Monday, August 09, 2010

Sheers- Cheers or Jeers?

Go ahead and laugh if you must, but I've been obsessing over these curtains at top for a while now. Yes, the shape of them is a tad frilly (in fact, the 1929 book from which this photo came refers to them as "bouffant curtains"), but I do find the scalloped edge refreshingly sweet. What has really captured my attention, though, is the material. It appears to be a little stiff and crinkly and more importantly, it looks shiny- and we know how much I love shiny things. The caption to the photo mentions the fabric as being glazed tarletan.

So, just what is tarletan? A little research on the web yielded this information- it's an open-weave cotton fabric that was often used for stiffening garments. Now, let's take this definition with a grain of salt because internet research is not always accurate. Still, just by looking at the photo, I can tell that I like this fabric. It's glazed so it has a sheen to it- a plus in my book. It's sheer- and we don't see sheer fabric used for curtains as often as we used to. And finally, it's stiff. These were not the tepid, limp sheer curtains which I'm afraid have poisoned many of us against even considering sheer drapery for our windows. I think the point to my roundabout post is that sheer fabric needs to be crisp. What do you think?

That ruffled edging to these curtains is a bit prissy, but the organdy material is a clean, crisp addition to the various patterns in the room. I would definitely consider using an organdy for sheer curtains. (Designer Ross Stewart for W. and J. Sloane, 1936)

I'm not at all advocating these curtains as I find them too Petticoat Junction. This was a 1936 ad for Macy's which touted an amazing fabric that required very little pressing. It was "chifonese ninon" fabric.

There's actually a lot that I like about this 1936 Armstrong Linoleum ad, but let's start with the windows. I'm not so crazy about that swag held up by the red bows, but once again the fabric appears to be shiny and stiff. That really fantastic plaid linoleum floor was a "Fashion Thrift" pattern, while the walls were also covered in linoleum: Armstrong Linowall. By the way, doesn't that light fixture remind you of one now sold by Circa Lighting?

This room, once again decorated by Ross Stewart of Sloane's, features peach taffeta and natural colored silk gauze curtains. It almost sounds like a description of a ballgown.

(Image at top from House and Garden's Book of Color Schemes; other photos from various 1936 issues of House & Garden)


  1. Great post. I am a fan of sheers. In our last house we haa a hugh corner window in our living room. The only way, really, "to do" the window treatments was with swags and sheers; lovely! Thanks for reminding us that we don't have to be decorating lemmings!

  2. I like sheers - in fact have just had self-lined sheers hung in two south-facing rooms instead of sunshades. They are purely utilitarian but can be drawn back to modulate the light when necessary - during a storm, evening, etc.

    In our library they are there to allow me to have my hand-painted desk in front of the window without fading and to give a softer light when writing.

    Linen, though fashionable, needs to be of a heavy weight or it simply looks like a discarded tissue hanging in the light.

    An off-white casement backed by a colored sheer can be a wonderful combination especially if the edges are not caught and the whole allowed to waft in the breeze of an open window.

    I think each of your examples is superbly of its time and redolent of veiling - veiling is a word not often used in interior design but a concept that could have much currency in the hands of the right decorators.

    I too like the wavy-edge - demure and perky at the same time.

  3. Glad to see that you're also a fan, North.

    Blue, I'm now intrigued by the concept of veiling...but only in the right hands.

  4. Anonymous7:32 AM

    I fear the plethora of grubby nylon curtains in London put me off sheers for life.

  5. This is a blast from my past. I remember my mother ironing these sheers with starch!! She loved them stiff too! I'm afraid their a little too "my own life" to go there again, but pull out the spray starch (or the old fashion liquid kind) and see what you get!

  6. In my childhood- the 1960's, every aging, past its prime, grand house house on the North Shore of Long Island of any social pretesions whatsoever had bedrooms whose windows were festooned with curtains of "glazed tarletan"- invariably over dusty white louvered blinds. I fear that I am in "Anonymous'" camp. They are too close to my own era for me to disassociate them from what they appeared to me at the time- "Grubby Nylon". I'll keep trying, though.

