FAQ: Sun Fading and Oriental Rugs

Sun-Fading & Oriental Rugs

By Chris Howell

Last summer, while vacationing at the Delaware seashore, I received a frantic phone call from an owner of a well-known television network. In despair she described the horrific damages that her large handmade Persian rug had sustained from sunlight streaming in through a large window at her vacation home. “After all”, she explained, “this is a one-of-a-kind rug that can never be replaced!” In the course of the conversation I learned that she had paid $40,000.00 for this rug and was devastated upon her return to discover the extensive sun damage that occurred over a relatively short period of time. “Is there anything that can be done to prevent this? And is there anything that can be done to correct it?” These are the questions often asked by owners of fine rugs that have sustained sun damage.

In order to understand how the colors in fine rugs may be damaged, we will examine how these damages typically occur.

Certain colors are much more prone than others to fading from various factors. For example, colors in the blue family are very prone to fading from the chemical effects of detergent washings. Anyone needing proof of this need only use detergent to wash a new pair of denim blue jeans along with a fresh white bed sheet (hopefully blue sheets will work with your bedroom decor!). This is also true with wall-to-wall nylon carpeting. The harsh alkaline detergents (especially traffic lane cleaners) that are often used by carpet cleaners will, over time, attack the colors- -especially the blues, causing the carpet to fade and lose its color and vibrancy. Anyone who has tried using a commercial spot cleaner or “oxy” product on a blue carpet has likely discovered that within a short time a faded area has appeared. This is due to the alkalinity of the detergents that were used as well as the relative instability of the blue dyes. One must be especially careful with detergents that are used on blue carpets and rugs. This same rule applies to any other color of which blue is an component (example: green is created by mixing blue and yellow dyes, so green carpet may look “yellowish” over time as the blues tend to fade away). Bleaches and other chemicals may also cause issues of color loss. Each of the aforementioned scenarios may be corrected through a re-dyeing process.

Sun-fading, on the other hand, is most likely to affect any colorsthat have reds as a dominant element. For example, Persian rugs will often have reddish “coral-like” colors present along with burgundies, oranges, ambers, etc. While gorgeous in their original states, these colors tend to be very susceptible to severe sun-fading. The reason for this is that the red color molecules are among the smallest size molecules that are present and literally don’t have enough mass to resist the damaging effects of the suns rays. Also, because of their size, they tend to be very compactly pressed together, leaving little or no “breathing room”. This compact mass of molecules tends to absorb the full heat and intensity of the sun’s damaging rays, and the color is literally “baked” out of the molecules. Of further interest is the fact that light, being comprised of various hues and wavelengths, will concentrate their effects on certain colors. The blue wavelengths of light tend to affect the reddish colors in a rug, causing significant fading and color loss. It is a common misconception that the ultraviolet rays alone are responsible for sun-fading in carpets and rugs. While they are a contributing factor, they are not solely responsible for sun-fading damages, though quality window films that are designed to block out ultraviolet rays will be helpful in preventing sun-fading. Window films not only reduce the intensity of incoming light, but they also serve to keep a house cooler during the hot summer months, thus saving energy costs from excessive air-conditioning. While considering the installation of window treatment films, be sure not to overlook any skylights (another big source of bright rug-unfriendly light). An alternative to window films is to simply keep the curtains drawn or blinds closed during the sunny periods of the day. Sheer curtains are sometimes adequate to safely reduce incoming light rays to protect your carpet and rugs, though the edges of the carpet under the curtains may become faded over time. So what can be done to repair a fine rug that has been sun-damaged? Let me first start by telling you what not to do! There is so much erroneous information on the internet about “home-brews” for dealing with sun-faded rugs. I don’t want to mention any sources as I don’t want to criticize any companies or individuals, but I will paraphrase some comments that I have read that were posted by a self-styled “expert” on fine Oriental & Persian rugs. The information states that if one has a rug that’s been damaged by sun-fading that they may try “abrading” the tips of the fibers to literally wear off the sun-faded tips. If that doesn’t work, the article continues, then one may try shaving or clipping off the sun-faded tips of the fibers. This undoubtedly would cause an unevenness of the pile, resulting in color shading and an overall look of disparity. I would also emphasize that a proper shaving of a rug is not an easy undertaking even for an experienced rug professional (as any first-time beard-trimming male will attest to!). Of particular horror to me, (and, I would add, my inspiration to write this article) was a suggestion that one may place a severely sun-faded rug out in the “blistering sun” while covering the faded portions of the rug so that the sun will bleach out the unfaded sections to match the faded areas. Yes! You read this correctly! The first time I read this I was in shock. I couldn’t believe that the author was actually suggesting that a rug that has been damaged by the sun could be “repaired” by intentionally inflicting further damage to it! Might I take this to mean that a car that has a dented fender could be adequately repaired by damaging the other fenders so that they all look alike?

