Before you buy new window treatments, it helps to ask yourself these questions:
- How much light do you want to block? Options range from sheer curtains that block almost no light to heavy, layered “blackout" curtains that block almost all light.
- Do you want to draw attention to a particular window treatment, or would you prefer that people focus on other aspects of the room?
- Do you need insulation? Insulated curtains offer energy savings year-round by keeping the home warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer.
- What size is the window you are covering?
- What features are you looking for? Are you trying to soften the look of a room or maintain a clean and angular look?
- Do you have a budget? If so, how much do you want to spend?
Curtains and drapes are made from soft, flowing fabrics like polyester, cotton and silk, and are designed to hang outside of a window frame on a rod. Here’s the skinny on the differences between types of curtains/drapes.
Types of Curtains
Designed to filter light. These curtains are unlined and the most common modern curtains.
Sheer or Privacy Curtains
Very thin and aren’t designed to block light or your view of the outside. They do block the view from the outside in.
Pairs of “half curtains." You need one curtain panel on each side of a window to complete the look.
Thick and designed to block out light.
Purely decorative and usually made from heavier fabrics.
Short, ring-suspended curtains often used in kitchens and packaged in sets.
When to Use Curtains
Curtains can be the best window treatments if your goal is to soften the right angles of a room, insulate a room from light or outside air temperatures, or absorb sound to make a room quieter. Curtains are also great for covering glass doors, multiple adjoining windows or very large picture windows.
Curtains and drapes are usually made from fabrics that can be fully cleaned or washed. Always read the care instructions on the attached tag. Many curtains must be dry cleaned, while others must be hand washed and hung to dry. Few curtains can safely be run through automatic washers and dryers.
Window shades are window coverings that have an appearance and size similar to the window itself; they also lack the wavy appearance of curtains when extended. Shades are made of continuous fabric or tightly adjoined materials rather than the series of widely spaced, rigid slats used for blinds. Window shades are often more romantic and elegant than blinds, as well as more compact and practical than most curtains. Shades are made from a variety of materials. More rigid window shades are made from materials like tightly connected bamboo strips; softer window shades are usually crafted from cotton, polyester or similar fabric.
Popular Types of Shades
Roller shades are slightly stiffened window shades that retract by wrapping tightly around a steel or wooden roller. These usually feature some form of spring-loaded lift mechanism to easily retract the shade around the roller. Roman shades appear fairly flat and unbroken when extended, just like other window shades, but retract into a series of large folds around supportive battens when raised. Roman shades are great for displaying bold designs.
When to Use Shades
Shades are a happy medium between curtains and blinds. They offer a clean and crisp appearance like blinds, but provide a more flowing and relaxed appearance like curtains. Window shades are not as decorative as curtains, but they are easier to manage and take up less space. Substitute them for curtains in small rooms, or for blinds in living areas with frequent use.
Inside vs. Outside Mount
Inside mount shades sit within the recessed window frame so that the shades are roughly flush with the wall. Outside mount shades are hung outside of the frame on the wall and cover an area larger than the window opening. Here are a few things to consider when deciding which to use:
- Inside mount shades provide a cleaner, more fitted look.
- Inside mount shades only work well if the window frame is truly square (with a measured width difference of less than a half-inch between the top and bottom) and if the frame is deep enough to accommodate the hardware used to hang the shades.
- Outside mount shades are ideal to hide unattractive moldings.
- Outside mount shades are good for increased privacy and better blocking of outside light.
- Outside mount shades can make windows seem larger.
Blinds are window treatments that have parallel slats, running either vertically or horizontally, that can be tilted in unison at the same angle to block out varying levels of light or offer more privacy. Window blinds, unlike shutters, are drawn together with a cord for full window exposure. Popular “Venetian blinds" are the most common type of horizontal slat blinds. Window blinds are often the least expensive window treatments and offer a clean, tidy appearance. They don’t take up extra room and are more efficient for small spaces than curtains. Blinds are almost always made of rigid materials like wood, vinyl or lightweight metal. One exception is some vertical blinds, which may be made of stiffened fabrics.
Shutters, like window blinds, are generally composed of rigid horizontal slats that open or close in unison. The major difference between blinds and shutters is that shutters are usually heavy and wooden, and swing open on hinges – away from a window – for more light.
Type of Window Treatment Light Blocking Potential Thermal Insulation Maximum Privacy Level Relative Price Common Materials Ideal Usage Insulated Curtains High High High High Cotton, polyester, heavy fabric Good insulation from light, sound and outside temperatures; doors and large windows Uninsulated Curtains Moderate Low High Moderate Cotton, polyester, silk Moderate light control, romantic or soft look; doors and large windows Sheer Curtains Low None Moderate Low Polyester, cotton Privacy without blocking light or view to outside Shades Moderate Low-Moderate High Moderate Bamboo, cotton, polyester Attractive look in an efficient design; not recommended for larger windows Blinds Moderate Low-Moderate High Low-Moderate Metal, vinyl, wood Can be inexpensive and offer a clean look Shutters High None High High Wood Bold door and window embellishment with great light control
Valances and Swags
Valances and swags are purely decorative window additions that don’t significantly block out light. Valances are any draperies or rigid frames used to hide the hardware at the top of curtains or blinds. Similarly, swags or “swag curtains" are defined as pairs of curtains that are hung at the top corners of a window, sometimes with a valance. Another form of modern valance is a simple length of fabric wrapped around a decorative rod above a window, usually displayed over windows with shades or blinds. If you prefer a “tiered" look on your windows, you can create two levels of valances – one at the top and one near the center of the window.
