5 ways to get better window treatments on a budget
Home & Gardening

5 ways to get better window treatments on a budget

In January, an article titled “Why Rich People Don’t Cover Their Windows” ran in the Atlantic and quickly went viral. It posited the theory that bare windows have become a status symbol among the well-to-do. But if you ask an interior designer, they’ll probably tell you the opposite — that their clients value the privacy and aesthetics that window treatments offer, and they’re not afraid to spend staggering amounts of money to get them.

“Drapery is probably the most expensive thing you will put in a room,” says Gretchen Everett, owner of a workroom in Silver Spring, Md.. that specializes in custom window treatments. “The average window takes 12 yards for a custom treatment. If the fabric is $100 per yard, which in the design world is quite reasonable, that’s $1,200 for one window.” And that’s not including hardware or labor.

Because there has to be some middle ground between going bare and going broke, we asked design pros to share their tips for dressing windows on a budget. While they all attest that there is no substitute for custom treatments tailored to fit your windows perfectly, there are a few hacks for elevating off-the-shelf styles. Here’s what they recommend.

Opt for panels

“If you’re looking to save money, curtains are more forgiving and can be less precise than trying to do something more fitted, like a Roman shade,” says D.C.-based interior designer Annie Elliott.

Most off-the-shelf drapery panels are about 50 inches wide. For custom treatments, Elliott often specifies 1½ times or double the width of fabric so the drapes appear fuller. To make store-bought panels look higher end, designers suggest doubling up because single panels can look skimpy on a large window. Stitching two store-bought panels together on the sewing machine (or paying a seamstress to do it) will create a more voluminous look.

As for where to find good options, Stephanie Andrews, of Atlanta’s Balance Design, likes to hunt on Etsy. She says she’s had good luck with the vendor SHIessentials, which makes panels and shades.

“You have a lot of fabrics to choose from, but it’s not nearly as expensive as going completely custom with a designer, even though they are in fact made to order,” she says.

She also notes that Pottery Barn and West Elm offer draperies with details that look more expensive and custom, such as pinch-pleats. Recently, a crop of semi-custom retailers has emerged offering made-to-order draperies from an edited selection of fabrics. These companies include Pepper Home, Two Pages Curtains, Quince, Curtarra and Half Price Drapes.

“If you want a block-print look or a grandmillenial vibe, Pepper Home offers really good prints,” says Valerie Darden of Brexton Cole Interiors in Ashland, Va. She’s also used Two Pages Curtains on projects, noting “their pleats are well done and you can even find them on Amazon.” Darden has also had luck at Calico Corners, scoring fabric for as much as 70 percent off. “Look for remnants, especially if you’re only looking to cover one small window, and ask what’s on sale because it may not be obvious,” she says.

Add some embellishment

Designers have all manner of tricks to jazz up less-expensive, plain-Jane panels. “Adding trim or tassels to the edge can make a white panel or shade look more custom,” Darden says.

For a recent show house, Andrews added a piece of patterned fabric to the bottom half of solid blue West Elm draperies to give them a more bespoke look. “We loved the pattern but the fabric was very expensive and we couldn’t afford to do the whole drape in it,” she says. “It ended up being a fraction of what it would have cost to do them entirely in the print.”

Position them right

Hanging draperies as high as possible can give even inexpensive panels a more professional, polished look. As a general guideline, designers recommend going four to six inches above the window frame, though some suggest taking draperies up to the ceiling if your space allows.

Ideally, drapes should just “kiss” the floor, or break on the floor the same way a trouser leg breaks into a soft fold when it hits the top of a shoe. Andrews advises buying the longest length offered for mass-produced curtains, which is often 108 inches.

“The price difference between something that’s 108 inches and 96 inches on a lot of sites is relatively minimal,” Everett says. You can always have them hemmed. Most dry cleaners offer this service.

Also worth noting is that fabric will stretch or “fall” over time, especially in a humid environment. “If you’re working with a heavy linen or a velvet, you might want to hem it a half-inch from the floor, knowing that it will pull down over the first few months,” Elliott says. Everett sometimes hems to a quarter-inch off the floor, knowing that wool or linen will drop.

Many off-the-rack curtains come with both a rod pocket and tabs. Designers recommend sliding the rod through the tabs, not the pocket, because the fabric will drape better. But for a true custom look, they suggest forgoing both the pocket and the tabs, instead hanging with a combination of evenly spaced drapery pins and ring clips, which you can buy at most home decor stores.

One thing all the designers agreed on: “Stay away from grommets,” Elliott says.

If you’re only looking to cover the lower half of a window, cafe curtains — also known as brisbees — offer an economical solution.

“The key is to hang them from a rod with rings, not a pocket rod, so they don’t look too sloppy or casual,” says Elliott, who favors Rejuvenation’s rods for this purpose.

Choose supportive hardware

High-end hardware can run a few hundred dollars per window. Elliott says the most affordable off-the-shelf option is going to be a telescoping rod, which you can find at most hardware or big-box stores. They expand to fit your window, which makes it easy to adjust their size. Ideally, a rod should extend a minimum of six inches on each side of the window casing to allow draperies to hang in an open position without cutting into the view too much. She recommends buying the rod large enough that you can use it fully collapsed for extra support. “A heavy, lined drape can really make a cheap metal telescoping rod sag,” she says.

When it comes to installation, experience matters — especially if you live in an old house with plaster walls. Everett says drilling into plaster to install hardware is tenuous work and it pays to hire a pro. A drapery installer will methodically measure for the right placement and steam draperies, too.

Consider shades carefully

Buying off-the-shelf shades presents more of a challenge than drapes because they need to fit your window — even more so when they are mounted inside the casing, requiring a precise measurement. “Your window will need about an inch-and-a-half depth minimally to do an inside mount,” Everett says.

Andrews prefers an inside-mounted shade for its neater, more tailored look. “It really shows off the trim work in an old house,” she says. But you will get a halo of light filtering in around the edges, so if you value total darkness, an outside mount might be better. Mounting shades outside the window frame can also make a small window look larger. For outside mounts, Everett recommends the shade extend beyond the window casing by one inch on each side.

All of the designers recommend roller shades for rooms with more modern decor, noting that they’ve come a long way from earlier vinyl versions, plus they tend to be more affordable than other shade options. For a more traditional look, the designers favor natural woven Roman shades, such as bamboo.

“Most companies on Amazon offer basic window widths, but blinds.com will cut them to the width you need,” Darden says. Home Depot and Lowe’s also offer custom sizes. Every website has very specific directions for how to measure. Andrews advises measuring each window a couple times, especially in older homes where every window might have slightly different dimensions.

Whether you choose free-flowing drapes or tidy Roman shades, the designers we spoke to agree that there are no real bargains when it comes to dressing a window.

“If you own a home, you have to spend some money on window treatments, and do it early so you have time to appreciate them for the entire time you’re in that home,” Elliott says. “Chances are you won’t be replacing them for years to come. Even though they are a big investment, they’re worth it.”

Brunner is a freelance writer. This article appeared in The Washington Post.