Natural light is wonderful, but if you find yourself squinting at your computer in a midday sunbeam or making extended eye contact with pedestrians outside a ground-floor apartment, it may be time for window curtains. Luckily, installing them is one of the quicker and less expensive home-improvement projects; the only additional supplies you’ll need are a drill and a curtain rod (although some styles also require hooks to hang the curtain onto the rod). And while there are plenty of luxe window treatments out there, there are also inexpensive options that do the job well.
Best overall | Best sheer | Best (less expensive) sheer | Best upgrade sheer linen |Best upgrade semi-sheer linen | Best blackout | Best washable | Best patterned | Best velvet | Best silk | Best custom
What we’re looking for
Material: When buying curtains, choose a material you like — one that looks good during the day and night, up close and far away, gathered to the side or pulled shut. All kinds of materials can be made into curtains, but the most common are wovens with a nice drape, like cotton, linen, silk, and velvet, which are substantial enough to hold their shape but not so heavy that they sag or droop. Synthetic textiles like polyester are also used for light-blocking blackout curtains, which tend to have a stiffer silhouette.
If your curtains will hang in a high-traffic area that kicks up a lot of dust or dirt, you may need to occasionally take them down to clean them. If that’s the case, consider buying a machine-washable material, like cotton — some fabrics like linen and silk are dry-clean only. If you’re trying to lift wrinkles or need to perform a light cleaning, you can also do a quick once-over with a garment steamer with the curtains still hanging on the rod.
Opacity: Window curtains range from translucent, windswept-Italian-villa gauze to heavy fabrics optimized to block out light and heat. The right opacity depends on your needs — whether you’re aiming to diffuse bright light, preserve some privacy, or your sleep is being interrupted by a street light that burns brighter than the sun. We’re categorizing curtains as sheer, semi-sheer (which aren’t see-through, but let in enough light to feel, as Strategist senior writer Liza Corsillo puts it, “like day in the daytime”), opaque, and blackout, which often also blocks heat.
Length: Most curtains are between 48 and 50 inches wide per panel, but the length is variable. Megan Hersch, the owner of Studio MG Interiors and online interior-design service RoomLift, says that she typically measures a curtain from the rod to the floor, “so that it just ‘kisses’ the floor. This way, nothing is dragging and trapping dirt, but they don’t look too short.” (Rods are typically mounted at the top of the window, but for very tall ceilings, Hersch recommends installing about 16 inches above the frame.) If you want a more dramatic vibe, Hersch recommends adding extra 1.5 inches so the drape “breaks” on the floor. Alternately, if you need to shorten your curtains to fit above a sill, console, or radiator, they’re fairly straightforward to hem on a sewing machine, or you can hire a tailor to help. You can also do a no-sew DIY job — Strategist senior editor Ailbhe Malone recommends Wundaweb tape in the latter case.
Header: The header is the top of the curtain, where the fabric meets the curtain rod, and its style depends on how the curtain is designed and determines how it can be hung. There are a ton of curtain-hanging styles, and many items on this list can be hung multiple ways; In general, curtains are either hung directly onto the curtain rod with a rod pocket, loops, or grommets, or hung slightly below it using ties, curtain hooks, or drapery pins. Many rod-pocket curtains also have tabs on the back, which can be hung directly on the rod or looped over curtain hooks. Hooks will take slightly longer to install, but hanging a curtain on hooks versus directly onto the rod can help it open and shut more smoothly.
100 percent linen | Semi-sheer | 84 and 95 inches | Rod pocket
Interior designer Nicole Fuller describes linen curtains as “incredibly timeless,” and Strategist writer Emma Wartzman recommends these inexpensive linen panels in particular, which she says “look pretty dang good” despite their low price. Wartzman says they did a good job of shading a street-level window and were low maintenance: “They stayed really nice and unwrinkly for the year-plus we had them.”
Best sheer curtains
52 percent cotton, 48 percent linen | Sheer | 84, 96, 108, and 120 inches | Rod pocket, includes drapery hooks
The sheer linen curtains from Restoration Hardware’s Perennials line were a favorite among the experts we spoke to, and Hersch shared a hack: Restoration Hardware’s teen line makes a similar linen-cotton blend curtain at a third of the price. They come in a wide size range, from 84 inches up to 120 inches long.
