When you walk into Shehady’s Oriental Rugs in Aspinwall, be prepared to learn a lot about cleaning and caring for Oriental rugs and a little about the Shehady family, now in its third generation in the business.
Wade Shehady, whose roots are Lebanese and Syrian, works alongside his sisters — Pam Smith, Kim Volzer and Janet Knight. All have mastered the art of reweaving and restoring rugs, hand-tying knots and matching yarns as the original weavers did.
“My grandfather’s father-in-law taught him the business, and it was passed down. In the beginning, they sold fine textiles and rugs. My grandfather said that President McKinley’s wife once came into his shop and spent $15 on linens. She made him promise never to tell the president how much she spent,” he laughs. “Fifteen dollars was a lot in those days.”
His father was born in Jamestown, N.Y. The family moved to New Castle and eventually to Pittsburgh, where his father and grandfather had a store in the old Schenley Apartments. They moved to Squirrel Hill in 1947 and to Aspinwall in 1986. His uncle owns Shehady’s Carpets & Rugs, a retail store in the Strip District.
Mr. Shehady took over the family business in 1998. The bulk of his work is cleaning and restoring Oriental rugs, whose name refers to their hand-woven construction, not origination. Any sales involve longtime customers and collectors looking to find a new home for a treasured piece.
After a lifetime servicing these generational treasures, he has seen it all.
“I get so many rugs in here after the fact,” he says, referring to improper repairs and cleaning by others. He’s still amazed that some cleaners don’t know how to handle antique rugs made with vegetable-based dyes or newer ones with chemical dyes.
“Steam heat on Orientals that have chemical dyes? That ruins them, and silk rugs should only be dry-cleaned,” he says. “Reds and blues tend to bleed. I would set that with vinegar before I clean it.”
At Shehady’s, rugs are checked before they are cleaned by hand and air-dried on racks. Afterward, they are “groomed” with soft brushes to restore the finished look to the nap. It costs approximately $1.50 to $2 a square foot to hand-clean a rug. He recommends having Oriental rugs professionally serviced every five years.
“Contrary to popular belief, with Orientals, the less you clean the rug the better. Every time you clean the rug, you release the oils.”
His practiced eye can head off trouble before it starts.
“We will mend any weak spots before we clean and groom it. This prevents small problems from becoming large ones and is much more cost-effective than reweaving large portions or replacing it.”
Mr. Shehady says the people who made antique Oriental rugs literally wove stories of their cultures into them.
“The beauty of the early rugs is that they were weaving their environment. If a tribe was surrounded by eagles, you would see stylized eagles, or scorpions and the like.
“The pattern was in the mind of the weaver. Early rugs — late 19th century or earlier — have wool foundations because they are tribal people. They did not waste any of their ingredients. It is the character of using all of the material they have.”
On the day a reporter visits, Ms. Smith is working on an old Turkish rug. “I often think of the hands that created these rugs,” she says.
Family members pride themselves on nearly invisible repairs. Mr. Shehady shows an 1880s Tabriz rug shipped from another state that had a large hole created by a planter. They reset the foundation and rewove the pattern. The result was naked to the eye, front and back. The damaged rug had been valued at $3,000. After $2,800 in repairs, it is worth at least $12,000, he says.
Shehady’s has a wall of antique rug scraps that they use for patches. It’s important to use the same vintage of rug, he says, because newer fibers do not have the same elasticity as the old, and mixing the two could cause problems.
In this region, Oriental rugs are often handed down through families or purchased at estate sales with no information on their history. Mr. Shehady cautions that even rugs that look worn, dirty or damaged could still be valuable.
“The first thing you should do is get it appraised. This way, you know what you have.”
Sometimes rugs have more sentimental than monetary value. He unrolls a large Persian woven in the 1930s in what is now Kerman, Iran.
“The customer had nine flower pots that seeped acid and caused dry rot. It was her father’s and had sentimental value. In this case, we kept the price down and applied patches. I had pieces from the same vintage of rug, same age and texture. It wasn’t feasible to reset the entire foundation. The work would have exceeded the value.”
Does your dog have an appetite for wool? Mr. Shehady can help: “If the dog chewed up the outside borders, we can reweave it and set new fringe.”
If a rug has extensive damage, its owner may ask that it be cut down to make a smaller rug or rugs.
“I am against doing it, but if a customer insists it is well worth the money. We balance the design and make a handmade fringe.”
His passion for rugs runs deep, so deep that he sometimes he has to draw the line.
“If it is a really old rug, it must be restored,” he says.
Shehady’s Oriental Rugs, 135 Freeport Road, Aspinwall (15215) can be reached at 412-782-2020.
Rosa Colucci: 412-263-1661 or firstname.lastname@example.org.