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Choosing Your Fabric

[Using Color]  [Choosing Your Fabrics]  [Period Design Motifs In Fabrics And Wallpapers]  [Wallpaper]  [Decorating And Floor Coverings]  [More Home Decorating Tips] 

( Originally Published 1955 )

It is difficult to make many hard and fast rules of suitability where decorating is concerned, for many of the best decorators break such rules all the time to achieve unusual or dramatic effects. Yet for those with less experience, it is wise to play safe, or at least to know when rules are being broken for a wellthought-out reason. Always remember that a pleasing decorative scheme is based on unity o f texture, color, scale, proportion, and balance; and keep in mind these classic "don'ts":

Don't use rough-textured fabrics with smooth-surfaced walls. Don't use fine silks, linens, and fine cottons with roughtextured walls.

Don't combine fabrics that, although they are harmonious in color, are inharmonious in texture. Don't use, for example, velvets or satins with rough, coarse linens, cottons, or wools.

Don't use formal drapery treatment in an informal room, or vice versa.

Don't use a large design or heavy or deep-piled fabric on small chairs or pillows.

Don't use different materials to cover all the important pieces of furniture unless there is at least harmony of color.

Don't use identical material to cover all the pieces of furniture. Use a minimum of two, for contrast and to avoid monotony. The larger the room and the more pieces of upholstered furniture there are, the more the materials can be varied, provided there is suitable color balance in the room and adequate harmony of textures. It is best to use your important fabrics on two or three major pieces only, and introduce new texture and color interest in other, and less important pieces.

Textile Combinations and Uses

With Monks Cloth: Use heavy twill weaves, sailcloth, duck, and other homespun effects in cotton, linen, or wool.

With Cretonne: Use novelty weaves of cotton, twill, rep, sateen, and corduroy.

With Chintz or fine-textured cottons: Use other fine-textured cottons, cotton velvet, textured and novelty weaves, felt, and corduroy. You may also use damasks, textured silks, lustrous satins and taffeta (cotton taffeta is more harmonious than silk taffeta).

With Fine Linens: Use fine fabrics, such as heavy velvets, wool or linen damasks, some textured silk, fine leather, needlepoint embroidery.

All Silks go well together. Satins, taffetas, brocades, velvets, damasks. Remember, however, that heat rots silk; and in hot climates it is therefore advisable to use as substitutes fine linen and cotton and heavy sateen. These fabrics also give a cooler appearance.

Formal or Informal

The choice of formality or informality, is, of course, an individual question for each family. Drawing rooms and dining rooms are the most formal rooms, but the size and type of house and the manner of living usually set the pace.

The degree of formality desired in a room will dictate the type and design of fabrics and rugs. It will also influence the choice of other accessories and window treatments. Silks, laces,fine leathers, silver, porcelain, and crystal are formal. Cottons, linens, homespuns, wools, glass, brass, and pottery are relatively informal.

Whether your choice is formal or informal, plan a contrast in the upholstered furniture by using a certain amount of smooth fabric along with more heavily textured weaves-leather with deep-piled or rough fabrics, or satin with dull damasks and fine quality textured fabrics.

Selecting Pattern Fabrics

Be sure to choose fabrics in which the scale of the design is neither too large not too small for the size of the room, the windows to be drape d, or the furniture to be covered. Larger rooms and windows can take larger scale designs.

Be sure, too, that the pattern you select is suited to the period of the room or, if the room is of no definite period, is in keeping with the general mood you wish to create. You would not choose a n informal, all-over sprigged chintz for a tall window with a formal swag valance, any more than you would use rich satins or pale-colored silks on a casement type window with a metal frame and mullions.


Once you have selected the fabric you will use, with an eye to unity and harmony of colors and textures, accurate measurements are essential in achieving effective draperies. Nothing spoils the appearance of a room more surely than skimpy draperies.

How to Measure Draperies

Use a yardstick or metal tape measure, rather than a cloth one, as cloth tape measures tend to stretch.

Measure from the top of the window trim (the woodwork that frames the window) to the floor. Allow for an 8-inch hem at the top and at least a 6-inch hem at the bottom. When the drapes are made up, both the top and bottom hems should be of triple thickness unless the material is heavy, in which case the hems need be only double thickness.

If 5 or 6 inches of the drapes are to rest on the floor, add 10 to 12 inches to the bottom hem as an allowance to resist wear and tear.

Next, measure the width of your window from the outside edges of the woodwork on each side. Since materials vary in width from 36 to 50 inches, make sure when you buy your drapery fabric that you have ample material. Allow the full width of 42-inch and 50-inch material for each side drape. If the windows are very wide and you wish to be able to pull the draperies together, you may need 2 or more full widths for each side drape. Never skimp on the width of your drapes.

Repeats in Designs

When a large motif or figure is repeated in the design of a fabric, extra material must be allowed so that, in each drape, the motif can be made to fall at the same height above the floor. The bottom of a pattern unit should start at the bottom of each drape. The safest rule to follow is to allow an extra repeat for each drape.


