Fiber ID: Critical for successful cleaning
by Jeff Cross
A dedicated professional cleaner has the desire to increase skills.
This is especially so when it comes to carpet and upholstery care.
Before beginning any textile cleaning project, it is important to plan your cleaning procedure.
Fiber identification plays a crucial role in this.If a carpet fiber is synthetic, there are fewer worries than if it is natural. A natural fiber carpet needs to be approached with caution.With most synthetics, you have at your disposal a wider variety of chemistry that you can use. You can also be more aggressive with your cleaning process.
Get your sampleThe easiest way to determine if a carpet is synthetic or natural is with a quick burn test.Obtain the tuft sample from an inconspicuous place.Technician beware! Your customer won't understand you carving a piece of carpet from the middle of her living room floor (that's the impression she will get as she spies you on your hands and knees with a pair of scissors), so obtain your sample from under a heater/AC register vent, on the inside corner of a closet, or from a corner of a room - among other places.Obviously, taking one or two tufts of carpet from an inconspicuous area isn't going to hurt anything.
However, it is safer to inform your customer of your intentions.Do the burn(Note: The information in this tip applies also to furniture fiber ID. Remember to obtain your sample from inside a cushion or in another inconspicuous spot.)Outside, in your truck, or in a custodial closet if working in a commercial building (avoid the temptation to do this over the "priceless" area rug in the living room), hold the tuft in a tweezer and bring a flame (butane lighter) slowly to it.
If it pulls away from the heat, it is synthetic. If it doesn't, it is natural.Notice the odor as the fiber burns. Nylon will smell waxy, olefin will smell like asphalt or tar and polyester will have a sweet smell. Wool will smell like burning hair. Those are the four main fiber types you are likely to encounter.Let the burned tuft cool, and then try to crush it in your fingers.
If you get a noticeable residue on your fingers, you have a natural fiber.If you get no residue (or at least very little) then you have a synthetic.Your cleaning can then proceed accordingly.Of course, nylon fibers are very easy to identify if you have a bit of formic acid at hand. Put a drop on the tuft and if it dissolves, it is nylon. Be careful of the chemical odor from the formic acid, and ensure you keep it off of bare skin.
Natural fiber cleaningThe most popular natural fiber is wool. If you clean area rugs, you will find others, but that's another subject.With wool, you've probably learned how to clean with lower pH chemistry and to watch your moisture and heat.Wool, like all natural fibers, is much more sensitive to stronger chemicals than are synthetics.But just lumping all synthetics into one "easy-to-clean and use anything" category is dangerous.Nylon's characteristicsThere aren't many cleaning problems with nylon. It's definitely king of market share, although olefin and polyester are slowly gaining.With nylon, you will come across acid dye stains more often than with other synthetics. This means you will want a good reducing agent at hand.Today's 5th generation nylon has stain resistancy added, and using the wrong chemical can damage the effectiveness of that resistancy.Nylon also responds well to post-treatments of fabric protectors.Olefin and polyester also benefit from post treatment fabric protectors, but that application is mainly for soil resistance since these two fibers are inherently stain resistant. Olefin is chemically friendlyOlefin is very chemical resistant (even chlorine bleach will not remove color from olefin fibers) and stain resistant, so the cleaning problems you will have will be do to its oleophilic nature and its characteristic of matting and crushing.You don't have the concerns with pH, removing stain resistancy, color loss and more.But you do have to worry about using high heat (such as an iron with stain removal) on olefin - typically occuring when a technician is faced with that occasional troublesome stain and wants to use heat-activated chemistry.
Polyester problemsPolyester is a close cousin to olefin in that it likes oily soils and is fairly stain resistant.The biggest complaint with polyester is its weak resiliency.