Simple curtains with fabric loops, hung from wooden poles, were common in 17th- and 18th-century New England. These quaint curtains, with their narrow panels reaching just to the sill, are still as charming and suitable for today's windows as they were in Puritan days.

With modern fabrics, it is possible to recreate these early American curtains almost exactly. Complicated pleat arrangements, hooks, expensive brackets, and rods are not needed; instead, buy wooden dowels at the hardware store and make the brackets by hand.

Old Fabrics and New

In the inventory lists from old houses, one finds the unfamiliar fabric names: serges, camlets, calamancos, darnicks, moreen, linsey-woolsey, cheyney, and many others. Basically, these were wools, silks, linens, and cottons. Flax for linen was grown at home; sheep were raised for their woolen fleece. These two were the principal fibers woven on home looms. Cottons were nearly all foreign-produced. The muslins and fine-patterned calicoes that we associate with early America were actually imported from the East Indies. Very little cotton was produced in the colonies until the end of the 18th century, when Eli Whitney, with the invention of the cotton gin, revolutionized the fabric industry.

The woolens and linens used by the colonists were not easily produced, but the result of many long hours of labor. There were at least twenty lengthy, arduous steps involved in preparation of flax for spinning and weaving, and many processes needed for readying the wool, as well. In fact, the less wealthy people often sold their fine linen because they couldn't afford to use it themselves, after some sixteen months from the sowing of the flax seed to the final weaving. They would buy staple items with the income and weave for their family instead rough fabrics out of the cast-off "tow."

It is small wonder that curtains were only sill-length and that hems were exceedingly narrow, for fabric was dear and never wasted. The width of a homespun panel of fabric was much less than the 36 or 45 inches of today-a hand loom having produced a width of 20 or 30 inches, at most.

A good variety of modern fabrics are available that are similar to the old ones. Muslin, "homespun," chintz, cotton broadcloth and percale, calico, gingham, and linen are all very suitable. I'm sure our ancestors would have welcomed permanent press, too. The lovely home-dyed colors-soft reds, blues, mulberries, golds, olive greens, blue-greens-have never gone out of style.

Trimmings, Hemming, and Hanging

The deep bottom hems we know today apparently were not common. Fabric edges could be narrowly hemmed (as small as 1/8 inch), or bound with tape. Cotton fringe (usually about 2 inches long), and colored braid and gimp were also used.

For hanging, fabric loops were made by using curtain fabric or tape (3/8 inch wide in 18th-century examples) doubled to form a loop of from 1 1/2 to 3 inches, usually about 2 inches. They were sewn to the reverse side of the curtain top. Curtain rings also were used -- examples of thin, round, metal rings about 1 inch wide have been excavated near Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 17th-century sites. Rings were either sewn directly onto the curtain, or used in combination with tape loops, "tag-tied" fashion.

Curtains might be hung Dutch style too, with a pair for each sash, or merely a single panel for each sash. The simplest hanging method (beyond just tacking up the fabric, which was done, too!)was to make a tubular heading, open at both ends; and either insert a cord and suspend from that, or run the curtain rod or pole through. This was a common practice.

Brackets and Rods

Metal rods are mentioned in the inventories, perhaps because they were felt to be more valuable. But wooden rods or poles and open wooden brackets were certainly much used. The brackets were of small, flat pieces of wood with an open trough on top for the pole to rest in. They were attached to the inside of the window frame; these early windows had narrow frames that did not extend over the plaster as ours do today. The curtains thus hung entirely within the sash area. The poles commonly extended three inches or so beyond the outer edges of the bracket.

Source: Adapted from an article by Anne Carnahan

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