Boring things: curtains

This is a post in the not-very-regular series about boring things.

One of the shitty things about moving into a new house is that often, for a variety of stupid reasons, some or all of the rooms lack curtains. So you end up doing stuff like hanging blankets or towels over the curtain rail in the bedroom while you try to work out how the hell you’re supposed to go about getting new curtains. Once I did this for literally a year and only solved the problem by moving out.

What are you going to hang the curtain off?

The big important thing nobody ever tells you (because you’re just supposed to know) is that you need to get curtains that will match the thing you have to hang curtains off. So far I’ve come across two main types of thing-to-hang-curtains-off: poles and tracks.

A pole is a piece of wood (or whatever) that sits above the window looking kind of like a broomstick. The curtain you need to hang off a pole is an eyelet curtain. Eyelets are big metal-reinforced holes in the top of the curtain – the pole goes through them.

A track is a shitty-looking piece of plastic that may be capable of bending if necessary. The curtain you need to hang off a track is a pencil-pleat curtain. You might think “pencil-pleat” means “falls in pencil pleats”, but it is in fact code for “has a band at the top that you can stick curtain hooks through”. So you stick the curtain hooks through the band, then the hooks attach to the track.

Got it?

  • An eyelet curtain has metal-reinforced rings to hang off a pole.
  • A pencil-pleat curtain has a band at the top to stick curtain hooks through.

If you need to attach a pencil-pleat curtain to a pole for some reason, you can attach the hooks to curtain rings, and then the rings hang off the pole like the eyelets in an eyelet curtain would.

But I’ve got nothing to hang a curtain off!

If you have no thing-to-hang-curtains-off at all, you will obviously need to get one and then choose a corresponding curtain. So if you’re buying a track, you will need to buy pencil-pleat curtains plus several bags of hooks. If you’re buying a pole…good luck getting that home on your bike.

As with most things, buying curtains is way easier if you’ve got a car, partly because they’re bulky but mainly because the kind of places that sell them are designed with the assumption that all their customers and potential customers will be driving. So the cycle journey there will be unpleasant, the bus route there will be non-existent and there will be an enormous free car park with possibly a “wheelbender” bike stand or two so that cyclists can make the choice between having their bike stolen or rendered unrideable. But do tell me more about the war on motorists.

Putting up the damn pole (or track) is one of those things that workmen are reluctant to do, because they think everybody should be able to do it themselves. Of course everybody has the skills they make a living from! Like knowing what a fucking eyelet is, this is apparently knowledge you should have glugged down with the first drink at your eighteenth birthday party.

They’re wrong and it is fucking hard, even if you already have a drill, a  spirit level and strong DIY skills. To persuade a workman to do it, maybe think of another job they can do in your house at the same time to make it “worth their while” coming out. (It will be super-tempting to tell them to stop denying your lived experience and check their privilege, but try to resist.)

Making your own curtains is some next-level shit

On the subject of privilege: if you talk about how you’re buying curtains, it’s highly likely that someone will recommend making your own. And when they say it’s cheaper and you get to choose the exact fabric you like, they’re not wrong. But this is only really an option if you’re privileged enough to have  a sewing machine plus the skills to use it plus access to a car plus all the knowledge about curtains that you clearly don’t have, or why would you be reading this blog post? And you know that.

But the  follow-up suggestion is more tempting, because it will involve a “brilliant lady” who makes curtains really cheaply. And it will be so tempting to throw money at her to make the whole confusing curtain problem go away, and maybe she will also make you some nourishing soup and let you rest your weary head on her ample bosom?

It’s a trap. Of course it’s a trap. The “brilliant lady” who does curtains will only ever do the actual curtains. She won’t put up a pole or track for you, and that’s the most difficult bit. So you still need to cope with somehow buying that and getting it put up.

Meanwhile, the “brilliant lady” will just do the fabric-y bit, and she will expect you to buy your own fabric, which will probably involve going to yet another place that’s hostile to non-drivers. She may also expect you to bring it round to her house and then collect the finished curtains. If, like me, you have no car and no navigation skills and you feel that cycling around trying to find multiple unfamiliar places while drivers attempt to kill you is a massive drain of cognitive resource, you will saddle up the nopetopus and flee.

If like me, you are also self-employed, you’ll look at what you could earn using that time and those spoons (without anybody trying to kill you, unless you’re a mercenary or something) and decide that ready-made curtains are incredibly good value compared to “brilliant ladies”.

If you’ve been driving for years  and you own a car and you have a good sense of direction and/or a sat-nav, your cost-benefit calculations will be wildly different from mine, but this blog post is not for you.

Curtain sizes

The task of measuring and choosing the right size has soooooo much Stuff Nobody Tells You Because You’re Supposed To Know.

The height of the curtains is called the “drop”. (The width is still just called the width.)

You know you’re supposed to measure the actual window space…but you might not have twigged that the track or pole will be above the actual window and the curtains will need to hang some way below it, so you’ll probably need to add at least 20cm to your calculations when you’re working out the drop.

There are standard sizes for the drop: 137cm, 182cm, 228cm. (These are more memorable if you think in inches: 54”, 72”, 90”.) If you have to choose between too long and too short, always go for too long.

The track or pole, as well as being higher than the window, will probably also be wider, so you will need to measure the track or pole, not the actual window, when you’re working out the width.

The width of a curtain stated on the packet is the width it is when stretched out completely flat. If you want your curtains to hang in gentle folds, you need the stated width of the curtains to be roughly double the width of the window space.

When you buy two curtains in a packet, the width stated on the packet is the width of each curtain, not the width of the two curtains combined. So a pack of two curtains sold as W117cm will contain two curtains, each 117cm wide (when stretched flat).

Buying the right size of curtain: a real-life example

I’ll give an example using a real window in my house. The actual width of the window is 102cm. But the plastic track that goes above the window is 125cm. Double the width of the track, not the window, to get the width of curtain material you’ll need to have curtains hanging in gentle folds rather than stretched out taut, and you have 250cm. At this point it’s tempting to look for a packet of curtains that says “250cm” on it, but remember, when you’re buying a pair of curtains the stated width is per curtain! So you actually want a pack of two 125cm curtains. (Yes, I did just ask you to halve the number you just doubled.) Or you could get a single 250cm curtain. But you can’t actually get either of these exact sizes, because there are standard sizes for the width too: 117cm, 168cm, 228cm. Unlike with the height, you can err on the size of smaller because you doubled the width in the first place to get all those lovely folds. So probably go for a pair of 117cm curtains or a single 228cm curtain.

So now you know what width you need, but what height do you need? Well, the height of this window is 125cm. (Yes, it’s portrait rather than landscape.) It seems at first as if the 137cm drop will be perfect, but that only gives you 12cm of height to spare. If the track or pole is 10cm above the window, you’ve only got 2cm of extra fabric at the bottom, even assuming the curtains are really the exact size they say they are. So they’ll only just meet the windowsill, they won’t keep the heat in and they’ll look a bit odd. And if they’re in your bedroom, you’ll be woken up by light coming in through the gap because your eye-level will be below the bottom of the curtains when you’re lying down. So go for the 182cm drop even if it seems excessive.

If just one person finds their curtain-buying experience less of a nightmare as a result of the hard-won information in this post, I will be absolutely delighted. If they don’t…at least I will be able to refer back to it myself.

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