How to Keep Your Rugs Looking Swell

Miss Thrifty3 January 8, 2013

care for rugs

I recently threw out one of our living room rugs. I’d taken to sponge-cleaning it weekly, by hand, and it still looked horrible. The baby sick, the pureed food hurled from the high chair with reckless abandon, the general wear and tear… I did what I could, but I had a grot mat on my hands.

Fortunately it was only a cheapie from IKEA – but then, even the budget rugs aren’t that cheap, are they? Since they are so expensive to replace, why don’t we take better care of them? We tramp across them day in, day out without a second thought, run the hoover over and under them, and they get an occasional scrub from Rug Doctor or another carpet cleaner. But when was the last time you took those rugs out into the garden and thwacked them with a broom handle, or gave them a good shake as above? Confession time: I don’t think I did this at all last year.

Thinking about it, this may be a generational thing: I know my grandparents and mum do this sort of thing regularly (swots) – younger friends and family, not so much. I suppose it doesn’t help that these days so many of us live in cramped flats, or homes without proper garden space. Perhaps it’s telling that the photo above was taken in the 1950s.

Fortunately for me, the lovely people in the John Lewis rugs department must have a psychic rug-radar: they got in touch to offer me a free rug in return for a carpet-themed post. (Fist-pumps air, discreetly.) Perfect timing – and, being me, I took the budget and squeezed two rugs out of it. A little blue wool rug for Thrifty Baby’s nursery (pictured at the bottom of this post), and a beige version for the living room. Although these rugs weren’t that much more than the IKEA grot mat, they are much better quality than I was expecting for the price: beautiful colours and thick pile. Good old John Lewis: they’re the nicest rugs in the house. But this has only made me more determined to look after them: by hook or by crook, these rugs will last!

They may be plain and unassuming, but I’ve decided that the way forward is to look after these rugs and care for them like valuable and antique rugs are cared for. So here’s my rug manifesto. (I was originally going to call this post My Rug Manifesto, but that sounds like I have way too much time on my hands…)

  1. Minimise wear. Rotate rugs to distribute wear. Don’t let anyone in stiletto heels near them: the holes can pierce the carpet. Heavy furniture can also cause damage, by crushing the fibres and leaving permanent dents. So reposition your furniture every now and again, and use castor cups to spread the weight. (You can get these from B&Q.)
  2. Reduce the risk of insect infestation. If your rugs lie on a hard surface such as stone or wood, use a synthetic underlay. This protects them from abrasion and from being stained by floor finishes. It also reduces the risk of insect infestation. Traditional woollen underfelt is very attractive to moths and carpet beetles and can harbour infestation.
  3. Keep out of direct sunlight and away from radiators and open fires, if possible. Light doesn’t just fade a rug – it also weakens a rug’s fibres.  In winter when a room is heated, the fibres of a rug kept close to a radiator or open fire can become dry, shrunken and brittle.
  4. Vacuum your rugs like you are stroking a cat. Vacuum at least once a week. Run the vacuum from end to end of each rug, with the “nap” of the face fibres. What does this mean? Well, you know when you stroke a cat and your stroke its fur the “right” way – smoothing it down instead of ruffling it up? That is stroking with the “nap” of the fur. Apparently this picks up dust that has settled on top, but has not yet worked its way down to the base of the rug. (Also: see update below.)
  5. Beat quarterly. If a rug is too large to take outside and beat with a beater or a broom, turn it face-down and vacuum its bottom. The vacuum’ s vibrations should shake the dirt loose and, when you turn the rug the right way over again, the dirt should fall to the floor and you can sweep it up.
  6. Clean your rugs gently – but do clean them! Although my household rugs aren’t worthy of a conservator’s attentions, I don’t like treating them with harsh chemicals. Besides, I have found many of the shop-bought carpet cleaning sprays and foams to be worse than useless. Help is at hand: apparently a mixture of one part borax to two parts cornmeal, sprinkled and left for an hour, then vacuumed, can remove light stains. A lemon juice and salt mixture is supposed to work wonders on light carpets with tough stains. (Borax is available from Summer Naturals; cornmeal is cheap and can be found in the Caribbean section of your local supermarket. If you can’t find it, polenta is the same thing.)


Hat tips: Val Blyth, Conservator at the Victoria & Albert Museum; Classic Rug Care; National Geographic; Conservation Register.


UPDATE: I’ve had some interesting emails about this post from Miss Thrifty readers, including one from Frugal Grandma and one from Madeleine, who is superbly qualified to comment; working with her partner Dudley, she makes the most beautiful rugs you have ever seen in your life. (You can see them here.)      

Madeleine says: “You only hoover with the nap on a hand-knotted rug, as the strands lie down in one direction. Tufted rugs (most of IKEA’s), the strands splay out in all directions. Just avoid using a Dyson if you pay a lot for a tufted on, as it can pull the odd strand out of the backing.”

Frugal Grandma wanted to point out that living conditions  were cramped in the 1950s too: “Most people living in towns in the 50s lived in very cramped accommodation, because many of the biggest towns were still rubble on the floor. Most couples getting married lived with parents, but I was lucky because Grandad was given the chance of a flat in November 1950 and rang me to confirm that he should take it – which we did. We shared the house with three other families. We had the top floor but had to share the toilet (not for long with a plumber for a husband though), and the bathroom (again, not for long). My clothes line was stretched from the kitchen window to a pole sticking up from the balcony on the floor below: it was a loop about two yards to the pole and two yards back, but you could only use one side.   We had that flat (and felt so lucky to have it) until June 1955. Owing to my mother-in-law’s generosity we had a CARPET in our sitting room. We were the only ones out of all our friends who had such a luxury. Apart from that it was rugs everywhere, mostly handmade rag or wool.” 

john lewis blue rug

1950s image credit: Nationaal Archief.

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3 Responses to “How to Keep Your Rugs Looking Swell

Gemma says:

I recently brought a new rug as the old one was beyond ever looking clean again. I will never have a rug with white in it again. This time I have gone for a neutral one of different browns as I am sure this will mean it will stay looking nice for longer.

I am also going to follow all of your tips to also help it last longer :-). Thank you.

January 14, 2013 at 10:47 pm

Miss Thrifty says:

Very sensible! When I see white rugs, I do wonder how their owners keep them clean…

January 16, 2013 at 11:09 pm

Jude says:

Great post, I’ve got a rug that I bought with wedding present money 6 years ago, that I’m quickly falling out of love with. I have 2 dogs, 2 cats and 2 children, so it’s always covered in cr*p. I’ve taken to hand brushing it at least once a week and hoovering daily and it still looks rubbish. Annoying thing is, it was expensive too – real wool! A cleaner once told me more expensive rugs are more difficult to keep looking good. Grrrr! If I’d known that I’d have stuck to Ikea! Will try your borax solution though. Thanks for the tip!

February 26, 2014 at 11:58 pm

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