Painted / Bleeding Rugs
Painting of both new and old rugs has become epidemic. A recent trip to the New York rug market revealed room after room of employees painting old rugs. The problems with painted rugs are many and the consumer needs to be informed of the consequences. First, if the paint is not washfast—and it usually isn't—the rug will be prone to subsequent color bleeding during professional wet cleaning. Second, the painting is often used to cover over worn areas, but this is not disclosed to the customer. If the painting is, in fact, disclosed, then the buyer should pay a fair price for the painted rug. They should not pay for a rug that was obviously worn but has now been painted over in a circumspect or event deceptive manner.
Why do some dealers or retailers paint over Oriental rugs, whether worn or new? One common scenario is to hide worn areas of an older rug where the foundation has become exposed. Using dye markers, colored inks, water or solvent based tints, the lighter colored worn areas where the foundation is exposed are "tinted" or colored over in an attempt to match the original pile color and disguise the wear. This surface painting or tinting is quicker and less expensive than re-knotting or inserting new pile, which is the proper way to restore a worn area or missing pile. By merely painting over the wear spot, these worn areas will quickly return to their prior faded appearance during use by the customer.
A second and more serious problem, however, is that the surface painting will often bleed into surrounding areas of the rug when liquids are spilled or when the rug is washed. Many of the surface colors, when overpainted, are not washfast and can bleed profusely even with the best of professional cleaning and care.
Some newer Oriental rugs are also painted, either on the back or on the face (pile side). New rugs from India and Pakistan are sometimes "painted" on the back (or underside) of the outer border or fringe. When painted, the colors in the outside border are typically black, dark blue, red or kelly green; these colors are prone to bleed or color run when wet.
Other reasons for painting the pile of Oriental rugs, even though new or not noticeably worn, is to enhance surface colors and/or to eliminate color variations. These variations in surface dye color are known as "abrash." Though normal or pleasing to most, abrash coloration may be disliked or misunderstood by buyers and thus some dealer decides to "paint" over this special effect. It's a strange way to go.
But how can you know if the rug you've purchased or are considering purchasing has been painted? First, ask the dealer or retailer several related questions. Has the rug ever been tinted or painted over, and how do they know one way or the other? Ask if the dyes and rug coloration are guaranteed to be washfast; that is, can the rug be safely wet cleaned? They may assure you it can, even when it cannot, so get the assurance in writing. The best way to determine washfastness is the simple Turkish towel test mentioned later. Dealers selling painted rugs are not the most trustworthy. So if you're not assured or confident about the purchase, then avoid it and look for another rug or rug dealer, or both.
Inquire also if the dyes are natural or synthetic in origin. Naturally dyed rugs are often more aesthetically pleasing, and more expensive, but your main concern should be "Are they color fast?” That is, are the dyes and colors resistant to premature light fading and to color bleeding when wet? Some naturally dyed rugs (and certain painted rugs) may have excellent color fastness, but many others do not. If the dyes are not "fast" or secure and the pile has been "painted," then the rug cannot be successfully washed and adequately cleaned.
Our best advice is to do a simple pretest to check for fugitive dyes, poor surface coloration or rug painting. The test is easy for anyone to do. Any suspicious areas should be tested, or do the test on all darker colors or major colored areas. Moisten a white (or Turkish) towel with tap water and then rub or blot persistently on all colors. Do this on both the face, or pile, and on the back where appropriate. If any color transfers onto the towel, it is indicative of a latent color bleeding problem that can cause serious problems later. Testing the colors on the surface or pile applies to both new and old rugs. If any color transfers or would appear to bleed during the test, then do not buy this rug. We cannot recommend buying a "painted" rug or any rug that is not colorfast.