Curtain rods are the metal or wooden rods used to hang curtains and drapes. They must have the correct width and length for the window being covered, but there are many styles to choose from to match your décor.
Finials, which are the decorative end pieces of curtain rods, come in many styles and sizes. Choose from wrought iron basket ends to brass knobs to blown glass, or more modern stainless steel designs. Be sure to coordinate finials with a rod of the same style and manufacturer for compatibility.
Curtain tiebacks are loops of fabric, braided ropes, tassels or other accessories used to gather curtains to the center or sides of a window. Tiebacks can either be selected to match the curtain fabric, or to contrast with it for a bolder look. Holdbacks are essentially wood or metal tiebacks mounted to the wall with a fixed “U" shape in which you can gather your curtains.
How to Measure for Window Treatments
Carefully measure the length and width of your window or window frame. If you will be hanging recessed blinds or shades (i.e. “inside mounts"), you will measure the interior dimensions of the window frame. Be as precise as possible to get the best fit. Some windows will not be exactly the same width at the top and bottom. If you’re planning to hang inside-mount blinds or shades, be sure to measure the frame width at both the top and bottom of the window, and write down the narrower of the two widths to be sure your new blinds will fit.
Curtain and Drape Sizing
Curtains and drapes don’t need to fit exactly over a door or window, since they’re outside mounts. In fact, they need to be noticeably wider than the opening they cover, and can be much longer than the window height. The length should be selected based on the intended wall height of the curtain rod. In general, longer curtains are considered more formal and dressy, while shorter curtains are considered relaxed and casual. Here are a few guidelines to consider before choosing a curtain length:
- Curtains should just reach the floor in formal or dressy rooms (even if the window sill is far off the floor). Examples: living room, family room, den.
- Extra-long curtains that pool on the floor lend romance and softness to a room. Examples: bedroom, sitting room.
- Curtains reaching just to the trim at the bottom of the sill (or apron) offer a casual look. Examples: kitchen, bathroom, kids’ bedrooms.
You want the overall curtain width to be one-and-a-half to two times the width of the window, so that when drawn, the curtains still maintain a full, wavy appearance. The more curtain width you have to work with, the fuller the curtains will appear. Simply multiply the width of the window times 1.5 or 2 for the approximate desired total curtain width. For example, if your window is 36" wide and you want a very full curtain appearance, you’ll want about 72" of curtain width (2 x 36" = 72"). For many windows, you’ll need to use more than one curtain panel.
Note: Curtain rods need to be 4-6" longer than the window sill width, so that the curtains can more than cover the window opening.
Blind and Shade Sizing
Window blinds and shades are designed for more specific window sizes. Blinds must be at least as long the window height, but can exceed it. Inside mount blinds or shades that are recessed in the frame must have a fairly exact fit, with the width of the blinds about ½" narrower than the frame. For outside mounts, the blinds or shades should be several inches wider than the frame.
If you want to change the appearance of a very small window or a wall that’s too low, here are a few decorating ideas to achieve your goals:
- For short windows or low walls: Attach curtain rods just below the ceiling (well above the window frame) and hang long, to-the-floor curtains. This makes the window and wall appear taller.
- For extremely narrow windows: Use curtain rods that are much longer than the window is wide. Hang the curtains near the ends of the rod, exposing as much window as possible. You may also want to use tiebacks.
- For very tall windows: Add a valance with a bold horizontal pattern over the window treatment to make it appear shorter.
- For awkwardly wide or large windows: To prevent a window from dominating the room, hang curtain panels along the window to break it up or set up two different pairs of curtains to give the illusion that there are actually two windows.
- Change out window treatments seasonally to match the seasonal décor.
- Mix treatments together. For example, try hanging curtains over blinds.
- Top curtains or shades with decorative swags and valances.
- Use a valance over almost any type of window treatment.
- Use sheer curtains to maintain privacy, but allow constant light and maintain visibility outside the window.
- Use different top styles with curtains to fit your decorating style, such as tab top curtains (which hang from a curtain rod by multiple fabric loops), grommet tops or rod pocket curtains (which utilize a single long fabric sleeve to hang from the rod).
Use of Color
If you want people to focus on what’s outside the window or on the window treatment itself, select bright and bold colors or layer curtains with contrasting colors. If you want the focus away from the window and into the room – toward an impressive rug, for example – choose neutral and subdued colors. Warm shades like yellow, red and pink make a room livelier and excite the eye; cooler blues, whites and grays subdue a room to make it more peaceful by calming the eye. Be sure the window treatments you select work with the other colors in the room. In general, colors work well together if they are completely opposite (complementary colors) or very similar (analogous colors) in the full range of colors on a color wheel.