The usual lining materials are sateen or chintz. If you are using patterned drapery material, you may choose to line them with a color that matches the background of the drapes, or with a lighter shade of the background color.

If the drapery fabric is plain, it is possible to consider using a different, contrasting color for the drapery lining. This can be chosen from one of the colors used in the room, such as one that occurs in the predominant print pattern. Contrasting linings can be a very smart note in period rooms done in a contemporary manner; but first try out the two fabrics against the daylight to be sure the effect is what you want. Ask for samples before you buy. Don't forget that unity and harmony of textures and colors are what you should try to achieve at all times.

Besides the choice of a matching or lighter shade, or contrasting color, you may wish to consider lining your plain drapes with a small-patterned and smooth-textured fabric, picking up in the lining the predominant color of the drapery itself. This was done in Colonial days, in the manner exhibited in the houses at Williamsburg, Virginia.

You will need the same yardage for the linings as for the drapes. Make sure that the lining material you select is the same width as your drapery material fabric; or, if it is narrower, purchase sufficient yardage to allow for adding to the width of the lining. Cut the linings and drapes at the same time. Sew the lining to the drape just below the top hem. Sew the lining to the side hems of the drape with a catch-stitch, to avoid puckering in cleaning, and allow it to hang free 1 to 2 inches above the lower hem. Lead weights should be sewed into the bottom hern, so that the drapes will hang properly.

Glass Curtains

Generally speaking, a well-furnished formal room will require a pair of glass curtains at each window-and this means two pairs if you have double windows. Using only a single panel at the extreme left and right is bound to create an impression of skimpiness.

Nets and gauzes are about 50 inches wide, and a full width must be used for each panel. In some sheers, two widths are necessary for each panel. It is advisable to cut off selvages and hem the sides as well as the top and bottom, or the curtains, when they are washed or cleaned, may draw up and lose their shape. The top hem should be 4 inches deep and stand at least 3/4 of an inch above the slot heading through which the rod passes. The bottom hem should be 3 to 4 inches deep. Both top and bottom hems should be a double thickness, not only to provide more weight, but also to allow for lengthening in case of shrinkage.

If you want to add a trimming instead of having a hem, eliminate the bottom hem and allow just enough material to turn under in sewing on the trim. Avoid fussy trimming unless curtains are the tie-back and ruffled type. To loop back your curtains in more formal rooms, use only tie-backs of self material. In more informal homes you can use large swish bows, cotton rope, or bandings of the drapery material.

Molded and tassel types of trimmings are best for formal window treatments that are hung straight to the floor. Glass ball trims are formal, also. These are effective when used on taffeta, satin, or silk gauze in interiors of the late eighteenth century style. Cotton ball and tassel fringe and pleated ruffles belong with cotton fabrics in the more informal type of window treatment. When drapes are also used, glass curtains should be shirred on a small rod that fits inside the window frame woodwork, or trim; and they should hang so as to clear the sill by about 1/4 inch. Casement curtains may hang to the apron (the woodwork panel that frequently occurs below the window sill). In formal rooms, glass curtains can hang to the floor.

If drapes are not being used, glass curtains should be hung from the top outside edge of the wood trim.

If the glass curtains are not of a sheer material, you may wish to French-pleat them. In this case, stiffen the headings with buckram and hang them from hooks attached to rings on rods or traverse draw fixtures.

A satisfying feeling of unity is achieved if all the glass curtains are alike and of the same material for all windows on the lower floor of your house. If possible, plan them the same way on the upper floors as well. It not only creates the appearance of unity from the outside, but establishes unity in adjoining rooms.

If, for reasons of economy, informality, or so as not to be shut off from a beautiful view, glass curtains are eliminated, be sure, at least, to line your draperies.

Window Treatments

There are certain styles of treatments suitable for period rooms or those where a definite period feeling prevails. However, optical illusions of height or width can be obtained in the following ways:

1. If you want to achieve increased height in a low-ceilinged room, place the valance or window cornice well above the window top and hang the draperies (and blinds) from underneath, ignoring the top of the window itself. Or hang them straight from the ceiling line, as is done in strictly modern interiors.

2. If you want to give a greater impression of width to your windows, extend your curtain fixtures the desired width on both sides of the window.

3. If the ceiling and the windows seem too high, you can make them appear lower by using a deep valance or window cornice.

Valances are made of fabric, usually backed with buckram, or simply pleated.

Cornices may be made of wood, glass, bamboo, cork, leather, and other materials. Wood cornices may be left plain, painted, or covered with drapery fabric.

It is difficult to give any estimate of yardage needed for draperies, slip covers, or upholstery. So much depends on the size and form of the article, the back and arms, whether one wants a skirt, etc.

With striped and patterned fabrics, it is advisable to call in an experienced upholsterer, for stripes and patterns must match, even though you have a wastage in fabric. In the long run, you will save money if you let an experienced workman figure your yardage for you and fit the designs, and thus assure you a professional-looking job.

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