Monday, January 7, 2013

Decorating With Vintage Curtains

Curtains, draperies, window treatments of all kinds are expensive. Especially if you have expensive taste in general-like the person who fell in love with these gorgeous Anthropologie curtain panels.

That person would be me. On that post the brilliant Stephanie from Sandpaper and Glue pointed out our living room is leaning a little masculine and could use some feminine balance. I realized she was absolutely right. And that's when I fleetingly considered vintage, but fell back into my "I'll never find curtains for the living room" funk.

Then, as my Facebook and Twitter followers know, I found some fantastic vintage curtains at a thrift store. $5 for three panels. Yes ma'am, that's an affordable curtain solution. They are stylized florals with a close match to our wall color, lots of blue-greens and greens, and a soft ivory background color. They also introduce some more orange-y and pinkish shades for us to play with. Love. Them.

So I thought a little how-to on buying and using vintage curtains might be in order, because the first time I bought some awesome barkcloth panels (over ten years ago on eBay!) I was a little freaked.

Buying Vintage Curtains

1. Inspect The Fabric.

How does the fabric feel? Is it brittle? Does it feel dusty between your fingertips? I usually avoid fabric that feels overly fragile or dusty. Old is okay, decaying isn't really my thing. Also look for holes and tears, and stitching any wear other than the hems. These curtains are in fantastic shape (it helps that they probably aren't that old. I was thinking eighties, but then a friend made a pretty convincing case for the early '60s).

2. Measure The Curtains.

Know the size of the windows you want to use the vintage curtains on, and bring a tape measure to measure the drapery panels. I didn't do this. I was running an errand and realized I was near a couple of my favorite thrifts, so I dashed in. Whoops. I "measured" the curtains by holding them up above my head. I'm a little over five feet, and the curtains seemed about twenty-four inches taller than me, so I thought all was good in the world.

3. Check The Workmanship And Look For Labels.

These don't have a store/manufacturer label but there is a care tag. Machine wash and tumble dry was fine for these curtains when they were made. The curtains are lined, there's a decent hem, and the hems are weighted. The pinch-pleats are well made (the top is lined with a stiff material to help give the pleats shape) and they have pleater hooks which also help support the pinch pleat shape. All the hems and seams are straight and well sewn. So, decent workmanship all around.

Using Vintage Curtains

1. Hang Them Up.

As soon as I got home I hung them on the curtain rod the previous owners left behind (it's ridiculously bent). See the problem? Yep, these curtains are just a little short of 84". Whoops. At first I thought they might have shrunk, but after inspecting them again I think they were probably special order curtains (explains the lack of a tag) and were made a little shorter for some reason, like to go on a window that was over baseboard heaters.

I had three choices. I could pick out a solid color from the pattern, find fabric in that shade, and add a band of fabric to lengthen them. If I did this I could even make them 96" curtains and hang them at ceiling height. Little Miss Penny Wenny did this, and her curtains look fantastic.

I've been a proponent of hanging curtains tall and wide since I saw a designer do it on Trading Spaces. However the opening to the foyer is directly next to the window and so I've decided against it here, because I think it actually breaks up the line and throws off the proportion of the wall.

So I could either rip out the hem or live with them. I decided to live with them. They are super close to touching the ground, and most of the bottom of the curtains will be hidden behind the credenza. If it drives me crazy I can always add some yardage or take out the hem later.

Photo From Web Restaurant Store

2. Deal With The Smell.

Most vintage fabric, especially fabric sourced from thrift stores or yard sales, might smell a little funny. These smelt like a basement crossed with an overabundance of old lady perfume. House Vintage suggested I spray them lightly with white vinegar and then set them out in the sunshine. I really wanted to try this, but apparently the sun no longer shines in Georgia!

So instead I went with my old trick, which is to hang up the curtains in an enclosed space and set a bowl of vinegar in the space with them. It absorbs the smells from the fabric. And it worked! 

3. To Wash Or Not To Wash?

Here is a fantastic resource on washing vintage fabrics. With other vintage curtains I've bought in the past I've hand-washed, or just decided they were fine as is (I fear messing with barkcloth). These, though, aren't that old and seem to be in fine shape.

So I took the plunge and washed them in the machine on a super delicate cycle. worked! Then I put them in the dryer and kept an eye on them. Again, fine. Make sure you remove the pleater pins or any other metal hardware. (Tip? I also put a little white vinegar in the final rinse cycle. Peace of mind that all the smells would be gone. Vinegar in the rinse cycle will make mildew-y towels smell brand new, so its totally up to this job.)

4. Ironing Pinch Pleats.

These are cotton, so I went with a hot, dry setting. Starting at the bottom and working up I worked out the wrinkles. When I got to the top I folded the drapes and ironed like that. (True Confession: my camera's batteries died, and I wanted these curtains ironed and hung before Downton Abbey began. So no picture. But you all can imagine me ironing.)

Come back tomorrow for a DIY curtain rod and see the curtains hanging up for realsies!


  1. Very sassy you thrifty thing you! And not going to lie, I was totally going to give you shit for that curtain rod. I was like, "Tracie would NOT do that shit. No...Seriously...would she? No. No. She wouldn't do that to me" So I'm excited to see what you have in mind!

    1. Isn't it awful? I'm still perplexed as to why they hung the curtain rods from the window every room of the house. I'll be particularly annoyed by that when I get around to painting the trim.

  2. what a steal! It pays to thrift shop! And i lovvvvve the vinegar trick :)

    1. White vinegar solves about 85% of my household problems.

  3. I skip the fabric stuff section at the thrift store far too often. You have inspired me to be more diligent from here on out!

  4. mmm that vinegar trick is awesome... I clean ALL SORTS OF CRAP with vinegar. haha.
    also, because I too am an impulsive shopper, I keep a measuring tape in my wallet. When you go to Ikea they have those paper measuring tapes (fo' free) you can tear off a stack and carry around with you... I may have taken like 5 and keep one folded up in my wallet :).


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