Read about window treatments through the ages, from the simple wooden shutters of the 16th century to the extravagant drapery of the Victorian era.
History of Window Treatments in England
There are few ways in which England’s rich interior design heritage can be explored more elegantly than through the history of its window treatments. From simple wooden shutters to elaborate French drapery, this account will give you a flavour of the dramatic changes that occurred in the development of window treatments through the ages.
16th Century: Early Window Treatments
Up until the 16th century, wooden shutters were used to block out drafts and provide privacy in English homes. The first curtains consisted of a single piece of fabric hung from rings on an iron rod, but these were more commonly used to cover doors and act as partitions than to cover windows.
On the continent, it was a different story altogether. By this time, French and Italian homes featured intricate velvet and silk brocade curtains hung in pairs. Damask weaves were especially popular, and often featured designs from nature, such as flowers, birds and other animals.
Silk had been woven in England since the early 1400s, but it was only found in the homes of the elite during this period and most early curtains and drapes were made from wool or linen.
17th Century: Influences from Overseas
While window shutters remained popular in England during the 1600s, curtains were rarely used as a window treatment until the middle of the century, especially in modest households. Around this time, symmetry started to play an important role in architecture and, inspired by French and Italian designs, paired curtains started to emerge.
As European influences crept into English interior design, pull-up curtains with deep swags started to appear in the homes of the affluent. Later, decorative pelmets, valances and trims were used to conceal the mechanics.
A wide range of imported fabrics provided homeowners with far greater choice than previously. Simpler homes were furnished with tickings, linen and sackcloth, while the wealthy favoured patterned velvets, silks and damasks.
Silk blinds came to be used to protect interiors from the sun’s rays, and the French introduced external slatted blinds towards the end of the century.
18th Century: The Fabric Revolution
In the early 1700s, paired and pull-up curtains remained popular, along with increasingly decorative, stiffened pelmets featuring appliqué and embroidery. As the British silk industry flourished, wealthy homeowners made use of satin, taffeta, ribbed silk, clouded silk and, later, chintz, to bring an elaborate flair to their interiors.
It was around this time that roller blinds, Venetian blinds and net curtains were introduced. Both were used in conjunction with curtains to admit light whilst protecting furniture from the sun.
Towards the middle of the century, pelmets became softer and swags shallower, and carved, wooden cornices started to emerge. The Industrial Revolution transformed the cotton and textile printing industries, allowing for the mass production of printed soft furnishings. Neoclassical motifs like ancient buildings and rustic scenes started to appear on window treatments and drapes.
Influences from further afield also began to emerge, including ikats from the far east and paisley from Kashmir. The first cord-and-pulley system was introduced from France, and homeowners began to layer muslin, curtains, cornices and valances to create an effect known as French drapery.
19th Century: The Era of Extravagance
Early in the 1800s, the drapery poles used to hang valances and over-the-pole swags became increasingly elaborate, with decorative finials at either end. True to their reputation, the Victorians continued and built on this reign of decadence, with elaborate combinations of window coverings incorporating roller blinds, muslin curtains, regular curtains and large, embellished lambrequins.
The downside to the mass production of textiles was that Britain’s silk industry started to fall into decline. However, while brocaded silks became unfashionable, other, imported silks remained popular, along with tulle, taffeta, velvets, damasks, printed linen and chintz.
As dyeing and printing techniques continued to improve, so too did the realism of colours and patterns. Earlier window treatments featured geometric prints and motifs inspired by architecture and nature. Later in the century, small-patterned wool damasks and moreen were produced on jacquard looms, and floral, tartan and paisley patterns were widely used.
It was only at the turn of the century, with the publication of Charles Eastlake's book Hints on Household Taste in Furniture, Upholstery and Other Details, that simpler window treatments started to come back into favour.
20th Century: Restored Simplicity
In the years that followed, window treatments continued to become a far simpler affair, partly resulting from the rationing of fabric during the First and Second World Wars. Ready-made curtains started to appear in shops and catalogues during the 1940s, and were usually combined with plain pelmets and, later, Venetian blinds.
A limited choice of dyes meant that most soft furnishings featured just two or three colours on a neutral background. Simple weaves such as gingham prevailed until the 1950s, when bold flower designs came into fashion, along with geometrics and abstract patterns inspired by science and technology.
As the decades progressed, patterns became smaller and soft pastels and ethnic textiles grew in popularity. Drapery and pull-up blinds enjoyed a brief revival as part of the neo-Edwardian English Country House look of the ‘70s and ‘80s, but this ended abruptly with the reactionary minimalism of the early ‘90s.
21st Century: Past Meets Present
Today’s homes feature a dichotomy of modern and traditional window coverings, often dictated by contemporary trends, the architecture of the building and the tastes of the homeowner. The vast array of fabrics, designs and styles at our disposal offer unprecedented freedom in our choices of window treatments, a fact for which we at William Woods Interior Design are extremely grateful.
As a professional interior designer, we take great pride in our heritage, yet work hard to follow ongoing developments in the industry. By combining an expert knowledge of window treatments through the ages with a keen eye for innovation, we create bespoke window coverings that enhance the historical integrity of each space whilst reflecting the client’s unique vision and personality.
Please browse our website for further information on the services that we provide, or call 01423 530111 to enquire.