Tips and Tricks: Custom Drapery Sewing Like the Pros

Faux London Shade Valance, Interlined, with In-Seam Bead Trim
These days, I send most of my clients' drapery projects to my wholesale drapery workroom for fabrication, but when I was first starting my business I sewed all of them myself and I still do small window treatments and accessories like throw pillows for clients occasionally.  My workroom experience makes me a more successful designer, because I have a much better understanding of how things are made and how different fabrics and trims behave than designers who don't sew. You will never see me bringing an upholstery chenille to my workroom, asking them to make it into a swag valance!  Since I had just gotten my new sewing machine right before this order was approved, I decided it would be a great first project on my new Bernina 750 QE.  Remember how I was neurotically matching this large-scale botanical bird print fabric a few weeks ago with the help of my machine's dual feed feature?  Now that the drapery valances are finished, out of my studio, and installed in the client's home, I thought I'd share a few tips and tricks for achieving professional results sewing window treatments at home on a domestic sewing machine. 

Rule #1: Beware Drapery Panels!  I know what you're thinking.  Drapery panels are easy -- they're just rectangles with hems on three sides and pleats at the top!  The problem is that they are HUGE rectangles that have to be cut perfectly straight and perfectly square.  If you cut them crooked, they are going to hang crooked.  For a 102" finished length drapery panel, you will be cutting your fabric into 118" lengths.  Single width panels tend to look very skimpy at the window, even if they are just stationary side panels and not operable, so you will need to seam at least one and one half widths of your 54" wide drapery fabric together for each panel.  Now your rectangles measure approximately 80" x 118" (for 1 1/2 width panels) or 107" x 118" (for double width panels).  A professional drapery workroom has huge padded work tables to accommodate projects of this size without anyone having to crawl around the floor, "tabling" the drapery panels to measure for an exact finished length.  Considering that drapery panels are among the most economically priced custom window treatments to have professionally made, I strongly suggest you leave the panels to the pros.  Believe it or not, the more complicated looking valances or "top treatments" are much more manageable to make at home because you will be dealing with much smaller pattern pieces.  My longest cut lengths for these shade valances were 48", so I was able to roll my fabric out on two side-by-side 3' long utility tables, which were clamped together from the bottom to prevent them from moving apart as I was working.

Cutting 54" Wide Drapery Fabric on TWO 72" long Tables


Rule #2: Stay Away from "Big Four" Pattern Company Patterns!  Trust me, that gorgeous swag valance you saw in Veranda was NOT made with a McCall's Home Dec pattern!  I recommend M'Fay Patterns because they include excellent instructions and detailed yardage guidelines.  Pate-Meadows Designs has some pretty window treatment patterns as well, but they tend to be more complicated and, unless you're planning to make your pattern exactly as shown in the picture, it can be much more difficult to calculate how much of each fabric and trim you will need to complete your project with these patterns.  I didn't use a pattern for my valances, because I've made treatments like this many times before, but M'Fay London Shade pattern #9316 would be very similar.

I know people love to see "before and after" pictures, so here you go!  My clients had recently purchased this home when I met with them, and they wanted to get rid of the previous homeowner's window treatments and paint colors in this kitchen:


Client's Kitchen Before: Dark, Heavy and Dated.  And no, that isn't my Starbucks on the counter...
Here's my design proposal for the client (below).  The old treatment, which spanned from window to window across the top of the French doors, felt heavy and oppressive to me, and emphasized the width of the room while visually lowering the ceiling.  I proposed treating the windows individually with mock shade valances mounted above the windows, just below the crown molding, to open up the space and add a splash of color without that visual weight, and to display decorative plates in the space above the French doors.  
My Design Rendering Showing the New Mock London Shade Valances


Eleria in Graphite, from Robert Allen
This young couple wanted an updated, more tailored look that was elegant without feeling fussy, in a color palette of warm cream, pale blue, with darker wood tones and fixtures. The wife really loved birds and already owned quite a few accessories with botanical or bird themes, so the Eleria linen print fabric from Robert Allen was perfect for her.  The wall color is Sherwin Williams Macadamia, SW 6142.  I've used that color several times before; it's a great neutral that works with a lot of fabrics and doesn't go too gray or too yellow on the wall.

These are called "mock" or "faux" London Shade valances because they are inoperable -- they do not go up and down, and they do not even have enough length to go up and down.  The fabrication of fabric shades is very similar to that of drapery panels, with your decorative face fabric, cotton flannel interlining ( to prevent too much light coming through and washing out your fabric), and a cotton sateen drapery lining sandwiched together and blind-hemmed at the sides. 

