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“Oh, no,” I protested as Patrick unrolled the small, ornate rug he had purchased at an estate sale. “Look at that thing. It’s dingy, and there’s a stain right there in the middle.”

“C’mon, it’s antique,” pleaded Patrick. “You and I won’t look as good when we’re 100. How’s about I get it cleaned?”

I called Kate Blatchford, owner of San Diego Rug Cleaning Company in Miramar (858-566-3833; blatchfords.com), and it was a good thing I did. “The most common problem we run into is removing stains left by spot removers. We’ve been doing this for 30 years, so when we see a rug we can tell what time period it’s from and also where it was made. Those factors help us to identify what dyes were used in the making and the best way to avoid dye bleeding.”

For starters, “We don’t use any miracle cleaning products, just soap and water.”

Blatchford said that it was common for her to see rugs that are 100, even 200 years old. “Old rugs were hand woven, using whatever materials were on hand. To wash them, people threw them in the river. We do a variation of that: we rinse them. If a rug is made from a natural fiber such as silk, wool, or cotton, we’ll put it under cold water, soak it, and wash it as slowly as possible. We’ll do it until the water runs clear. Sometimes it takes a whole day.”

A whole day? “With some of the newer rugs,” explained Blatchford, “the pile stands straight up, the way it does on carpeting.” That means the dirt sinks straight down and affects the overall appearance of the rug. “But with these older, handmade rugs, the pile has an angle, like an animal’s fur. Because of that, the rugs can hold an enormous amount of soil.” And without appearing dirty.

“We’ll get rugs in here that haven’t been washed in 80 years.” The angle on the pile also means that you can’t get at the dirt just by going in from the top. “We have to go in from underneath with the water, bring the dirt up from below.” Before that, “We’ll turn the rug upside down and run a vacuum cleaner over the back. The vibration will help to shake the soil out of the front. We do that until no soil shakes out.” After washing, the rugs are dried flat and given a final grooming with a horsehair brush to keep the pile lying at a uniform angle.

Blatchford said the final effect could be spectacular. “The wool in these old rugs has a lot of lanolin. Washing it is like washing really healthy hair. It makes the color come alive.” Cost is $4.50 a square foot, $5.50 for silk or heavy shag.

Nicholas Zeytounian at Zeytounian Oriental Rug Cleaners in Kearny Mesa (858-571-6808) has been cleaning rugs since 1956. “You must be careful,” he warned. “So many people who wash rugs can ruin them by causing the color to bleed. Some colors bleed fast, especially if the dyed wool is not rinsed enough before weaving.”

Like Blatchford, he washes by hand, first vacuuming the back and then washing from underneath with soap and water. Cost is $3.65 to $4 per square foot. Zeytounian also offers rug repair, either by patching or, in extreme cases, reweaving.

Finally, I spoke with Julie Van Horn at Lug Your Rug in Mission Valley (619-284-8287). “We’ll use detergents on synthetics,” she said, “but for wool, cotton, or other natural fibers, we’ll use soap. Exotic or Oriental rugs must be acid-treated to keep the dyes from running. The cleaning is done by flood washing.

“After that, some of the rugs will go through a press that takes out much of the moisture — you have to pamper natural fibers, but you can muscle the synthetics. However, the press makes the pile of the rug go in different directions, and you don’t want it to dry that way. We give the rug a little time for the knots to loosen after washing, and then we groom it. We’ll brush it — that lifts the pile and helps give the rug a soft, smooth feel. A synthetic 5'x8' rug will be $50. Something made from wool, cotton, or other natural fiber, but with stabilized mordants and dyes, will be $70. An exotic or Oriental rug will be $90.”

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