Yes, wool area rugs can shed in varying amounts, some don't shed at all, some shed when you first buy them, some start shedding towards the end of their life. What's the difference and when should you be concerned? This Blog post will help clarify the different reasons for shedding and when it is indicating a problem with your area rug.
To understand why wool rugs shed it helps to know a little bit about the fibers the yarns are made from as well as how the yarn itself is made. The following is an excerpt from the website Knitting Naturally on how wool yarn is made.
"First the fleece is cleaned, by washing [and] carding, to remove any debris from the fleece and to prepare the fibres for spinning. Once you have a clean fleece wool, it is a relatively simple process to make wool.
A small number of fibres are gently draw out of a lock of wool to the required thickness and then spun or twisted so that the fibres cling together into a single ply thread.
Once the drawn out thread is twisted, it is usually wound onto a holder of some kind (either a drop spindle or a bobbin). This maintains the tension of the thread and prevents the wool fibres from unravelling.
Hand processing wool into yarn: Carding - Spinning - Winding
Photos courtesy Oaxaca Cultural Navigator
Once wound, more fibres are drawn out of the lock of wool and the process is repeated to form a continuous thread. If you wish to use your thread for weaving a single ply thread is sufficient, but if you want to knit the wool into a garment, you generally need a two ply thread. To do this you twist two single ply threads together in the opposite direction from which you spun the singles."
Now that you have some understanding of how wool yarns are made, you will better be able to understand the following reasons that a rug may shed.
The first reason we'll discuss is using hand spun and processed yarns versus machine processed yarns. A machine carded and spun yarn will have more of the loose, weak, and shorter fibers removed during the processing, creating a smoother more regular yarn. A hand carded and spun wool is much less processed, resulting in a more variable texture yarn. This lower amount of processing may result in a rug that is more prone to shedding as those shorter and weaker fibers come out over time. This shedding will occur when the rug is new and will stop after a period of time (the more you vacuum the rug the quicker it will stop shedding!). The period of time and the amount it sheds will vary as the amount of processing of hand spun yarns varies from maker to maker and rug to rug. This type of shedding is not considered a flaw, it is just a character of rugs made with hand spun yarns.
Wool being machine carded - see the difference from hand carding?
Photo courtesy the Gentleman's Gazette - Check out their excellent post about wool.
The second reason a rug may shed is if it is made with less tightly spun yarn. This allows fibers to rub against eachother and break more easily when regularly walked on. This is a less common reason for shedding, but a rug with loosely spun yarns may shed small amounts over the whole span of it's life. A good example of a rug made with loose spun yarns are Moroccan and Moroccan-inspired rugs. The type of shedding is not considered a flaw it is just a quirk of this rug type.
Loosely spun yarns do tend to shed more.
An easy way to see if a rug is going to shed is to run your hand over the surface of the rug. As you do this if you can see lots of little fibers come out of the rug (as shown above) the rug is likely to shed.
The third reason shedding may occur is using shorter staple wool, the shorter pieces of wool may be more likely to untwist and shed off. There are many different breeds of sheep, and thus wool can come in varying shades, lengths, and textures. Long staple wool (wool whose fibers are long) are the highest quality wools for making strong, resilient (and non-shedding) rugs. The longer fibers create a stronger yarn with fewer fiber ends to fray. A lower quality or inexpensive wool rug may use a lower quality wool, usually made from the off casts of the processing of longer fibers, or from wool of sheep with a shorter staple fiber. These rugs still have all the wonderful qualities of a wool rug, they may just be more prone to shedding. While not technically considered a flaw, it is a pitfall of the the lower quality (and cost) of the rug. Sometimes these rugs are made with wool blend yarns, incorporating nylon or poly fibers to reduce cost even further. This blend with lower durability fibers just naturally leads to shedding in most cases.
Photo of different sheep breed fibers.
The final type of shedding is really the only type of shedding that is a bad sign for your rug. This type of shedding is specific to hand tufted or hand hooked rugs. These rugs can be identified by having a cotton backing. If you look at the back and you do not see the pattern of the rug but instead cotton fabric, then you know you have a hooked or tufted rug. These rugs are held together with a glue that is then covered up with that cotton canvas cloth. This glue has a life span, towards the end of it's lifespan it starts to break down (it can sometimes be seen as a white powder, almost like fine sand that collects underneath the rug). Once the glue starts to break down and no longer hold the fibers in place, the fibers start to shed. This shedding is a sign that your rug has come to the end of it's useful life. There are many different qualities of hooked and tufted rugs, some may last longer than others (how much wear it gets is a big factor in life span as well), a reasonable life expectancy is any where from 5 to 12 years.
Hand hooked rug with a cotton backing.
Some people worry that there is something terribly wrong with their rug if they notice that it is shedding. Just remember that shedding is not uncommon with wool rugs, but of course if you want to double check, feel free to contact us with any questions or concerns.
We know shedding isn't always ideal, you don't necessarily want to feel like you adopted a new pet. If shedding is something you would like to avoid when purchasing a rug, just let us know. We here at Bradford's can help guide you towards rugs that are less prone to shedding and guide you away from rugs that we know to shed (also remember to try the shed test demonstrated in the video above). Any good rug dealer will know their inventory well enough to know what of their products shed and what do not.
Hopefully you found this post informative and helpful. We are always happy to discuss all things rugs! We wish you happy rug hunting.