Distressed Rugs: A Trend That Has Taken Root
August 17, 2020
Posted by D. A. Burns
A few years ago, we wrote about the “distressed” rug trend that had reached such a high interest level that older, but maybe not collectible, rugs were becoming more difficult to find. To capitalize on the trend, newer rugs were being “distressed” by a variety of processes to make them look older, and manufacturers were making new rugs that looked old right from the start.
Going way back, we find this new trend isn’t so new. In many rug-weaving countries bleaching new rugs to give them a patina of age has been going on for decades. Creating false traffic wear by burning nap away or even inserting earlier manufacturing dates into the nap are not unusual. What’s new is the broad popularity of this look.
Why Buy A Worn Rug?
Wear can tell a story of the weaver, the original buyer, the people that have passed-by over time, and can be appreciated for those connections. The feeling of history that comes with that patina of age is still desirable and designers know that an old-looking textile can add warmth to, and humanize, a modern space.
We assess each new type of distressed rug as they come to us since we need to know that we can safely clean them. We’ve seen a few that raise concerns about practicality and livability. Some aggressive treatments can weaken the rug, affect stain resistance and even contain dyes that can easily transfer to anything they contact.
It might be helpful to know a little more if you’re shopping for older or distressed rugs, so we’ve compiled some of our observations.
The Ways “Old” Rugs Can Be Sorted:
- Antique hand-knotted rugs
- Over-dyed rugs
- Vintage rugs
- Distressed rugs
- Patchwork rugs
- Distressed-look rugs
Antique hand-knotted rugs have survived for at least one hundred years. Poor quality rugs will rarely survive this long, so the survivors have honestly passed the test of time. Their patina will have been earned through use. Most antique rugs will have already been identified as such and will be priced according to their rarity and condition. Garage sale finds are rare, as even fragments of antique rugs can be valuable.
If an antique rug is physically in good shape it will respond well to cleaning and will be worth taking care of by having repairs made as needed. The more worn, the more care will be needed to maintain the current appearance.
Overdyed rugs typically start out as rugs that have colors or patterns that are out of style and are no longer selling well. In the nineties a lot of cream and light blue rugs were “tea-dyed” to turn them into more popular earth tones. Sometimes tea or coffee was used as the dye and the natural colors would be removed with spot cleaning or overall cleaning. More recently, over-dying has been done using very bright or deep colors that wouldn’t normally be used in Oriental rug making. Most have well-set dyes that don’t bleed, some will transfer color to everything they touch.
Vintage rugs will be between 50 and 100 years old. These will be more affordable than antiques and many will show wear in the nap or on the ends and edges. Even if you like the look, they will often need some minor repair work to keep them from falling apart. (D. A. Burns can offer repairs that will maintain the desired ‘weathered’ look.)
There are machine-woven and other rugs that fit in this category alongside hand-knotted rugs. Some of these have a particular style that can make them just as collectible as hand-knotted rugs.
Distressed rugs usually start out as less-than-vintage rugs that will have been treated in some way so that they look older. The rug nap can be burned lower using a torch, shaved lower using shears, or even abraded away using a floor sander. Many will have exposed cotton foundation yarns that will show soil and wear faster than the wool nap that has been removed.
Often a rug will be bleached to fade the colors. Bleaching turns wool yellow, so the bleach process may be followed by an acid treatment. Several courses of bleach/acid may be required to get the desired look, with the most common side effect being a rug that stains very easily.
Patchwork rugs are made from fragments of rugs that are sewn together and will often have a decorative top stitch added to make the finished piece look more hand-crafted and a cotton backing may be sewn on to add some reinforcement. There is a right way of finishing the edges of each fragment before putting them together so that they don’t fray and tear at the seams, a step that is often skipped. If the rug is used in a low traffic area it may not matter, but it may be worth putting a little stress on the seams to see if they will tear out easily.
Distressed-look rugs are modern rugs that are designed to look old from the start. Hand-knotted examples may be made with a very low pile height and use muted colors so no bleaching is needed. Machine-made rugs may have a design that mimics the look of a hand-knotted rug worn to the foundation while still having a full pile height. Having the lived-in look in active homes and spaces where kids and pets hang out? One of these might be the practical choice.
When shopping for a rug, whether on-line or at a local retailer, make sure the seller stands behind their product. Read their guarantees, return policies, and disclaimers. If you’re making an investment in a rug, it’s wise to buy from people that have earned a good reputation for taking care of their customers.