Learning how to clean a sheepskin rug is something of an art, because sheepskin is notoriously difficult to thoroughly clean without damaging the skin backing. Essentially, cleaning a sheepskin rug is like cleaning leather and wool at the same time – both tricky materials to clean on their own.
We'll say outright that if your sheepskin is older than a decade, then we advise against anything other than spot cleaning or a gentle steam clean (more on that below). If you try washing an old sheepskin rug, there's a high change it'll disintegrate in the washing machine. For newer rugs and for stain removal, read on.
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How to remove stains from a sheepskin rug
First of all, it depends on what type of stain you've got. General organic stains like mud and non acidic foods are fairly easy to remove, and it's easier to do so once the stain is dry. Acidic stains, on the other hand (e.g. wine, vomit, tomato sauce) will be more difficult to remove because they can penetrate the wool quite quickly, effectively dyeing it.
Regardless of the type of stain you're working with, you'll need to use a specialist wool shampoo. Never use all-purpose detergent or anything containing bleach, as it'll do more harm than good. Take a little of the wool shampoo and gently blot it onto the stain; let sit for 10-20 minutes, then gradually remove with a colour fast damp cloth. You may not be able to get rid of the stain completely, but you will be able to diminish its appearance.
How to wash a sheepskin rug in the washing machine
Washing a sheepskin rug is always a risk because the skin itself may come out rigid; once this has happened, there's not a lot you can do to make it soft like before, so you'll have to accept that risk before putting the sheepskin into the washing machine.
Also, washing a sheepskin rug only makes sense if you want to give the rug a general refresh; because sheepskin may only be washed in cold water (warm water will damage the skin backing), machine washing is unlikely to get rid of stains, so only do it if your rug is stain-free but could do with freshening up.
Select the woollens cycle on your washing machine, then select the slowest spin your washing machine can do to prevent wrinkling and damage, and dry the sheepskin flat, out of direct sunlight. Never tumble dry sheepskin.
How to steam clean a sheepskin rug
This alternative to washing is much gentler on the sheepskin, and, in our experience, will give you similar refreshing results to washing. If you have a steam cleaner or even a steam mop with a nozzle attachment, you can drive out a lot of the dust and dirt by just steaming your rug for five to 10 minutes. Steam in the direction of the wool growth, and you'll notice a de-knotting effect, too.
Sheepskin rug maintenance
The better you maintain your rug, the less cleaning it will need – prevention is really better than cure here! First of all, although they call them 'sheepskin rugs', sheepskins aren't really suitable for high-traffic areas on floors; you're best off using yours as a throw or decoration in your living room or bedroom; if you like the look of sheepskins on a wooden floor, use faux ones.
Sheepskin also benefits from regular brushing with a specialist sheepskin brush – but be gentle; it may sound odd, but brush it in the same way you would a pet – without being too harsh or pulling at the hair. If you brush too hard, your rug will thin over time.
Finally, sheepskins are best positioned out of direct sunlight, which is the main cause of yellowing over time; this is an oxidisation process in the wool and can't be reversed with cleaning.