The other day, as often happens at HomeGoods, I came across a clearance item I wasn’t looking for—but had to have: four gorgeous pairs of velvet curtains for $30 each. I didn't have a specific purpose in mind for them, but thought they might look nice in my dining room. Or my bedroom. Or my office. I was a bit directionless, clearly, but figured I’d find a place for curtains as stunning as these.
I purchased one pair and asked the cashier to hold the other three pairs, just in case the panels looked best in my bedroom, which has four windows.
“Curtains are one of our number one returned items,” she volunteered. “People are always getting the color or size wrong.”
I thought I’d be different. But, alas, the curtains looked terrible in my dining room, since they had to drape awkwardly around a radiator. They only looked slightly better in every other room of my house.
One day later, I was a HomeGoods cliche: I reluctantly took back the panels—and encountered the same cashier, who repeated her spiel about curtains being an oft-returned item. My conclusion: It was time to do some curtain-buying research—and avoid making the same mistake twice.
Step 1: Measure!
Before you even consider curtains, determine the dimensions of your windows. Your rule of thumb: Curtains should be about twice the width of your window. (If your curtains are strictly decorative—that is, you don’t intend to close them—you can scale back to 1.5 times the width of the window.)
Length is a little trickier—where your curtains should fall depends entirely on the mood you want to create. Going for a formal feel? Consider puddling your curtains, tacking on one to three extra inches (any more just looks messy). Cute and casual? Select a a sill-length pair. Classic and tailored? Choose curtains that just touch the floor (or hover, at most, half an inch above the floor).
To measure, start from the floor (or sill, if that’s what you prefer) and stop just above the window casing, suggest the pros at Better Homes & Gardens.
Step 2: Start at the top.
The top of your panels isn’t just an aesthetic consideration—the way you hang your curtains will affect how they fall from the rod, according to West Elm’s curtain buying guide. Pole pocket curtains—those where you simply slip the rod through a fabric sleeve—create a laid-back, non-uniform look (warning: these don’t easily slide if you plan to open and close them), while those with metal grommets or fabric tabs provide clean lines and smooth pleats (bonus: grommets are the easiest to slide).
Step 3: Decide on your purpose.
Are you seeking privacy—or just a pretty splash of pattern on your windows? Do you want to block as much light as possible, or dull the glare of the sun only slightly? The purpose of your panels will affect what type of fabric you choose. Cotton curtains let the sun’s rays stream through, linen (and linen blends) offer a little more protection, and wool or velvet panels are one step behind blackout shades, in terms of light-blocking ability, according to West Elm.
Consider the mood your material creates, too: Heavy fabrics, like velvet, create drama and warmth, while cotton gives your space an airy, casual feel.
Step 4: Pick your pattern or color.
I made the fatal mistake of curtain buying: assuming the color I see in the store—under a fluorescent glow—is the same one I'd see at home. To avoid this pitfall, bring a pillow, a swatch of fabric, or a paint sample with you while shopping; that way, you can be sure to match your curtain color to your palette as closely as possible. If you want your curtains to blend, rather than making a bold statement, select a hue that is a couple shades darker or lighter than your wall color.
A few pointers on pattern: As beautiful as those paisley panels are, ask yourself: Will I still love this pattern on repeat across an entire wall? As a general guideline, large patterns work in large rooms, and small patterns are best in small rooms. (Of course, I’m all about rule-breaking when it comes to decorating, so don’t be afraid to experiment!)