  7. I think of sheers as the slip under the ballgown. I can honestly say that since the harvest gold, ruffled sheers of my youth, I never considered only a sheer.
    I do love the green fabric valance in the 2nd picture and I kick myself everytime I am reminded of that light fixture in the linoleum ad. I found an original in the 80s for $100 bought it, never hung it and ended up trading it for a mantel with the dealer a few years later.

  8. Sheers need to make a comeback. So very popular in decorating from the 20's through the 50's, as a myriad of Hollywood's films will attest, they fell out of favor when Modernism crushed all ornament. I like a stiff, narrow pleated leading edge to long sheers, maybe in a colored taffeta like steel gray on white sheers.

    The trick is to keep them as simple as possible; no valances, swags or tie backs, just the curtains falling straight to the floor, with embellishment limited to only one thing like the afore-mentioned regimented pleated edge or a glorious hardware like an over-sized gilt bronze curtain rosette holding back absolutely severe, unadorned but abundant, sheers. Sometimes it is the material, such as cheap nylon, which has done the look a disservice over the years. Try opting for silk gauze to get the appropriate shimmer and crispness.

  9. BTW, stretched tight on a frame and in two layers, you end up with a stunning moire pattern with sheers, that moves as you do, not unlike the chatoyance of tiger-eye or in the grain of mahogany or satinwood.

  10. Three of your devoted readers in a row backhandedly reveal our age and are unable to get over previous associations (I count myself A#1 here). Do younger folks,without the burden of the past view these sheers in a fresh light? Let's hope they comment.

  11. I am with Blue on this one, although the first I did when I moved into my house 25 years ago was to rip down the old sheers. At the time I thought they were hideous. The front of our house faces West. Yesterday it was 101 with a heat index of over 110. Sheers really do help modulate the light/heat buildup.At least in my house.

  12. Hmmm....they nearly all are paired with blinds as well - also a current favorite. In the right hands, I think it could be terrific.

  13. Love the Ross Stewart room. I love sheers. You can hide them behind the drapes if you don't want them to show at times.
    Teressa (Splendid Sass)

  14. loves sheers also!

  15. I think that the 1st photo's curtains might be starched organdy. Organdy can be somewhat shiny and things were really starched stiff until around 1960.

  16. ' "That's my roonm," Vicki remarked as they passed an open doorway without stopping. Stella had a brief glimpse of organdy curtains and marching bedspread and a dressing table covered with jars and bottles."'
    This sentence comes from a much-loved book from my childhood: Look to the New Moon by Frances Fullerton Neilson. It is an American novel and was avidly read by my friends and myself in the late 1950s in England. I just loved the description of the elegant homes in it and, in particular, the bedrooms which had 'organdy curtains.' I persuaded my mother to have my bedroom re-decorated, and I chose matching curtains for both the window and the skirt of my kidney-shaped dressing table and, at the window, white cross-over sheers. But somehow, even in the south west of England, and in a little village in Devon, the effect just didn't match up to the description in the book. Nonetheless, I have always loved sheers. Sadly, in the UK we tend to associate 'net' curtains with nosy neighbours, always 'twitching' them without being seen!
    Margaret P

  17. Anonymous9:49 AM

    my mother always referred to her tied back ruffled sheers as Priscillas -

    john in nc

  18. Dorothy Draper's curtains for the Gideon Putnam Hotel in Saratoga Springs were the ultimate in ruffled curtains. Very theatrical, seriously over the top, but wonderfully fun.

  19. Sheers are wonderful in apartments--let in light, block views from that building across the way...

    There's a cotton lawn fabric, I think the same as used a handkerchief. I don't know the trade name for it, I think it's similar to organdy, a wonderful fabric. It starches up nicely too!

  20. Sheers get a bad rep sometimes because they're older but there's still a ton of ways to make them work in modern settings!