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Curtain-up

  • Washington Post
  • Published Saturday, July 13, 2013, at 12 a.m.

Whenever I think about window treatments, an anecdote from one of my favorite childhood books, “Amelia Bedelia” by Peggy Parish, always comes to mind.

If you don't know Amelia, she is a kooky housekeeper who, in every book, misunderstands her employer's directives. In one scene, Amelia is asked to “draw the drapes,” but rather than pull the curtains closed as her employer asked, she takes out a pen and paper and literally draws a picture of the fancy living room curtains. The scene always struck me as funny not just because of the farcical play on words, but also for the absurd formality of it all — I mean who really ever draws the drapes unless they are staying at a hotel?

Well, as it turns out, I now do, but that wasn't always the case. I was always more of a “let the shade down” kind of a girl. In fact, most of my window treatments in past and present homes have been unfussy Roman shades, wood or tortoise blinds. The only curtains I have ever had have been in my living room and/or dining room and, given the purpose of the rooms, have never needed closing. But all that has changed.

In my newly decorated bedroom, I have three sets of floor-length ivory linen curtains that have leading edges piped in thin red grosgrain trim. They are elegant, tailored and crisp — very unlike Mrs. Rogers’ fancy swags — but, like Amelia's employer, I insist on drawing them closed. In fact, I take great pleasure in pulling them tight every night, not because I need privacy (there is not a house anywhere in sight) but because the task seems special, even luxurious. The action makes me feel like I am indeed staying at a hotel, and the ritual of opening them in the morning has become my own kind of sun salutation.

What led me to finally curtain-up? The architecture of the room demanded it; I have two windows in the bedroom and one large French door, and because I wanted to treat them all the same, curtains were really my only option. I kept them as simple as possible — no ballooning, pelmets or valances — but even so, they were expensive, mostly because of the sheer volume of fabric needed. (Decorators always say the money is in the curtains.)

Know this: For curtains to look really good, they need to be full. When closed, they should fully cover the window while maintaining a few soft folds for volume. I usually measure the window, add about 4 or 5 inches to each side (to account for the curtain rod), then double that dimension — so a 36-inch window gets about 88 inches of fabric width. Most fabric is 54 inches wide, so to avoid wasting any, I use a width and a half for each panel (54 inches plus 27 inches equals 81 inches).

If you want an even fuller, ball-gown look, multiply the width of the window by three. If you are buying pre-made panels, you might want to buy at least two for each side of the window. To me, it is far worse to hang curtains that are too small than to hang nothing at all. As for length, mine just skim the floor, but if you want them to pool on the floor, add 6 to 8 inches to whatever your rod-to-floor measurement is.

My new curtains are made out of linen, but they are lined in a classic cotton chintz and interlined in a cotton felt. Not only does the middle lining help to block out light, it also gives the curtains just the right amount of weight so that they hang nicely. I think Mrs. Rogers would approve, and certainly they would be a worthy subject for one of Amelia Bedelia's drawings.

Curtain tricks

Just as a smart black dress can make you look more svelte, there are optical illusions at play in the world of windows. Whether your windows are too low or too squat, too skinny or just plain misshapen, the way you hang curtains and shades can have an enormous impact on the way you perceive the windows themselves.

• Make a window appear taller: For curtains, mount the rod 8 inches (instead of the standard 4) above the top of the window frame and let the curtain fall from the rod to the floor or farther. For a shade, mount it above the window frame so that when the shade is fully pulled up, the bottom border covers just the very top of the glass, therefore hiding the frame's exact location.

• Make a window appear wider: Mount curtain-rod brackets at least 5 inches to either side of the window's molding, equidistant from the window, and add a curtain rod that spans the distance. Consider your new measurement (say, 46 inches wide, instead of 36) as the width of your window. Buy two curtain panels, each the width of your new measurement. When open, the curtains should be slid along the rail to just cover the window molding — revealing only glass and tricking the eye into thinking the window extends behind the curtain, beyond what it sees.

• Fix an overpowering window: For a large expanse of glass, such as sliding doors, a bay window or a plate-glass wall, mount one rod across the top of the molding and hang several curtain panels (that are as wide as possible) to break up the expanse.

• Hide a poor view: Mount a sheer panel inside the window casement, close to the glass. Try using one panel instead of two (which will tempt guests to part them). Measure the width of the window and multiply by 11/2 for a standard amount of fullness, or up to two times the width for a richer look. Add to that a curtain or shade, mounted traditionally. The sheer panel can be static, while the additional window coverings can be used to control light. For a more modern take, try sewing two dowels at either end of a panel of voile or muslin, and hang it taut in the window casement.

Elizabeth Mayhew, a “Today” show style expert and former magazine editor, is the author of “Flip! for Decorating.”

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