Journal Insight #10: Hand-made curtains vs Machined curtains


I’ve spent a little time researching the topic of handmade vs machined curtains. It is one of those areas where it seems so obvious to the maker, but explaining why can be far harder – there are quite a few intangibles. Some of what I’m writing about today may be open to debate, with differing opinions even among professional curtain and blind makers.

Firstly, what do I mean by handmade vs machined? It turns out I actually mean two different things; separate topics that I’m combining here today.

Many people equate machined curtains with ready-made ones that you can buy off the shelf from department stores up and down the country, and they are definitely machined. The biggest benefits of ready-mades is that you can get them home the same day, solving an immediate problem if you are moving into a new build or an unfurnished apartment. They are also usually the most affordable option you’ll find for curtains – again, for many people a key factor in making their choice. You will have a limited range of fabric options in store, and choices of cotton or blackout lining, and they are typically manufactured with tape headings. The massive acceleration in online shopping has made this even easier for consumers.

For efficiency, these will be made in factories at speed (often overseas – Eco Solutions?) and so the fabric types will be very limited. Factories won’t want the variety of setup and making issues that come with offering silks, velvets, cottons and linens in the same place. Machines have adjustments on them for various thread and foot tensions, but this is a mass production environment. They in no way match the micro-adjustments you can make with your hands and a needle.

We often hear curtain makers complain about the quality of the lining materials used in ready-mades and after several years we are often asked what we can do to repair them. Customers are usually quire surprised at the cost to adjust them – its really not a quick job having to undo what was previously made on a machine, correct it and replace. Ready-mades come in set sizes – both width and drop, so you miss out on the benefits of made to measure. Very much like an off the peg suit, it will be fine and do a job, but the guy standing next to you in the tailored hand-made suit will just look the business.

Ready-mades won’t usually come with interlining as its not possible to sew this into the curtains in the same step required for machining. Rarely do they have weighted hems and the fullness is often lower.

Am I a ready-mades snob? Actually… no. I can see their place for speed and budget. I can’t afford a Saville Row Suit and its no reason to look down your Lorgnette at me, but in time, it is something I aspire to. For many customers it’s the same with curtains. They make do with ready-mades for years and then go for handmade if their circumstances change.

Now we come to the second comparison which I would summarise as handmade Vs made-to-measure and this is where it gets a little more subtle.

You can order made to measure curtains from many departments stores and independents on our high streets. Lead times vary but you can get them within 7 days and they will (as the name implies) be made to fit your measurements. More often than not, these will also be machined curtains, either in their own workroom, independent outworkers or outsourced to one of several large factories in the UK that supply the trade.

It is important to supply the right measurements and most independents will offer a measuring service for this. My experience is that quality compared to ready-mades is improved and you get more options on linings and headings. You also get to choose interlining which is a key difference. In this case the curtains won’t be fully machined but a mix. Sometimes you will see the phrase ‘Hand Finished’ on curtains – which means at least one part of the curtain has been made by hand – not remotely the same as hand-made…those pesky marketeers at work again.

Pricing will vary depending on the options you want and whether you add trimmings etc.

Now we come to fully hand-made – which is where we sit, and its also where it gets trickier to explain. Why would I want to hand sew a 5m wide pair of curtains when I have a lovely sewing machine right here in the workroom? I feel a bit pompous even comparing us to those Saville Row tailors, but in principle much is the same. You get a fully customised product with the touch and feel of professional curtain makers who understand the nuances of each fabric.

For example, velvets can be tricky to sew (and hard work) as the fabric easily rolls away from you, so knowing how to hold the fabric and how hard to tension the thread on each stitch is critical to get a smooth flat finish. Silks will show every stitch if you aren’t skilled and so picking up just 1 or 2 of the threads and gently tensioning the stitch as well as elongating or shortening stitch lengths to suit makes the world of difference. A hand maker will not want to you to see the stitches.

Each width of fabric will be weighted with penny weights sewn into the corners and seams; helping pull the curtain down, combining with the weight of fabrics and linings to help give that beautiful and luxury drape when hung and dressed properly. Daisy Chain stitches are added to link layers together.

There’s more… we can source so many lining and interlining options to suit each individual curtain, changing the finished weight and thermal properties you’ll get. We customise the leading and return edges so they fit neatly on the pole or track, tucking perfectly back to the wall on the outside. Of course, we can then add even more detail – want a contrast trim added to the leading edge? Piping cord set in, the pleats made longer to suit the scale of the room – yes this is where hand-made really takes off.

If you’ve chosen or supplied a beautiful £200 per metre embroidery you won’t want it puckering on the pattern matched joins but sitting beautifully together.

Confession time… hand-made doesn’t mean we never use machines? 3m high curtains need joins and machining is by far the best option to add the required strength. We also machine in the pleated headings before hand-finishing them. Its about knowing your craft and knowing what tool to use and when, rather than being dictated by which is quickest.

If you didn’t get a chance to read our insight into hanging and dressing curtains, then I recommend going back, as all this work and effort is instantly undone if they aren’t hung right.

While there are decent choices to be made particularly between made to measure and hand-made curtains, I personally don’t like machined roman blinds. Again, they have their place, but I always wince when I see 200 machine holes across every fold in a blind – so maybe I am a bit of a snob after all.

There are lots of hand-made curtain makers here in the UK and while the lead time clearly increases for this tailored individual service the result is chalk and cheese. If you have the client, the budget and the time, hand-made isn’t a choice you’ll regret.

If you’ve found this helpful, please share.

Next time… Poles

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Journal Insight #9: Eco Solutions for curtains and blinds
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Journal Insight #11: Curtain Poles – part 1

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