Curtains, shades and blinds serve both a practical and decorative purpose in a home. But these decor staples can be deceptively difficult to navigate. Who among us hasn’t had questions about how to hang or choose a window treatment? We asked experts for advice so even novices can start decorating with confidence.

Know the terminology

Draperies, curtains, shades, blinds: These are all window treatments. “Drapery typically means full-length,” said Adam Skalman, vice president of sales for the Shade Store, while curtains typically refer to something that’s shorter in length and made of more sheer material. Shades, typically consisting of fabric and brackets, are a relatively affordable option for spaces where light and privacy are a concern. Blinds, with horizontal or vertical slats, come in materials such as wood and metal, and they work well in rooms in which you want to control the brightness level.

The heading of a window treatment refers to how the curtain looks on top of the rod. Finials — pieces that can be attached to the ends of rods — provide decorative flourish and help rings stay in place, says Erika Hollinshead Ward, an Atlanta-based interior designer and owner of Erika Ward Interiors.

Assess your needs

As with any design project, start by thinking about what you want to accomplish.

How much light and privacy do you want? Hollinshead Ward says that to block out light, lined treatments in heavier fabrics are a good option and can even provide some extra insulation (these are also called “blackout curtains”). Lighter fabrics, such as linen or cotton blends, work well as sheers, which provide some privacy but won’t block out light. They’re great for spaces where natural light is in short supply.

“Someone might be able to see your silhouette, but you won’t lose any of the light,” she says. In rooms where you’d like more flexibility and ease in controlling light levels, Hollinshead Wood and Skalman both suggest using a shade, then layering a curtain or drape on a rod in front of it. If you want to use only curtains and want the benefits of both sheers and blackout panels, you could hang a double rod, although Hollinshead Ward says this is costlier and can look dated.

Top-down-bottom-up shades, which can open from the top or bottom, can accomplish this as well, but are usually more expensive than standard shades. For large windows that give off a lot of light, Skalman likes vertical blinds. Cellular shades also filter light and work well in rooms that need extra insulation, he says.

If you’re after total darkness, Hollinshead Ward recommends hanging treatments to fully cover the window’s trim.

What other architectural features must be considered? When deciding which treatment to use, think about the other furniture and fixtures in the space. “If you have a radiator under a window, you may not do a drapery; you may do a Roman blind,” Erika Hollinshead Ward says, because it extends to the just bottom of the window instead of the floor. Is there a bookcase right next to the window that will be obscured by curtains, or a chair in front of it that would make longer drapes look strange?

What’s your budget? Custom drapes are typically the most expensive option. Skalman says often there are other options that will meet your needs with less hassle and cost.

“If someone is new to the game and is looking for something clean and modern, that’s sort of the little black dress of window treatments, is probably a roller shade.” he says.

Generally, shades will be cheaper than drapes; at the Shade Store (where all window treatments are custom), roller shades and wood blinds start around $200 per window; drapery with hardware starts around $800. Home Depot offers roller shades in several materials, from around $20 each, that can be cut to fit your window, and stores such as Ikea and Target carry ready-to-hang sets from around $25. For spaces where you want the functionality of a shade but a softer material, Skalman suggests Roman shades, which fold as you raise them.

Measure everything

Before you hang anything, measure around your window. Hollinshead Ward recommends measuring where the rod will be hung, the window top to bottom, and the length and width of the window’s trim, if it has any. Know the position of any obstructions, such as vents, light switches or wall art. Some companies, including the Shade Store and Calico Corners, offer an in-home measuring service.

You can’t measure too much. “I would measure three or four times,” Skalman says.

Longer is better

In general, longer curtains give off a more finished, refined look, while treatments that are too short look dated and messy. Hollinshead Ward advises buying treatments with extra fabric in case more length is needed, then hemming them to fit. She prefers treatments to end between a half-inch and a quarter-inch above the floor and suggests hanging them no more than seven to 10 inches above the window frame. But don’t hang them right above the window. Skalman suggests going a little wider and higher than the window.

To hem curtains, lay them flat and fold the fabric back on itself. Hollinshead Wood suggests sewing or using hemming tape (available at many big-box retailers) to create a four- or six-inch hem for the most polished finish.

“If you have more than 120 inches in height, then I would do a taller hem so the hem would be in proportion to the length of the drape,” she says. If you need to make the panels significantly shorter, she suggests trimming the fabric before hemming to avoid the amateurish look of a seam in the middle of your panel. Many tailors and seamstresses will hem curtains, too.

Complement furnishings

Don’t feel pressure to dress all the windows in a room with matching window treatments. Full-length drapery could look right at home over a pair of stately French doors, but it might not be right for another window in the same space. If you are mixing treatments, Skalman says, “there should be some consistency, whether it’s in color or fabric.”

The same goes for hardware: Skalman tries to match metal finishes that already live in the room.

Experts agree that not much is needed in terms of maintenance for your window treatments. Hollinshead Ward suggests gently vacuuming curtains and blinds (let them all the way out first) with an attachment about once a month, or when they get dusty.

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