Providing privacy, insulation, light control, and visual interest, curtains—and their more substantial sibling, drapes—serve several functions in the home. To make a distinction, curtains are typically lightweight and less formal, whereas drapes are traditionally heavier and more luxurious. Both window treatments, however, can make an outsize impact.
"For me, curtains can make or break a room, as they add texture and warmth and can frame a view in a way that an unadorned window never could," says Kevin Isbell, an interior designer based in Los Angeles. "In very few instances does a room benefit from not including appropriately sized window treatments."
Window treatments are often the last choice you make when decorating a room—a "finishing touch," so to speak. But if you’re considering curtains, our experts say planning ahead is imperative, especially if you’re concerned about budget.
"The drapery fabric is almost always the first thing I choose," says Veronica Solomon, principal designer at Casa Vilora Interiors in Katy, Texas. "Sometimes it becomes the inspiration for the color palette and style of the rest of the room. Sometimes it is the focal point; sometimes it has a supporting role to create cohesiveness."
Isbell agrees, cautioning that curtains "should never be an afterthought. The fabric selection allows you to move color or pattern around the room to create a cohesive feel throughout the space."
As with most textile choices, customization gets a perfect fit that lends a "polished, professional look," says Isbell, but off-the-shelf options absolutely have their place. Dramatic drapes or curtains will run you upwards of $2,000 for a pair; for something simpler and perhaps more temporary, $200 to $600 is a reasonable range.
Color and Pattern
Whether you want your curtains to stand out or blend in, color is key to creating the desired effect. To make a statement, pick bold, contrasting colors or eye-catching patterns; for a subtler look, choose a hue that’s similar to your wall, but in a darker shade. Smaller, more muted patterns are also on the menu.
Coordinating with the rest of the room is obviously key, but timelessness is just as important, says Solomon: "Because they are a big investment, make sure they will stand the test of time."
Panels and Pleating
Are your drapes just for looks, or do you want privacy and control? Functional drapery requires a lot of fabric so you can open and close them, which means more weight and volume. If you need privacy and light control, layering your window treatments is a good option and can save you money when paired with inexpensive blinds.
"Layering means installing a ‘hard window treatment’ like roller shades, roman shades, blinds, or shutters as the privacy and light control layer, and then adding decorative panels—which means that they are not meant to function—for some softness and to give height to the room," explains Solomon.
When it comes to curtains, pleating adds volume and creates a more traditional look—but it’s also more expensive because you need more fabric.
There are several styles of pleats, but the most common include the French pinch pleat, in double or triple folds wherein the fabric is "pinched" a few inches down; and a tailored or Euro pleat, also in double or triple folds, where the pinch is at the very top and the fabric waterfalls down with no interruption.
"Pleats work in all but the most modern of spaces," says Isbell. "The pleating allows the drapery to retain the ripple folds and keeps an orderly appearance."
For ultra-modern spaces, panel drapes with no pleating are a good choice. These rely on natural folds for a hint of fullness, but are generally more delicate and floaty. Flat drapery is the simplest, least expensive style, but can resemble a bedsheet if not carefully applied. A ripple fold has a more modern look and works better if you want a more substantial curtain.
The way the curtain is hung can also provide some "oomph." Panels often employ grommets, where the rings are sewn into the fabric and run through the curtain rod to create natural folds, or rod pockets—where the rod feeds into extra pockets of fabric at the top of the drape. Both of these options help add a more voluminous feel.
Fabric and Lining
The type of fabric you pick will also dictate the overall aesthetic. Silks and velvets add a sumptuous formality to a room while more casual linens and cottons create a breezier atmosphere. For decorative purposes, a sheer fabric adds a touch of whimsy.
Silk, linen, and velvet all fall beautifully; anything thicker and heavier may be a literal drag. Solomon points out that polyester fabrics typically don’t hang as well either.
"I love linens, silks, and lately, I have been using a lot of velvet," she says. "Natural linens and silks—and even blends—hang just a bit crisper and tailored. Some of my favorite fabric houses are Fabricut, F. Schumacher & Co., Catania Silks, Libas, Stout, and Kravet."
Isbell’s go-to is printed linen: "It’s lightweight and an excellent way to bring pattern into a room for those who may be print-adverse."
Lining and interlining (a thin layer sewn between the fabric and lining) also give your fabric body and fullness—it’s like conditioner for your hair: If you don’t use it, it won’t sit right (which might be the look you’re after—no judgment).
"I prefer my panels to be lined and interlined," says Isbell. "It adds volume and heft, aids in insulation and light filtration, and makes for a more luxurious-looking window treatment."
Lining also protects the curtain fabric from the sun’s damaging rays. Choose a privacy lining in a living room to let in some light, but pick a blackout lining for a bedroom if you need to slumber in complete darkness or keep odd hours.
Hanging and Height
How you hang your curtains dictates how long your drapes will be and can help create the illusion of height, especially in a room with low ceilings.
Any point from above the window to below the ceiling will work, but as a rule of thumb, pinpoint a spot at least two-thirds of the way toward the ceiling. If there’s not a lot of space—say, only 12 inches of blank space—install them almost all the way to the ceiling.