Best (less expensive) sheer curtains
50 percent cotton, 50 percent recycled polyester | Sheer | 98, 118 inches | Four-way header
Malone recommends these inexpensive, sheer H&M Home curtains, which she hangs over a set of blinds. They “let in light when the blinds are open, but still mean people can’t peek in,” she says, and they “look far more expensive than they are.”
Best upgrade sheer linen curtains
100 percent linen | Sheer | 84, 96, and 108 inches | Rod pocket
Strategist senior editor Simone Kitchens loves West Elm’s breezy linen curtains, which “let in lots of sunlight” to a street-facing window. Kitchens had planned to wash them, but ended up not needing to: “They naturally softened and looked lived-in after a short while.”
Best upgrade semi-sheer linen curtains
100 percent linen with cotton lining | Semi-sheer | 84 and 96 inches | Rod pocket, loops
Kitchens also recommends Parachute’s linen curtains, which are slightly more opaque thanks to a cotton lining, which “lets light filter in nicely, but still leaves you with some privacy.” They also have a very practically designed header: “a genius strip of loops sewn into the back panel, which makes connecting them to curtain rings and hooks super-easy,” says Kitchens. “You can also slide them on the regular way, if that’s not your look.”
Best blackout curtains
Polyester | Blackout | 63, 84, 95, and 108 inches | Grommets
These are the go-to blackout curtains of Dani Mulhearn, a senior designer at online interior-design service Havenly; they’re also insulated to keep sunny rooms from overheating. She likes that they’re affordable, come in a variety of neutral colors, and are available in several lengths. She says the grommet header is “super-functional” and makes opening and closing them easy.
Best washable curtains
100 percent cotton | Semi-sheer | 98 inches | Tabs
Corsillo swears by these inexpensive cotton curtains, which she washes every couple months to remove dust and radiator drips. Corsillo irons them, but even without that step, “they eventually flatten on their own from gravity,” she says. Plus, they’re “very easy to install” and have an opacity that keeps piercing sunlight out but preserves daytime brightness.
Best patterned curtains
55 percent linen, 45 percent cotton; polyester lining | Blackout | 84, 96, and 108 inches | Rod pocket, rings
These linen-and-cotton-blend curtains are decorated with narrow, irregular-size stripes that add a “casual and coastal feel,” according to interior designer Katherine Tlapa, and have a light-blocking polyester lining. Interior designer Bachman Brown also recommends patterned curtains: “A large-scale pattern is one of the best drapery treatments you can do for a window,” he says. “It sets the tone for the room, and nothing draws your eye more than a grand-scaled fabric.”
Best velvet curtains
Cotton and polyester velvet, cotton lining | Opaque | 63, 84, 96, and 108 inches | Rod pocket
For a window treatment to make your bedroom feel like a boudoir, Megan Huffman, a designer with the online interior-design service Modsy, recommends velvet curtains, especially these light-blocking matte velvet panels from Anthropologie that come in a range of colors from goldenrod to navy blue. The opposite of breezy and sheer, they’re both sumptuous and functional, with the fabric’s dense pile and substantial feel serving to block light as well as dampen sound.
Best silk curtains
100 percent silk with cotton lining | Opaque | 96, 108, and 120 inches | Rod pocket, includes drapery hooks
These dramatic cabana-striped silk curtains came up in our investigation of the best window treatments according to designers. They have a cotton lining to block light, come in a range of colors, and would make your space feel like a rococo parlor.
Best splurge-y custom curtains
Custom fabric | Custom size | Drapery pins
If you want to splurge on custom drapery, interior designers Betsy Burnham and Alyssa Kapito recommend the Shade Store. Burnham especially likes their solid-color linens with inverted pleat drapery, which she favors “for its tailored feel.” For custom curtains with a more classic pleated look, Kapito suggests a pinch pleat. “It’s not too traditional and not too modern,” she says.
• Bachman Brown, interior designer
• Betsy Burnham, interior designer
• Liza Corsillo, Strategist senior writer
• Nicole Fuller, interior designer
• Megan Hersch, owner of Studio MG Interiors
• Megan Huffman, interior designer
• Alyssa Kapito, interior designer
• Simone Kitchens, Strategist senior editor
• Ailbhe Malone, Strategist senior editor
• Dani Mulhearn, senior designer at Havenly
• Katherine Tlapa, interior designer
• Emma Wartzman, Strategist writer
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