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considerations of
oriental rug restoration

by holly smith-reynolds

this article appeared in oriental rug review, vol. 15/6

the decision of whether or not to restore a particular rug is based on four factors: the use to which the rug will be put, the economics, the aesthetics, and the ethics. in my role as advisor to my clientele (including private museums, collectors, dealers and new inheritors), i am often confronted with answering questions on each of these factors.

too often rug owners today are unaware of the choices available to them, and the analysis which should precede their choice. for example, a client whose rug's side borders have been cut off and an ugly faded side cord has been hastily applied, perhaps even with irreversible glue, faces the question of whether he is willing to pay for a complete and invisible reweaving of both edges, whether that would be ethical in various future circumstances, and which method of repair would be the most aesthetic. all this must be decided with the expected use of the rug in mind: will it hang on the wall or will it be used on the floor? will it be for personal use or be put up for sale in a few years?

there are two major categories of repair: conservation and restoration. they involve two quite divergent techniques with seemingly opposite goals. put simply, conservation's goal is preservation which is reversible, while restoration's goal is reconstruction which is invisible. i say 'seemingly while restoration's goal is reconstruction which is invisible. i say 'seemingly opposite' because as a conservator and restorer i have been striving to develop methods which satisfy the requirements of both schools -- in other words, invisible restoration which is reversible.

        let me give you specific examples of conservation work and restoration work using the same hypothetical rug and its damage. let's imagine a kazak with an unsightly hole in its center. the owner wants to hang it in a prominent place in the living room. the conservation approach would secure the edges of the hole to protect it from further raveling. the thread would be carefully chosen for weight and dimension to prevent it from aggravating and severing the internal foundation over the years. the hole would then be backed with an appropriately colored and textured fabric so that you would still see that there was a hole, but so that it would blend in somewhat to its surroundings. or, one of several types of passive fill plugs would be used to diminish awareness of its presence. these passive fill plugs range from coloring the backing fabric to further match the rug's pattern, to actually weaving the missing components on a loom and securing that piece to the backing fabric. the results of this technique can be quite satisfying, but the repair will not stand up to foot traffic. with the right choice of materials and their careful application, there will be little disadvantageous intrusion and easy reversibility should that become necessary or desirable in the future. and easy reversibility should that become necessary or desirable in the future.

the restoration approach would commence in a similar manner with a securing of the edges to prevent further raveling, but then this will usually be removed after the work is completed. new warps would be inserted with one of several different methods suitable to each rug's individual characteristics -- one method is fine for a kuba, but not for a kazak, for instance. new wefts would be worked into the repair, again with varying methods, then it would be reknotted on the face, matching pattern, color, and texture as well as ply in some cases. the entire area would then be clipped down to the height of the surrounding pile and certain adjustments would be made to settle it in. ideally, it should be invisible to the sight and touch both in front and back. depending on the method of insertion of the foundation, it would be easier or harder to reverse without causing damage.

the equation changes, however, according to the use to which the rug will be put and this consideration is all important. conservation by its definition is the conservative treatment and the methods of attaching repair to the rug are delicate and minimal. therefore it will not stand up to being walked on, or brushed as with a vacuum, or even flexed in careless or frequent handling. if a rug is very old, notable, or terribly damaged, restoration is probably inappropriate, at least if it is not easily reversible. over-restored rugs (for instance where all the expected corroded browns have been replaced) can look phony and might be unnecessary if hung on the wall. so the judgment of your restorer, preferably one who has had years of experience in the use of different techniques and the knowledge to understand their appropriate application, is an invaluable guide in determining repair procedures.

how does the issue of ethics enter into your decision making? let me give you my opinion on this controversial topic. is it "wrong" for one of my clients to walk on rugs whose very antiquity and beauty make them a teaching experience for all involved in the field of rugs? it is certainly unethical for me not to take into account the chosen use to which this rug is being put and adjust my restoration accordingly. the final choices regarding a rug's care and use rest with you, the collector, but there are some repair approaches which most restorers would agree are unethical and i shall outline them briefly.

