My room needs curtains! Where do I begin?
Long, short, formal, casual—here’s how to choose the right style for every room
You’ve probably noticed that there are a lot of different types of curtains out there. Spend a few minutes researching and you’ll see everything from gauzy, floaty, barely-there styles to heavy, formal, richly patterned looks...and everything in-between. That can seem a little overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be.
Because—good news!—there’s no single “right” type of curtain for any given room. Your choice is totally personal and depends on your decorating style and on the function of the curtain. And there are some easy guidelines to follow when making your choice. Here’s what you need to know.
Start by Picking the Curtain Header Type
The header is the top part of the curtain—where it hangs from the rod. The types listed below are the most common; which you choose depends on the look you’d like to create.
Grommets These are metal rings that cover the edges of a round opening in fabric. The curtain rod slides smoothly through the grommets (which makes this a good curtain type to choose if you plan to open and close the curtains regularly). The rod will be visible between the grommets, so you’ll want a sharp-looking curtain rod. Grommet headers typically have a casual, modern look.
Pinch Pleat Permanent, stitched-in pleats at the top of the curtain give this type a classic, timeless look that’s perfect for more traditional spaces. These come with hooks that you attach to rings that slide across the curtain rod.
Rod Pocket The simplest header style has a long slot for the curtain rod, concealing it along its entire length. Some have a ruffle above the pocket. Best for casual or country-style spaces.
Rod Pocket with Back Tab Similar to rod-pocket styles but with a cleaner look, these curtains conceal the rod in a channel of tabs behind the top hem of the curtain.
Tab Top The curtain-rod slides through fabric loops sewn onto the back and front of the top hem of the curtain. Fabric loops extend from the front to the back of the curtain. Tab-top curtains have a casual or rustic look.
Tie Top These work like tab-top headers, but instead of a single loop there are two separate strips of fabric tied together at the top, over the curtain rod, creating a looser, drapier look.
Next, Think About Length
There are four main options for the length of your curtains, and each creates a different effect.
- 63” curtains hang to the bottom of the window frame
The bottom edge of the curtain hangs level with the bottom edge of the window frame. This length works well for windows that are above a piece of furniture or a radiator, for example, or for a more casual, country-style look.
- 84” curtains barely touch the floor
Curtains that just “kiss” the floor have a clean, polished, but not overly formal effect.
- 95” curtains slightly break onto the floor
Adding extra length allows the curtains to drape gracefully onto the floor.
- 108” curtains “puddle” on the floor
Longer curtains will gather into a “puddle” or “pool”. This is a more formal style—and the bigger the “puddle,” the more dramatic the look.
Width matters, too. Measure your window from side to side. For a simple, tailored look choose curtain panels that are about 2” wider than your window when closed. For a lush, draped effect, the curtain should be about three times the width of your window—so you may need to buy two or three panels for each side.
Don’t Forget Function: Do the Curtains Have a Job to Do?
Some curtains are just a pair of pretty faces, there to add softness, color, or pattern—but some also need to work hard filtering light, providing privacy, or even adding warmth. If you need your curtains to play an important functional role in your room, read on (if you don’t, skip to the section on style, stat!).
Light Control and Privacy. These functions go hand-in-hand, because the more your curtains filter light, the more privacy they’ll offer as well. Here are the terms to look for as you shop.
- Sheer: These allow the most light to filter through the fabric, and won’t shield you very well from outside eyes. Use them in private living spaces that don’t need darkening, or layer with more opaque styles.
- Light filtering Still somewhat sheer, this style does let some light through but provides privacy. Probably not ideal for your bedroom, they’re a good choice for sunny living spaces.
- Room darkening They block the view from outside, and darken the room almost entirely—but a small amount of light may filter in. Choose them for living spaces that need privacy, or for bedrooms without much outside brightness.
- Blackout: These block 100 percent of outside light and offer total privacy. They’re great for bedrooms and nurseries.
Insulation. If you live in a very cold or hot climate, want to cut your energy bills, or need buffering from noisy surroundings, look for curtains with the following insulating features:
- Foam backing: Applied to the back side of the fabric, a foam coating creates an insulating barrier and filters light.
- Thermal weave: Different yarns woven together form a fabric that aids in light filtration and insulation. This could be the face fabric of the window treatment or a separate liner.
- Interlining: An insulating layer of fleece or flannel is sewn between the face and lining fabric, creating a barrier for temperature, sound, and light.
Curtain linings aren’t always about insulation. A fabric lining can help the curtain hang better, adding weight and definition, helping it pleat better, and creating a more polished look.
Have Fun With the Style
Okay, this is the creative part—picking curtains with colors, patterns, and textures that make you happy every time you look at them. Don’t worry, you can’t go too wrong if you follow your instincts about the style you love. But there are a few pointers that can help you make a choice that will look amazing in your space:
Color: For a bold look, choose curtains that contrast sharply with the wall color: crisp white curtains against navy blue or charcoal walls, for example, or crimson curtains against an off-white wall. Conversely, for a more subtle effect (that will make your room look bigger by creating an uninterrupted path for the eye), go with curtains that are very similar to the wall color, at most a few shades lighter or darker—blush pink curtains against pale gray walls, say. A monochromatic color scheme (choosing curtains that are the same color as the wall) does the same thing, and adds a sleek contemporary edge. Beware of getting too matchy-matchy: Matching your curtains to a major decorative element like the sofa or carpet can look stiff and overly formal; instead, pick up a secondary hue from an area rug, fabric, or accessory.
Pattern: Take other patterns in the room into account. In general, it’s a good idea to vary the scales and types of patterns throughout a room. So if you have large-scale floral wallpaper, try curtains with a smaller all-over pattern or a simple stripe. Vertical stripes can make your ceilings look higher; horizontal stripes can help make the room look wider.
Texture: Crisp cotton twill, filmy voile, luxe velvet—the texture and weight of curtain fabrics can make a big impact in your space. So think about how you want your room to feel, then choose a fabric that helps reinforce that atmosphere.
White curtains against white walls can look fresh and modern. But keep in mind that “white” comes in many different variations, with undertones from cool blue, gray, or green to warm pink, brown, or yellow. Not all undertones play well together, so your “white” or “cream” curtains might not look right with your “white” or “cream” walls. If you can, take a paint chip with you to shop for curtains (or take a curtain panel with you to the paint store) to look at the shades together before committing.