Window coverings can provide not only privacy but thermal insulation, shade, and a stylish boost to your home’s decor. They can be eco-friendly too.
By Eileen Wosnack
Have you ever wondered about the best way to decorate windows? The art of designing window fashions is a little common sense and a little science. First off, what are the various types of window coverings and when is it appropriate to use them?
Shade: A covering for a window that can be pulled down to offer privacy, shade from the sunlight, and perhaps thermal insulation.
Blind: A covering for a window consisting of one solid piece of material or slats of material, generally rigid, used to allow privacy and shade from sunlight.
Curtain: A hanging fabric for decorative purposes only or to shut out light and provide privacy, not just on a window.
Drape: Long hanging fabric used to control light and/or privacy for windows or openings in a room.
So, basically, the words shade and blind can be used interchangeably, while drape and curtain cannot. They are similar in that they may be used to control light and offer privacy in a room; the difference is that curtains may be decorative only, while drapes are longer, usually floor to ceiling or window top in length and provide privacy and light control. Long, flowing sheer fabric is properly termed as a curtain. However, what the window covering is named is less important than why you have it.
You might also consider exterior awnings, which can provide some shade by overhanging the window and shielding the direct sun without depleting the light and, for that reason, are excellent alternatives in cold climates when the days are short during the winter. Properly constructed, awnings or overhangs will not block winter sun, though they will shade the windows in the summer.
Exterior shutters can be very protective from the wind and cold, as well as room darkening. In areas where break-ins are a concern or for extended absences from the home, exterior shutters greatly deter thieves since the glass is not exposed.
Interior shades that are constructed of more rigid material or double weight fabrics also a little more warmth and excellent light control, since they can fit inside the window casing and be tight to the sides of the frames.
Ask yourself what you want from your window coverings. Is the light control important or do you only require something to soften the window’s angular lines and provide ambience? Or do you need a blackout window covering that can also provide a certain amount of thermal value to block the sun’s heat as well as the light and provide warmth on cold nights? Once you determine the need for the window covering, the selection of a style is the next step.
Whether the shades pull from the top on a spring roller or are on a cord system, as with Roman shades (blinds), they are usually easy to operate. Cords can be purchased with a quick release system to prevent the strings from tangling around children or employ a twisting wand, thereby eliminating the strings altogether.
For home sewers, a window quilt can be easily made and hand rolled and pinned up or set with rings and cords to raise and lower the shade. The “quilt” should have two or three layers if heat control is one of the purposes of the shade. The decorative fabric layer can be light and match the room’s style, while a middle layer of black or white organic cotton flannel will afford additional thermal value. The backing can be white organic cotton to reflect the sunlight in the summer. Quilting the three layers helps keep them in place for ease of raising and lowering the shade.
Window blinds can be manufactured from aluminum, bamboo, woven woods, wooden slats, vinyl or fabric, and can either be vertical or horizontal. Interior shutters are blinds that are stationary – that is they remain in the window and do not draw up or down. Instead, the slats can be controlled to open or close or be partially open to deflect the light. There are concerns with vinyl blinds off-gassing vinyl chloride, which is toxic, so read the labels carefully. Aluminum blinds can be recycled. Wooden blinds are a good option if the source is managed forests and not clear-cut trees. The finishes, including paints and lacquers and plastic coatings, should be carefully considered as well. A bass wood slat blind from plantation wood finished with a low VOC urethane is a good option if you must have blinds.
Decorative curtains are easy to make window coverings whether one sews or not. Found items, such as table cloths, napkins, handkerchiefs, scarves and even neck ties all can be re-purposed to create simple decorative curtains by pinning or draping them over a rod of some sort. Interesting rods from driftwood or tree branches secured with large spike nails cost very little and when draped loosely with a piece of fabric, the suggestion of window decor makes for an interesting room. They need not cover the windows at all. Sheer fabrics add lightness, while heavy ones like velvets and woollens give the impression of richness. Floral prints can mix with stripes or dots, so long as the basic color scheme is the same.
Drapery is usually much more formal. Long, hanging fabric panels are most often lined and/or interlined, providing privacy, light and heat control. The rods may be turned spindles, bamboo poles, brass poles or almost anything that is long and strong enough to hold the weight of the fabric drapes. A top piece, called a valance, is optional but almost always found in formal drapery so that the rod is covered. Sometimes, the addition of a sheer curtain under the lined drapery is used to provide daytime privacy and a second or third rod is mounted in line with the main rod. The drapery may be drawn by hand or with a wand, or used on a system whereby a cord is pulled one or the other way to open and close the drapes.
Fabrics can range from rich, opulent silks in one of many hues to light and bright linens. Interlining provides the privacy and blackout option and lining reflects light and gives a uniform look to the home from the outside. Draperies often are weighted with metal discs sewn into the bottom corners to enhance a straight hang and to stop billowing in drafts from the wind or central heating.
When in the market to purchase new window coverings, please bear in mind that many materials used are vinyl chloride derivatives and many finishes are unsafe. The healthiest method is to employ functioning outdoor shutters or awnings coupled with indoor organic fabric curtains, blinds or draperies. At least then if there are any toxins in the finishes of the shutters, they will not pollute the indoor air and the organic fabrics inside will offer a clear choice for something pretty and functional.
To avoid chemical finishes altogether, try to purchase the framework for awnings and create your own from oiled canvas or wood that is finished with linseed oil products. A canvas of vines and greenery can also function as an awning to shield the summer sun.
Determine what is needed first and explore used markets or find a local seamstress to sew the window coverings. Better yet, make them yourself if you can and you will have some of the best dressed, thermally efficient, energy saving windows in town!
Eileen Wosnack is the principal designer of Spirit Interior Design in White Rock, British Columbia and founder of Eclectrix™ Organic Home, a sustainable organic interiors store. She is a member of the Canada Green Building Council and the Organic Trade Association. This article first appeared in Natural Life Magazine.