Hmmm……I think that there’s a better solution! Let’s talk about it.

Fact: All carpets and rugs are dyed. Carpets are dyed at the factory and can be very successfully re-dyed, provided that they are made of nylon or wool, both of which are dyeable materials. Wool and silk rugs are made from fibers or yarns that have been dyed prior to being woven into a rug and may also be very successfully re-dyed. Provided that it is done properly, the re-dyeing process is permanent, colorfast, and completely safe. It is critical, however, that this procedure be performed only by a Certified Dye Master in order to ensure optimum results. The re-dyeing process is very different from the controversial practices of “painting” a rug in which a faded rug is actually painted using a brush. This is temporary repair rather than a permanent solution, and may actually damage a rug. A Dye Master who is re-dyeing a rug will know how to blend dyes very precisely in order to achieve exact color matches and achieve uniformity that will restore a color-damaged carpet or rug back to its original appearance. The presence of severe non-removable stains (such as severe urine stains on wool) may dictate what colors are attainable, but do not render a job as undoable.

Synthetic Dyes vs. Natural Dyes

There is a lot of discussion regarding the use of synthetic dyes vs. natural dyes. Both dyes have their unique characteristics. For purposes of saving space I will not discuss this subject in great detail, but will note a few points worthy of mention. The primary differences between natural dyes (dyes derived from plants and minerals) and synthetic dyes (synthesized from man-made materials) has to do with the ways that they tend to reflect light back at the eye. While natural dyes tend to reflect light very well, they are considered to be far less stabile and tend to vary considerably in depth and hue. Natural dyes will rarely appear to be a single hue. Synthetic dyes, by comparison, tend to be much purer (due to the fact that they’re distilled) and more precise in color. Because of the fact that a rug restoration (re-dyeing) process involves adding the missing (faded) colors to preexisting (unfaded) colors, the resulting color will be a perfect color match with the rug’s original colors. Even an expert would have a difficult if not impossible time distinguishing between areas that have been restored using using synthetic dyes as opposed to natural dyes. For this reason it is nearly universally accepted that synthetic dyes may be used for color restorations even on the finest quality rugs. The dyes used must be liquid dyes which are specially designed for rug dyeing as they will blend more easily and not leave residues behind. Powder dyes should never be used on valuable rugs. Other types of dyes (such as fabric dyes) will not be colorfast and will wash out or bleed which could result in a ruined rug. Much more could be said on the topic of dyestuffs.

To Restore or Not to Restore

I am often asked if a color restoration process on a rug will diminish its value. The answer is most assuredly no. While a rug’s value may not be significantly affected by fading (rugs will naturally fade- -this is not necessarily considered to be a damage but rather an “aging”), the rug’s value will not be diminished by a properly-performed color restoration. For many it will, in fact, add to the perceived or sentimental value as the rug will appear more uniform in color and will have a restored vibrancy. I believe, however, that there is such a thing as “over restoring” certain rugs. I once was asked to perform a color restoration on a small rug that was over 150 years old. I was able with some effort to determine what the rug’s original colors were by carefully examining the back side of the rug which was unfaded. But rather than restore the entire rug back to its original color and vibrancy, I opted to bring the rug back to about 60% of its original hue/depth of color. This was to ensure that the rug didn’t look “tacky” or over-restored. A Dye Master will need your input as to what extent you would like your rug restored to. Be sure to clearly communicate your preferences when having your rug restored. For many this is simply a matter of personal taste and preference. You may want to also view a partially-restored section of the rug to be sure that you are pleased with the results rather than waiting until the entire rug has been restored before seeing it. Be sure to also establish the cost of the restoration before any work is begun on the rug. It may not be possible for the Dye Master to provide you with the cost estimate until they have first restored a small portion of the rug to determine the extent of time and expertise that will be required.

How it’s Done

There are numerous methods of color-restoring a rug. Rarely is the work done on site. More often the rug is shipped or delivered to a work shop where all of the necessary equipment is kept. Rugs may be shipped as freight quite inexpensively. Unless the rug is brittle, it may be folded into a compact square, tied in a bundle using twine, slipped inside a plastic bag, and placed in a shipping box. Fragile rugs should be rolled up, tied with twine, wrapped in plastic, and shipped in a crate.

The equipment used to restore a rug is determined by the extent of color loss, intricacy of the color work to be done, and the number of colors that need to be applied. Small areas of color loss may be restored using syringes while larger areas may permit the use of sprayers. More intricate designs and patterns may require the use of specialized application tools such as air brushes to carefully and precisely apply the dyes. A skilled Dye Master can rebuild even the most intricately detailed multicolored patterns and designs on a rug.