The drape dilemma: Custom or readymade?

By Marni Jameson   

I’m scurrying around the house tidying up, which gives me away.

“Expecting someone?” asks DC, who is leaving for work. I was almost in the clear.

“Yes,” I say, hoping that will suffice. (When speaking to a lawyer, only answer the question.) But the anemic answer hangs between us. “Beth,” I add.

“Who’s Beth?” He asks. I knew this was coming.

“The lady who makes our drapes.”

“We don’t have a lady who makes our drapes.”

“Well, this is her first project for us.”

A look of worried skepticism crosses his face like a rain cloud.

It’s not that I was keeping something from my husband. I just knew he would have questions, to which I did not yet have answers. Questions like how much? I know from experience that a custom-drape maker can’t tell you how much until they’ve seen the project and pinned down the details. And there are details, as you will soon see.

“Remember that king-size duvet cover I got on sale last week because I wanted more of the fabric to match the pillow shams in the upstairs bedroom?”

He pretends he knows, though he hasn’t the vaguest clue.

“I want to turn it into drapes.”
“You want someone else to turn it into drapes,” he adds, to be exact.

“Well, technically.” (As a public service I don’t sew.)

“And we can’t buy drapes from the store because ….?” He leaves me to finish the sentence.

“Because they wouldn’t be custom drapes!”

This is what I mean by questions.

See, I’d decided the small bedroom upstairs lacked oomph. My youngest daughter and I had begun to decorate it, before she had the nerve to run off to college on the West Coast and abandon me. She picked out some cotton print pillow shams she liked from Pottery Barn, which were a good start. We decorated a bit around them, but the room was still unfinished.

As I got back to thinking about the room, I decided it needed more of the print fabric, which I could turn into drape panels to frame the existing white plantation shutters. I wanted floor-to-ceiling panels, covering the walls, which would add color, softness, texture and height. Shaazam! I just needed more fabric. Though Pottery Barn had discontinued this bedding pattern, I found one last king-size duvet out in Kansas, on sale for $55, and nabbed it.

Now I was just one seamstress away from my vision.

When Beth arrived, we went upstairs, measured, scribbled ideas in her notebook, discussed hardware, and header types, and off she went. Two weeks later, the made-to-order drapes went up just as if they were made for that room, reminding me, how much better custom drapes are than readymades.

But before you decide I’m a drape snob, understand I have some readymade solid color silk drape panels in my home. They are lovely, and, incidentally, cost a third more than what my custom drapes cost.

So here, for your benefit and DC’s, is the case for custom drapes:

  • When you order custom drapes, your selection of fabric – or fabrics – is unlimited. With readymade, your choice is restricted, said Beth Murphy, of Orlando, who has been sewing custom drapes for 30 years.
  • Tailored fit. Readymade drapes often fall short – literally. Drapery panels look best when they start at the ceiling or crown molding, or just two-to-four inches below, and barely touch the floor, or clear it by half an inch or less. (Do not install rods right above the window molding. Go high, to the ceiling.) Readymade panels come in two standard lengths, 84 inches (seven feet) or 96 inches (eight feet). If you have an eight-foot ceiling, seven-foot panels will be too short; eight-foot panels are too long. (92 inches is about right.) Too-short drapes are a sure sign that they were store bought.
  • Ample width is as important as length. Besides going high, you also want to go wide, and cover the wall, or a portion of it, on either side of a window. (Don’t hang panels over the window.) Drapes should be able to cover the window when pulled closed, even if you never close them. Murphy, who also teaches fashion design and interior décor fabrication, says side panels, when not pulled closed, should be two and a half to three times wider than the area they cover. That is, a panel covering a 30-inch wall should be 75 to 90 inches wide, and when pulled midway across the window, should leave some fullness. However, most readymade panels come in standard widths of 45 or 54 inches. That means, for your panels not to look skimpy, you need two or three panels per side. Better to just get custom made.
  • Lining is another area where readymade companies skimp and use often the cheapest, thinnest cotton. The right lining makes a huge difference in how drapes hang. Unless you’re going for that breezy sheer or lightweight gossamer look, you want drapes with heft.
  • Readymade, mass-produced drapes are never made as well as those fabricated in custom drapery workrooms. Look at the side and bottom hems. In readymades they are narrow and often have obvious machine stitching. Custom drapes have deeper hems all around. Murphy finishes hers with a blind stitch and weights the bottom.
  • Details. Custom drape should have three elements: a lead fabric, an accent fabric, and trim. “Ninety percent of my clients use two fabrics, and most use three,” said Murphy. For my bedroom project, we added a six-inch border of solid blue cotton to anchor the bottom of each panel. Where the border met the main fabric, we inserted contrasting brick red piping. That seam lined up exactly with the six-inch baseboard. Such details are the hallmark of custom.

Syndicated columnist Marni Jameson is the author of two home and lifestyle books, and the newly released Downsizing the Family Home – What to Save, What to Let Go (Sterling Publishing 2016). You may reach her at