by Jeremy Strickland
NOTE: Names and places have been changed to protect the innocent.
John was in China for business, but he was sure to make time to do some shopping for his wife. In addition to three traditional Chinese flower paintings on silk, he purchased her a rug from a street-market in Shanghai. “It was very, very expensive,” his wife Sylvia told me in a hushed tone. “It’s one hundred percent silk!” Indeed, the fringed rug was a lustrous beauty, cream colored with simple, soft pastel pink, blue, and green floral patterns. It added a subtle touch of color to their white-walled living room, where it had lain for nearly forty years.
I was meeting with John and Sylvia to pick the rug up and take it back to the Randy’s Carpet Care shop for cleaning. Sylvia was trepidatious about having her prized possession cleaned again. A previous professional carpet cleaning company had cleaned it once, many years ago, but the texture was different afterwards. She didn’t feel like the best possible job had been done. “I need you to assure me that you can actually clean it without ruining it. It’s irreplaceable. You can’t use water on it.”
“Of course. We’ll take every precaution. It’s in good hands,” I said. I told her that we’d check for color fastness and clean it by hand with a towel if need be, however the idea of cleaning without water didn’t sound right to me. Can you imagine cleaning your hair without water? “I’ll have our senior-most technician have a look at it,” I assured her. “Mike’ll know what to do.” So, with some gentle encouragement from John and a worried look in her eyes, she let me roll up her precious rug and take it away.
The next morning, Mike knelt beside the rug in our shop to inspect it. “This isn’t silk,” he said, examining the seam where the fringe was sewn to the body of the rug. “It’s probably rayon.”
Well, that was a shock!
Mike grabbed the smart-phone out of his pocket to do a Google search. “This happens to people overseas all the time,” he said, hunting an article for me to read. The article talked about foreign travelers being duped in Shanghai, where unsuspecting tourists are oftentimes sold so-called “one-hundred percent silk” rugs when they are actually made from “Art Silk” or “Man-Made Silk.” “Art Silk,” is a clever way to say “ART-ificial Silk.” As you know, real silk comes from a worm, so “Man-Made Silk” is another dressed-up lie. Most of the time, these rugs are actually made from rayon, bamboo viscose, or mercerized cotton.
I called Sylvia right away. The reason why the texture changed after the last cleaning is because rayon tends to get a little crispy after it’s cleaned. She was sad to find out the rug was a fake but appreciative that we were honest about our discovery. “The rug’s been a part of our home for years, so I can’t imagine being without it.”
“Maybe I’ll go and demand my money back,” John joked.
To avoid falling for this trap yourself, here’s what you need to look for:
- Silk rugs are one complete piece, so the fringe will come out of the body of the rug and not be sewn on to it.
- If you look at the back of a handmade rug, you can see the individual knots. Because silk is such a fine thread, silk rugs can be woven with a thousand or more knots per square inch. The higher the knot count, the more likely the rug is silk.
- Because of the high knot count, silk rugs typically have quite colorful and intricate patterns. They are not shiny or lustrous (Rayon is).
- Burn tests are used by professionals to determine what a rug is made of. This is why “Art Silk” or “Man Made Silk” rugs oftentimes have real silk fringe sewn on. See, the fringe is the most obvious source for an inconspicuous bit of rug that can be snipped away, while the pile in the body of the rug doesn’t allow for safely cutting off a bit.
If you do indeed have a silk rug, precautions should be taken for cleaning. Consider this:
- Water won’t hurt silk. In fact, like wool, silk can hold nearly a third of it’s weight in water before you can even tell for sure if it’s wet. Water may, however, cause the dyes to run. As with all natural fiber rugs, a test for color-fastness should be performed before cleaning.
- Heat is the real enemy. Silk is a protein based fiber, so heat will cause a chemical reaction that will alter it. Think about it in terms of cooking. Meat is mostly protein. What happens to meat when it’s cooked?
- A silk rug is usually quite an investment. Do you want to risk ruining it by cleaning it yourself? Instead, have it professionally cleaned.
If you are in the market for a new area rug and are considering an investment in a handmade silk area rug, there are plenty of options for you online. Turkey, Pakistan, India and other countries produce beautiful work. However, it’s not just fakes that you need to look out for. Look into the manufacturer so that you can rest easy, knowing that child labor was not used to produce your rug. India ships about 90% of their product to the United States and is developing a label to let consumers know they are purchasing their rugs from a reputable vendor. Learn more here.
For more information on swindle-proofing your area rug purchase, check this out.