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Curtain Call

Martha Stewart Living, February 2006

If you've ever contemplated curtains and been overwhelmed by the choices -- long or short, sheer or opaque, valances or swags -- you're not alone. The vast selection is enough to make you avoid them altogether. But curtains are a powerful decor element. Equal parts function and form, they can make a space feel dramatic or whimsical, formal or casual. They can inject color and pattern, and tie together a roomful of disparate furnishings. And somewhere amid the yards of options, there are the right ones for you.

There wasn't always such a large selection. Before the seventeenth century, Europeans covered their tiny "windows" -- holes or slits in the wall -- with waxed paper or interior shutters to keep out the chill. Sash windows, which resembled the framed, sliding glass panes we have today, were invented in the mid-1600s. For privacy, and to control the amount of light that came in, people began tacking or hanging cloth panels over their windows; a simple cord or belt was used to draw them to the side. These early curtains were frequently made from heavy silks and velvets that pooled on the floor to minimize drafts.

It didn't take long for curtains to catch on as a fashion statement. By the eighteenth century, the window hangings -- often a pair of panels attached to a rod with rings -- mirrored popular clothing styles: Rich fabrics laden with fringes and tassels were de rigueur in wealthy European and American homes. Curtains and other furnishings later became so elaborate that poet Edgar Allan Poe published an 1840 magazine essay poking fun at what he saw as Americans' overwrought decorating habits. "An excessive volume of drapery of any kind is, under any circumstance, irreconcilable with good taste," he wrote.

Fortunately, these days there are some guidelines you can follow. Most basic two-panel curtains should have a combined width that is about two and a half to three times that of the window. Informal styles can extend to the top of the windowsill or a few inches beyond it. Formal window treatments that collect on the floor make a grand gesture, but a hem that just grazes the surface is perfectly appropriate.

One decision you must make is whether to line your curtains. Unlined styles appear soft and billowy. They provide privacy but don't always block out all light. Over time, the sun can cause fabric, especially silk, to fade and even disintegrate. Backing curtains with a cotton lining in a complementary color adds body and protects them. But a lining can darken the shade of the interior fabric. For curtains that drape luxuriously, try interlining, or sewing a layer of flannel between the primary and lining fabrics.

You'll also need to zero in on the style you want. Are you drawn to layers of fabric, ornate trimmings, and fancy embellishments, such as pleated valances? Traditional designs might be the best fit. If you prefer something less extravagant, with playful touches -- ruffles, pretty ribbon -- consider country styles. And if it's no-frills and clean lines you're after, modern curtains are a good match. Here, you'll find options in each category. All can be custom-made, but you don't have to spend a lot to get a great look. Home-design stores and catalogs offer many options (personalize them with your own trimmings); a few even let you mix and match elements to create something uniquely your own. With these resources and a little know-how, selecting curtains won't seem like such a big task. You'll get the hang of it in no time.