the use of colorants and dyes applied directly to a rug, either in repair or to disguise wear, is damaging to the fibers, causing corrosion and, of course, misrepresentation! removing ends and edges to give the rug a more balanced or squared off appearance is the ultimate in irreversibility and i eschew it for any rug, no matter how new. it removes, in many cases, the identity of the rug. what side wrapping did this once have? was it from this tribe or that? what end finish? we need only to look at history to see that rugs which were poorly received when they were new have now come to be adored and treasured. none of us have crystal balls and can therefore determine which rugs should get the ax and which should not.

along the same lines is the reduction of a rug to fit a hallway. my advice to clients who want to do this is, "sell the rug and replace it with one the right size." squaring off a hole before restoration is not recommended and is unnecessary to achieve invisibility. another technique to be avoided is the use of latex. while some researchers have found a method for reversal without extreme damage to a rug's life, it is understandably costly and time consuming. also, while the latex is on the rug, it causes a breakdown in the fibers, almost like a slow acting acid. this is not reversible.

most restorers do not use any of these techniques, but we encounter them. we are often asked to undo some other repairman's work and this is the most frustrating part of the job for, in doing so, we find that the earlier repair work so damaged the foundation to which it was attached that it is irretrievably lost and must be removed. therefore, the original hole has now grown. and what of the next restorer in the future? will they lament our work? this is another reason why i am interested in restoration work which is reversible. one hundred years from now, if superior techniques and materials become available, i don't want to have the removal of my work cause damage.

while i usually use my own vegetal dyed wools so that any future fading will be in harmony with the original, the most obvious effect of time in restoration is the color of the dyes. we often see absolutely painstaking restoration work on which the colors have all lightened or turned to shades of gray and beige. while it's fun to leave it as a record of the rug's history, and indeed the history of earlier repair techniques, it would have been nicer to have the colors still muted and true.

my next point is that of record keeping. if we are working to perfect our invisibility, what will enable future owners of our rugs to ascertain which parts have been repaired? as collectors, i think most of us hope that one day our rugs will be honored in museums or other public collections. those future caretakers will want to know without taking the rug apart, which threads are original and which additions. if we match the length of the fibers, the spin and ply, the organic dyes and the type of weave, what will ever give it away? i keep records of my work both by photograph and on paper, indicating prior condition and treatment. i have encouraged my clients to take these records and keep them with the rug. there are some dealers who willingly share all repair information with the prospective purchaser and this should be encouraged. a beautiful restoration adds to the intrinsic value of the rug and should help it to sell. records made by the restorer should travel with the rug and be part of its portfolio.

i recommend that most newly acquired rugs be examined by a restorer or conservator before they are placed in their permanent positions. the exception, of course, is when the dealer from whom you may have bought the rug has given you a reliable history. however there can be hidden weaknesses which only a person used to seeing them can find. warps can be broken within the knot structure so that, when the rug is flexed as in hanging or draping or even moving it about, adjacent areas are weakened, sometimes at an alarming rate. or, the wear on the face of the rug has reached the point where the knots are literally hanging by a thread and must be protected before they slip out altogether. knots may also be loosened from the back of a rug either by vacuuming or scraping and they fly up out of the front. ends and edges are often fragile and the action of bringing the rug home can further jeopardize them. the incorrect application of velcro, applied without a broad under-fabric of cotton and stitched in a zigzag pattern, can really damage the warps and cause stretching or breaking. and old or poorly done repairs can rip the parts of the rug to which they have been attached.

this brings me back to our original dilemma: should we restore this rug and, if so, in what technique? should we not restore this rug and, if not, how should we preserve and maintain it?

it is vital to consider the use to which the rug will be put with the overview of economy, aesthetics, and ethics, the last being an enormous subject which can only be decided finally by you, the rug's custodian. and that is what i hope you will consider yourselves as you ponder the next steps after purchase.

as restorers and conservators, we guide our clients to some extent but, in general, we are being paid to execute our client's wishes to the best of our abilities. we all need to approach the decisions of restoration and conservation from the point of view of custodians and not adopt an attitude which i recently heard expressed: "it doesn't matter what we do as long as it's profitable. we're not going to be around in 50 years." the point is that with our care the rug will be.

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