"Ideally, the curtains should be hung just a few inches below the crown molding to visually elongate the room height," says Isbell. "The biggest mistake that I see is that people tend to hang them just above the window frame. This visually drops the perceived ceiling height to the top of the curtains, making the room feel stilted."
Width is also important. If you want panels that will feel full when they’re open and drape nicely when closed, you’ll need fabric that’s about two-and-a-half times the width of the windows. If you don’t plan on closing them, you can get away with just one-and-a-half times.
For pleated panels, the fullness is already present with the pleats, so the width of your opening will be about right.
Finally, consider how you want them to hit the floor. "The curtain break is a personal choice, but I prefer that my curtains land just a touch above the floor," says Isbell.
A panel that hangs flush with the floor—skims—takes some careful measuring but gets you a more modern, tailored look. The other option is the puddle break. Originally used to prevent cold drafts, this is when the fabric puddles in an opulent pile. It looks more elaborate and decorative—but is very high-maintenance.
"Drapery hardware is like the jewelry that completes the look," says Solomon. But there are important factors to keep in mind, such as if the draperies will function or not. "If they need to open and close for privacy and light control, then a traverse rod might be ideal," she says.
A traverse rod (also known as curtain tracks) is designed to blend in, as the hardware is hidden inside the rod. It can be controlled by a cord or even motorized for ease of use, so there’s less risk of greasy fingers on your drapes.
Another option are smart drapes. Custom-made motorized drapes and window coverings from companies like Hunter Douglas can be opened with a tap on a smartphone app or remote control, or, even cooler, via voice control.
More traditional curtain rods are the better decorative option, if not so functional. You can open and close the drapes, but with a bit more effort. Rods work with curtain rings, grommets, or pocket drapes.
"A proper curtain panel, which has been lined and interlined, will have some weight to it, so make certain the rods are thick enough to carry the weight and have center supports to avoid sagging in the middle. Or worse, pulling out of the wall entirely," says Isbell.
He uses exclusively French return rods, where the rod is gently bent to a 90-degree return to the wall rather than sitting in a bracket. "It allows the panels to lay flat against the wall at the ends, making a more tailored end result," he says. "I use Morgik Metal in New Jersey for all of my rods, as they are made-to-order to your exact specifications, and they offer a variety of finishes and rod styles."
Solomon’s top choices are Byron and Byron and Helser Brothers for their customization options.
How Much Should You Spend on Curtains?
There are three routes to go with drapes—ready-made curtains; custom-sized drapes; or fully bespoke, made-to-measure window coverings.
Our experts are big proponents of custom drapes. "Custom-made is tailored for every need of the window and the room in general," says Solomon. While your costs will vary, $2,000 for a pair is a general ballpark, not including installation or design consultation.
Also, bear in mind that if you can find your own fabric and source a local drapery workroom or experienced seamstress to create your curtains, you can save some cash.
Save ($40 to $1,000)
What off-the-shelf curtains lack in customization options, they make up for in price, and if you know a good seamstress you may be able to make a Monet out of a mess.
Popular options include IKEA, West Elm, CB2, and Anthropologie. IKEA’s Ritva Curtains ($39.99 for a pair) are something of a cult favorite among interior design bloggers due to their length (they come up to 118 inches, whereas most store-bought options max out at 84 inches) and their superb, linen-like fabric.
Parachute’s new washed linen curtains are also a good budget option at less than $200 per panel. A step up in quality, Restoration Hardware’s line of stocked drapery includes a range of linen, velvet, cotton, and silk options starting at $300.
Spend ($2,000 to $3,500)
In this range, you enter customizable territory where you can get the exact fit for your space for somewhere between $2,000 and $3,500 a pair.
Decorview (which offers drapery fabrics and hardware from Robert Allen, Carole Fabrics, and Kasmir Fabrics & Furnishings), and Barn and Willow are two of designer Emily Henderson’s top choices, and Solomon and Isbell both swear by The Shade Store.
"The Shade Store is a dream to work with in that their options are limitless, and they have a quick turnaround," says Isbell. "And if they don’t have something that catches your eye, you can always supply your own."
Many companies that sell off-the-shelf options also do custom drapes, such as Restoration Hardware, who also offer measure and install services—worth the extra expense if you’re ordering anything custom, as it can’t be returned.
Splurge ($3,500 and up)
At the top end, bespoke drapes ensure the perfect fit and a truly tailored look—for which you can plan on spending $3,500 and up per pair.
Here you’re paying for both superior quality and expertise, but it’s probably only necessary if you have a large number of windows to tackle and/or some unusual spaces to cover.
"You are usually working with a knowledgeable design professional who will take into account all the factors that go into quality draperies," says Solomon. "They're going to be knowledgeable about fabric choice, lining choice, functionality choices, style options, installation. They typically will have a great workroom and installation team, which is a huge part of quality constructed draperies."
Get the Dwell Newsletter
Be the first to see our latest home tours, design news, and more.