When we moved to the ground floor of our Downtown Oakland apartment I knew I’d want some privacy from the street, especially since street lights were always shining in our windows at night, so I started looking for curtains for the two bedrooms and the french doors in the living room that go to our balcony.
I’m a sucker for linen and other natural fabrics and soon realized these can be very pricy when I feel in love with a pair of linen blackout curtains from Pottery Barn. I knew I had to balance my budget and look at other places for more affordable choices such as Target.
Since curtains could be so expensive and since I’m a fan of low-waste living, I wanted to find curtains that could look great in all my future spaces I move into. We knew our Oakland apartment wasn’t our forever home and since then we’ve lived in two additional homes and we use all of our curtains from previous homes versus buying new ones.
1. Curtain types
There are many types of curtains for different purposes, sheers, blackout, light filtering. When thinking about my bedrooms and their proximity to a busy road, I opted for two types of curtains—sheers during the daytime and blackout curtains for nighttime.
These curtains are great at giving some privacy during the day but still allowing the light to come into your space. They are usually made of synthetic material (plastics), thin linen or gauzy cotton. They are paired nicely with light filtering or blackout curtains to make a window have more depth and look more luxe.
These curtains are usually one fabric layer and thicker material but still allow some light in when they are closed. I like these types of curtains usually for main living spaces like the living room and kitchen. You can find these both in synthetic and natural fibers.
These curtains are to block out light completely and are great for bedrooms and media rooms. Blackout curtains usually have two layers - the decorative layer you see in your room, and the blackout layer that is seen from your window to the outside world. So for Blackout curtains, I’d suggest you only keep them closed when necessary because they aren’t the prettiest from the road.
2. Size and dimensions
Just because your window is 60x84, doesn’t mean you get curtain panels of that exact same size. Why not, you ask? Well because if you bought panels that just covered the window, you’d have a lot of light still coming into your room, and your curtains would have to be pulled taught to be closed which isn’t very pleasing to look at. You’ll first want to narrow down your curtains by length since you can’t buy more fabric for length. You can always add more curtains if you’re short on width though! I found Pottery Barn’s article on sizing and dimensions to be my favorite.
Length of Curtain Panels
When it comes to the length of curtains, its usually best to buy them long enough that they can hang 4–6 inches above the window’s frame and a half an inch from the floor. While “puddling” curtains (curtains are so long the bottoms lay on the floor) is a trendy thing, I’ve found with pets and kids it’s a bad idea as our cat would sit on them like a cat bed, and our daughter would pull on them.
So when measuring for length here’s the formula I use:
Window length size (with trim) + 6 inches + wall height below window trim – ½ inch = length of panel needed
Sometimes curtains won’t come in the exact length you need so you can always fudge it with the popular sizes out there like 96” or 108”. The only time I’d use shorter curtains like the 84” ones is if I have a radiator below my window (like we did in our Oakland Apartment). You do NOT want to catch your curtains on fire.
Width of Curtain Panels
Usually when you buy curtains you want them to be flowy with plenty of pleats even when you have them closed. As a general rule for the curtain width, you want 2 times your window’s actual width. This is for two main reasons: First, flowy curtains provide plenty of coverage of your window and second, you want your curtains to be wide enough when they are closed that they still take up the entire space on the curtain rod.
Now you may be thinking that they don’t make curtains wide enough, and you’re right depending on your window’s size! The trick here is to buy multiple panels like we did for our master bedroom. We have 4 curtain panels for optimal coverage.
So when measuring for width here’s the formula I use:
Window width size (with trim) x 2 = total width of curtains needed
(So if your window is 60 inches wide, it would be 120” inches, which is two 60” curtain panels—one for each side of your window.)
CURTAIN ROD PSA: When hanging your curtain rod, allow an additional 10 inches on EACH side of the window to accommodate your curtains when they are open. This allows the wall to accommodate (store) the curtains when they are open while at the same time letting ALL THE SUN into the room without obstructing the window. Again, Pottery Barn’s article on this is super helpful!
3. Fabrics and textures
As a designer who loves systems and sustainability, I’m a huge fan of investing in items that I can reuse over and over and mix and match over time and could go in any of my spaces at a given time. I’m also a fan of using natural fibers because they will eventually compost, unlike synthetic fibers that will be here for 100s of years.
Hemp, linen, cotton
I’m a huge advocate for plant-based fibers and using them as much as possible. While hemp is having a resurgence and is the most environmentally friendly of these three fibers, it’s hard to come by, but hopefully it will become more popular than cotton in this decade. I love linen, but not so much it’s price tag. I own one pair of linen curtains that cost $300 and they are precious to me, but there’s no way I could outfit my entire home in them because of the price. If you can splurge and you love linen, go for it, otherwise there are synthetic fibers blended with linen to give the same look at a fraction of the cost - it’s just not as eco-minded, just a choice you have to optimize for. Lastly cotton. I love a light cotton curtain! We have these ones from Cost Plus World Market on our canopy bed and they are dreamy. Cotton is very ubiquitous and also affordable, but cotton does require a lot of resources (water and pesticides) to grow, so that’s something to think about. These curtains can be washed and overtime they can even become softer!
Silk and Wool
These are animal / insect based fibers that cost a lot of money. Usually if these are featured in curtains they are usually blended with another plant-based fiber. Silk is blended with cotton to make velvet drapes (*swoon*). Wool is a great sound and thermal insulator, but with a steep price tag, so I usually use wool in pillow covers and other smaller decor items. These fibers usually have to be spot cleaned or dry cleaned to maintain their structure.
Rayon and Polyester
The most affordable, but also least environmentally friendly fibers for curtains are synthetic like rayon and polyester, or blends of them with cotton or linen. These fibers are made from plastic which is a form of petroleum oil and cannot be composted ever. Benefits to these are they they are generally stain and water resistant (not completely though). Most of these curtains can be hand washed and hang dried, but I wouldn’t put these into the washing machine as getting them unwrinkled will be near impossible due to their low tolerance to hot heat such as an iron.
4. Colors and patterns
When shopping for curtains I opt for neutral colours either in solids or understated geometric patterns because they are timeless and can go with virtually any decor in the rest of your space. In my design practice I optimize for curtains that can go into nearly any room and be moved at any time because life changes, spaces change, we move into new homes, kids grow up, etc.
So while those trendy trellis curtains are cute today, you’ll likely get tired of them in the future (trust me, I’ve owned some!). Same goes for your kid’s cartoon themed curtains. Save the fun patterns for other smaller decor items as well as actual things you’ll use or the kids will play with. Neutral colors never go out of style and they are relaxing colors in your space that reflect nature, and nature boosts your mood :)
Now that Preston and I have lived in three different spaces, we love that our curtains from our first home work for us in our newest home in Canada. The curtains we used in our first living room are now the curtains in our master bedroom and they look great!