Blind-Hemming the Shade Panel Sides

For blind-hemming interlined drapery or shade panels on my Bernina 750 QE, I used Blind Hem Stitch #9 with my #5D Dual Feed Blind Hem foot, just like I would use to hem a pair of slacks.  Since I'm dealing with three layers of fabric and a lot more bulk for a drapery panel, I reduce my presser foot pressure, increase the stitch length to 3.0, and adjust the stitch width to around 4.0-4.3.  It's important to test the stitch width on a scrap sandwich of your actual drapery fabric, lining, and interlining, folded back just like the hem on your actual project, to determine the correct stitch width.  If your stitch is too narrow, you will just catch the lining and your interlining and face fabric will not be secured.  If your stitch is too wide, you will see a big ugly stitch on the right side of your hem.  It's crucial that your thread is perfectly matched to the predominant color of your main drapery fabric for the blind hem.  If you don't want to do a blind hem by machine, your other option would be to hand stitch the hems.  NO top stitching!  If your fabric is any kind of a velvet, hand stitching all of the hems is mandatory.

Kravet Strie Ball Trim in Platinum
Because some of the lining is going to show at the bottom of this type of shade, I cut a 9" deep facing for each shade from my main drapery fabric.  I used a Kravet wrapped bead trim for these shades, which I inserted in the seam at the bottom of each panel so only the bead balls would show, not the header -- I think that looks cleaner and more current.  It gives the illusion that each little thread-wrapped ball was attached individually to the shade.  So the bead trim was basted across the bottom of the shade on the right side, with the trim header entirely inside the seam allowance and a LONG basting stitch to reduce the likelihood of puckering (I think the dual feed helped with this as well), and then the facing strip was sewn to the bottom of the shade, RST.  Then the facing was wrapped around to the lining side of the shade, raw edges pressed under about 1", and STITCHED BY HAND to the lining, just like invisible applique, to hold it in place.  I did not want to take the chance that machine blind hem stitches might go through to the interlining or face fabric, even if I attempted to set my stitch width so that only the lining was caught in the hem, because if the three layers stretch or contract with changes in humidity I would get dimples on the front of the window treatment anywhere that a stitch happened to go through all three layers.  If you absolutely cannot bring yourself to stitch this by hand, I suppose you could use that Steam-A-Seam stuff to fuse it instead if you're sewing something for your own home and you're deathly allergic to hand sewing.  I was doing this for a client, so I stitched this by hand with tiny, invisible stitches, thinking ahead to the applique projects I'm planning for later this year!

At this point, the sides and bottom of the shade valances were finished, but I still had raw fabric edges at the top.  I stitched 1 1/2" down from the top for my board line (used to precisely position the treatment when it came time to staple it to a fabric-wrapped dust board), and then I serged the raw edge for a clean finish with no frayed edges.

What next? More hand sewing!  Little white plastic Roman Shade rings were hand stitched to the back of the shade at the sides and in the center of the pleated areas, at 6" intervals, using an off-white jeans thread (for strength) that matched my linen fabric perfectly, going all the way through all three layers.  It took about an hour to an hour and a half to measure, mark placement, and hand stitch the rings for each shade.  It would have taken MUCH longer if this was an operable shade, because then it would have had about three times as many rings going down the length of each shade.

Some people like to stitch their pleats at the top of these shades prior to board mounting, but I like to make the pleats as I'm mounting the valances so I can make any necessary adjustments to get the fabric taut, but not pulling, in the flat sections.  I mark the top of the shade at the center point, and I make little marks at the center of each pleat.  I make corresponding pencil marks on the top of my fabric-wrapped board at the center of the board and at the center of each pleat, and then I staple the center and ends of the valance to my board.  Next, I create each pleat and staple it in place, and then distribute additional staples as needed along the top of the boards.  Additional fabric wraps over the top of the stapled valance edge so that the top of the valance looks neat and tidy, which is especially important in those situations where the tops of the dust board will be visible from above, as in two-story vaulted ceiling great rooms, etc.

Once the board mounting process was completed, I gathered those rows of rings together and secured them with a larger clip ring to form the soft gathers at the bottom of the shade.  Done -- finally! 

Finished and Installed!

I love how these valances turned out, and more importantly, my client was thrilled with them.  Pardon the mess in the photo, by the way -- ordinarily I would have cleared off the table before taking pictures, but it was an early morning installation and we were rushing so my client could get her children to preschool on time. 

This project reminded me of one of the most important reasons that I continue to occasionally sew some of my clients' window treatments: Every time I do, it takes me at least three times as long as I expected it to, and I realize once again just how much time, labor, and skill goes into every successful drapery treatment.  My drapery workroom is a tremendously valuable resource, and knowing that they can skillfully execute any design I dream up is crucial to the success of my design business, as well as to my own sanity.  Because, when I'm sewing window treatments for clients, I don't get to do ANY of my own projects, and I completely lose my favorite hobby for the entire time that a client's project is in progress.  Sharon and Debra, if you're reading this -- the next one is coming your way!

This week, I need to finish that Dresden Plate quilt for my neice's 5th birthday on MARCH 10th.  Enjoy the rest of your weekend, everyone!

2 comments, opinions & scuttlebutt:

Fran Kingston Dill said...

I really want to do some window treatments in my house. Thanks for sharing.

Jenny K. Lyon said...

I want you as my designer! Too bad you're not it NorCal! The new treatment made a huge difference in the room. Loved the post-lots of take away info.

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