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  • Writer's pictureStjohn Axbey

Is It Curtains For You?

"The next morning I was up bright and early. Mostly because I had sold the curtains."

- Angie Fox, Southern Spirits

Frequently, when I quiz people on what they think an Interior Designer does, it’s mostly a conjured-up image of a high heeled, shawl wearing, bouffanted brunette called Chanelle, plumping up cushions and rearranging the furniture whilst being critical of the wallpaper. Well, will all of you who were thinking that please stop now, because I can assure you that there is so much more to my job than just tissying the curtains; plus, I’m a flat shoed, shirt wearing, baldy.

Mmmmm.... Chanelle or......?

So, it is no coincidence that I have, thus far, avoided any sort of verbal intercourse on window treatments, until now….

Within the last week I have been asked to provide some help on curtain selection for a client for both her Sydney and Canberra residences: so I thought it might be prudent to delve into the world of window dressings and chat about the pros and cons of a sample of the many various treatments available.

First, a little bit of history

The earliest forms of window dressing were purely functional: Stone and Iron aged man used animal hides to drape across the entrances to their homes for the purpose of keeping out drafts, cold and the weather.

"Get me a Saber Toothed Tiger rug for the cave... NOW!"

As buildings became more sophisticated, bits of dead tiger and woolly mammoth were replaced with, well um... bits of dead wood in the form of doors and shutters. Glass made its debut as something that was used in windows during Roman times, but it remained a material used in windows only for the wealthy (and not surprisingly all churches) for centuries, until such time as glass production became relatively mass produced and subsequently much cheaper.

Shutters were the early means of keeping out unwanted light , depending on how well they were made:

but they did little to keep out the cold and the wind.

Glass became more popular as a means of keeping out the weather and became a material that every man could use in his home, so the number of windows in homes increased in quantity and size.

Whilst evidence of fabric making had been around for at least the last 40000 years, mass production wasn’t seen until the 14th century when Italy started knocking out beautiful silks and velvets.

Even at this point it was uncommon to see windows adorned with fabric – people relied on clothing for warmth at night plus the use of bedding and bed hangings to keep out the cold and afford some level of privacy.

Bed curtains were a must before they ever made it onto windows

And then in 1696 the King of England, William III, had the bright idea of taxing people on the amount of light and air that came into their homes. Consequently, due to the immense unpopularity of this tax, people in England blocked up all unnecessary windows.

It is staggering to think that the UK window tax stayed in place until 1851!

Proper drapery didn’t really appear until the 17th century and then it was reserved for the wealthy homes and even then, for the ground floor rooms only – upper levels still relied on shutters.

Digressing slightly: an image here of a bygone age showcasing the internal shutters that were used before fabric window dressings were common. What I love about this look is its charm and character; the thickness of the walls allow for deep window reveals, and what better way to make use of that extra depth than to add a window seat. It is window dressing without the dressings.

By the late 18th century curtains were starting to be seen in most homes and it is now – in order to keep this article short – that we leave the history lesson behind.

So, what is your preference: curtains or blinds, shutters or screens, or perhaps a mixture of both?

Curtains and Drapes.

Curtains – in my opinion - still perform the best for the essential tasks of; keeping out light, retaining heat in winter, keeping heat out in summer, providing essential privacy, acoustic benefits for sound absorption for both internal and external noise, and of course the decorative aspects.

The variety of designs is considerable– swags and tails look amazing in the right home, preferably a period one, with high ceilings: equally a modern drape with a French pleat can look just as elegant.

Sheers are very popular at the moment and create a beautifully subtle effect across windows, giving privacy, whilst allowing softened light into rooms.

Curtains and drapes - so many beautiful styles to choose from

The down side to curtains are that if you are getting made to measure, they can be expensive, and they’re more likely to fade, fray, and dirty more quickly which means infrequent trips to the dry cleaners.

Can you spot the problem in this image?

Whilst the look is great and the pelmets look fabulous, when the curtains are drawn they will cover the radiators. This means that a large percentage of the heat generated by the radiators will be trapped behind the curtains and be lost through the windows.

This is a situation where blinds would certainly be a better solution, that is of course, if retaining heat is of a major concern to you.

Blinds and Shades

Blinds have been around for centuries, and not surprisingly the Roman blind is probably the oldest and yes started in Rome when the construction of the Colosseum was under way. Blinds were used to prevent dust from the construction site entering glassless windows of nearby homes.

And there's not just Roman blinds to choose from either; there's Venetians, Rollers, Inverted Rollers, Austrian, Slats, Mini venetian, vertical Venetians to name but few.

A simplified indication of the types of blinds and shades

Blinds are so much more functional, less fussy, and with the odd exception less decorative than curtains. Blinds allow more of you windows to be seen and in most cases require less time and expense to install.

There are a wide variety of materials that can be used, including obscured and shade reducing fabrics to total block out solution.

Cost of installation can vary considerably, ready made items from your local Bunnings will be amongst the cheapest, but as you get into the custom made type, prices can rise sharply. The blind systems can get rather flash, with motorised operation (very handy if you have a lot of windows) and can be automatically controlled to work with the position of the sun.

Cleaning, depending on the type of blind you choose, can either be relatively easy or a bit of a pain. But most of the time it's nothing that a vacuum cleaner and/or a damp cloth can't fix.

Just a small selection of the different types of blinds and shades available

Blinds look good on their own but can also be softened and complemented with the addition of curtains as well, adding an extra level of sophistication.

A combination of blinds a curtains afford the best of both worlds: not only is the look stunning but total

block out can be achieved. Curtain material also often helps to to soften the harsh edge of the blinds


Plantation shutter are still extremely popular - they don't seem to have dated or gone out of fashion at all. They are available in many different configurations half (cafe style) and full length and, unlike curtains, have the ability to infinitely regulate the amount and direction of the light being transmitted into a room without compromising on privacy. However, they don't afford the total block out of light, so they are normally accompanied by draw curtains - which I have to say is a very tasteful and elegant look that I particularly like.

Shutters are able to regulate light entering a room and maintain privacy at the same time

creating soft ambient effects - the addition of drapery adds to the sophistication level

Whilst shutters look great they are not a cheap option for good quality products, and believe me you will want good quality ones, as poor imitation will degrade very quickly with the harsh effects of the Australian sun. SO DON'T SCRIMP!!

With the cost also comes the maintenance: Just like venetian blinds they will attract dust and will need periodic cleaning to keep them looking good. It's generally advisable to have units that can be opened so that the windows behind can be easily accessed for maintenance and cleaning as well.

So which window treatment is best?

Well, the answer is that all them have their benefits and their foibles - ultimately it is your choice, not mine.

When you come to choosing which window treatment to have in your home you really need to first look at function: what are you wanting to achieve, such as; total block out for a bedroom, shading for a living room, privacy for a bathroom or heat preservation for a drafty hallway?

Then it really is down to the look that you want to achieve - and this is where an interior designer can help and recommend. A simple sketch or a 3d visual can really help to make an informed decision, especially if the windows treatments are to form part of a larger renovation of your room or house.

Now, for the cost conscious amongst you, I warn you now, that any of the customised options will increase the cost. Off-the-shelf curtains and blinds will always be cheaper, and do come in standard lengths that can be adjusted, but buyer beware: you may not get exactly what you want. Given the choice I would recommend custom made dressing to ensure quality, longevity and satisfaction.

Of course, there is always an alternative to window dressings: don't have any at all.

Sometimes, that's not such a bad thing.....

Thanks for reading!

If you need a hand with choosing window treatments for your next project, please drop me a line


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