category. If you buy a high-maintenance rug, like a shag or “noodle” shag rug, for a high-traffic area then you may be throwing good money out the window. High traffic areas like kitchens, entryways, hallways or even children’s rooms need rugs that are easy to clean, easy to vacuum and will look good over time. Likewise, a more high maintenance silk or flokati rug can be perfect for a shoes-off area where no one is eating or drinking, and traffic and spills will be low. It’s tempting to purchase the rug for it’s looks but really a rug must perform for your home.

Wool rugs continue to be a worthwhile investment but keep in mind that shag rugs or flokati rugs literally absorb everything and are more costly to clean. But the advantages of buying wool rugs are many: it’s naturally fire retardant, feels soft, and is incredibly durable and long lasting. (Acrylic rugs, on the other hand are highly flammable.) Naturally coated with lanolin oil, wool rugs are more stain resistant than synthetic fibers. If you’re thinking of making a large investment in a rug, ask if they have any samples you can take home (it may even be worth buying the sample). This way you can see how it stands up to spot cleaning or vacuuming and see if it’s a good fit for your room. Additionally, work with the salesperson on the maintenance and care for the rug you’re about to buy. A good salesperson or showroom should care about these questions and will want to ensure you know how to make it last for many decades.

Have a question about the home? Email me at editor@porch.com!