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Curtains Buying Guide

This primer on panels, rods, and more will help you get the hang of choosing curtains.

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focus on the function

Before settling on a style, ask yourself these questions: Where do you want to hang the curtains? How much light do you want to filter in or out? Are the curtains purely decorative? Then, consider these three options: lined, unlined, or interlined.

  • Lined: A more expensive yet popular option, lined curtains provide total darkness and privacy.  They last longer because the lining shields the fabric from sun damage. It also adds heft, protecting against drafts and allowing the fabric to fall more luxuriously. 
  • Unlined: Though these curtains filter some light through, they're mainly used for decorative purposes only. 
  • Interlined: A common option for custom-made curtains, this type has a layer of flannel-like fabric sewn between the lining and the "face" fabric. Consider interlined curtains for maximum durability, light blockage, body, and insulation. 

pick a style

The room where you'll be hanging your curtains should influence the type of texture, color, and pattern you choose. Follow the tips below for some style guidance.

Texture

Choose a textured curtain that reflects the mood of the room.  Fabric options that work with most styles are cotton, cotton blends, wool, and wool blends. See below for more examples.
  • Formal Space: A heavy silk or velvet (dry-clean only) adds to the room's elegance. If you're looking for a more practical (and washable) option, try silky rayon blends or cotton sateen.
  • Informal Space: For a casual feel, consider a billowy linen or crinkly crushed velvet (generally dry-clean only). 

Color

You'll need to decide if you want the curtains to blend with the decor or pop.  
  • For a subtle statement: A curtain in the same tone as your wall but a few shades darker will blend in. Or, opt for a non-dominant, subtle color in the room (such as a soft shade pulled from the rug).
  • If you want to go bolder: Try a striking curtain in a saturated color (like cobalt blue). Keep in mind that if your curtains are unlined, the colors will infuse the room. 

Pattern

Thinking of choosing window treatments with a print? Here's what to keep in mind.
  • If you have patterned furniture or bedding, it's better to stick with solid curtains. A room with lots of solid-colored furniture is just right for patterned curtains.
  • To add a touch of color, choose small neutral prints (like dots or paisley). A large graphic pattern can add drama—just be sure to choose a color that relates to the existing décor in the room. 

choose a curtain length

Ready-made panels are available in lengths from 63 to 144 inches. When in doubt, go with floor-length curtains unless there's a radiator or windowsill in the way. First, measure from the floor to where you'll hang the rod, and then round up. See the two most common styles below: 

Just Hitting the Floor or Sill

  • Fabric just touches the floor or hovers half an inch above
  • Clean and structured look
  • ​Length is good if you'll be opening and closing curtains a lot (they'll easily fall back into place)

Breaking Slightly

  • Panels extend onto the floor by 1 to 3 inches
  • Modern and relaxed look
  • ​A more forgiving style if you have uneven floors

Editors'
Tip
How Wide Should Curtains Be?
A good rule of thumb: Choose curtains that are 2 to 2 ½ times the width of the window. If you're hanging curtains just to frame a window and don't plan on closing them, you can round down to 1 ½ times the width. 
where to mount curtains

Generally, hanging curtain brackets in the wall above and outside the window molding looks best. The techniques below are decorator favorites—use one or both on the same window.

Hang Above the Window Frame

  • To create the illusion of a taller window, mount the rod 4 to 6 inches above the window frame. Another option: Mount the rod halfway between the frame and the ceiling molding (but no more than 8 inches above the frame, or the curtains will look awkward).
  • Installing a track on the ceiling also lengthens the windows. 

Hang Wider Than the Window Frame

  • Make your space feel grander by extending the rod 3 to 6 inches beyond the frame on each side. This also allows extra light to filter in when the curtains are open.
  • If you have pretty moldings, this hanging option will let you reveal them. You may want to leave as much as 12 inches on each side.

Select the curtain's top hem Style

Both decorative and functional, the top hem of a curtain (or heading) can help define the overall look—casual or formal, feminine or sleek. Below is a quick overview of the most common options: 

Rod-Pocket Heading

  • A channel along the top holds the rod and creates a gathered effect for a casual look.
  • A nice option if you want the curtain to stay put because the gathering makes it difficult to move the curtain back and forth. 

Basic Heading (with hooks)

  • A traditional flat heading that fastens to the rod via rings—or sometimes drapery hooks—stitched to its top hem.
  • These curtains can be easily moved. 

Pleated Heading

  • Fastens to the rod with drapery hooks and rings.
  • Panels vary in style, from narrow pencil pleats to wide, flat box pleats.
  • Because they're structured, pleated headings appear more formal compared to other heading styles.

Tab-Top Heading

  • Flat loops of fabric fasten the drape to the rod.
  • The fabric can change the look of this type of heading. Sheers are more relaxed; stiffer fabrics are more buttoned-up.
  • For a feminine, romantic look, consider a variation on tab-top headings:  tie-tops (bows instead of flat loops). 

Editors'
Tip
Give Tiebacks a Try
If you want to keep curtains off to the side for more light or to create a formal look, tiebacks are a good option. Mount curved metal brackets on the wall about two-thirds of the way down the window. (Match the room and rod for style.)
choose a curtain rod

If your rod will be hidden from view, you can pick one based on function alone; otherwise, the rod style should relate to the overall look of the room. Read about the features of four common styles below.   

Classic Rod

  • Adjustable pole
  • Attaches to the wall with brackets
  • Often features end caps or finials
  • Choose a double-rod version if you are layering with sheers

Return Rod

  • Adjustable U-shaped rod
  • Screws directly into the wall
  • Panels wrap around the curved sides
  • Blocks out light well
  • Available in a double-rod style for layering

Track Rod

  • Drapery hooks attach to pulleys inside a track
  • Install on a wall or ceiling
  • Some resemble a rod with finials, concealing all moving parts inside the pole
  • ​Curtains glide effortlessly

Photo Credit: Photo Author

Tension Rod

  • Adjusts to fit inside a window frame with no hardware
  • Inexpensive option
  • Easy to install
  • Best for lightweight panels or café curtains, not heavy panels

installation tip

Hanging ready-made curtains is fairly easy. The rods usually come with mounting hardware and instructions, but you may need to buy rings separately. These are the supplies you will need: stepladder, tape measure, pencil, level, handheld drill, screwdriver, and stud finder. Use toggle bolts instead of screws if there aren't any studs where you are anchoring brackets.

​Alternately, you can hire a handyman to install your curtains. Depending on where you live, the fee is typically $55 to $95 an hour. The job normally takes about 20 minutes per window for a basic rod with brackets and 45 minutes per window for a track rod.

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