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It's Curtains for your Old House...

Windows present a challenge; they allow us to illuminate and ventilate our homes, all the while affording us a view of the scenery as well as the solicitor currently strolling up the front walk. Unfortunately, they also permit said solicitor to peek in and observe us cowering in avoidance behind the sofa. Rather than spending our days lurking in a dark, stifling parlor, it became clear that something had to be done to create privacy without sacrificing light and airflow.

 Lace Curtain with kitty
And thus, the lace curtain came to be.

Besides being pretty, lace curtains serve an all-important purpose by combining incoming light, fresh air, and privacy.  (A full and obvious disclosure: I own a lace curtain company that specializes in historic patterns.)

Before central heating and air-conditioning, window treatments in general were as much functional as decorative, no matter how simple or ornate. The heavy draperies of the 18th and 19th centuries were intended to stop the infiltration of drafts from leaky single-glazed windows. In fact, houses from this era were so drafty, we even had heavy curtains hung in interior door-ways; (they are called portieres). And while these drapes offered complete privacy in the evening, what could we do during the long hours of the day and summer nights when air circulation was necessary? Lace curtain panels provided the solution.

A traslucent textile hung in just the window-sash itself is called a glass curtain; it was not intended to extend past the sash width or height by much and was the primary means for achieving privacy in days past. Today, lace is the most affordable means of doing this; but up until the middle of the Victorian era, lace was hand-woven and frightfully expensive. People of more modest means might create window treatments from muslin or other porous fabrics, occasionally decorating them with trim or ribbon.  This all changed with the invention of the power loom and the industrial revolution; for now textiles could be mass produced and available to all segments of the market.

The first of these new lace weaves was a method known as Nottingham Lace, an open type of lace that was and is graded in increments called points, which range from eight to fourteen knots per inch, much the same as one would grade an oriental rug. Nottingham lace remains the most common type of lace and is familiar to all.
 A couple of decades after the Nottingham looms were in production, another type of lace, Madras, joined it on the collective windows of society.  Madras Lace is a finer product and much more time-consuming to create; first a fine muslin is woven, then the pattern is applied during the second pass through the loom, and the yarn is affixed wherever at the pattern is desired.  The excess cotton is trimmed off and then the panel is finished, resulting in a subtle three dimensional effect.
Lace Sidelights
These newly affordable, mass-production, lace panels became a decorative object as well. Dur-ing the 19th century, curtains were typically hung  at or near floor-length, occasionally even pooling on the floor.  As the tastes changed around 1900, and window treatments became simpler, lace was often shortened to window-sill length.  Fashion also dictated a lesser amount of gathering post-1900; instead of the Victorian concept of double fullness, the ratio was closet to one-and-a-half the amount of lace width to glass, or even a  bit less.
 The patterns in which the lace was woven evolved with the whim of fashion, much the same as wallpaper, carpet and furniture. Neo-Classical and Rococo Revival were the predominant designs, but these yielded to Italianate, Eastlake, Colonial Revival and Craftsman styles as the decades passed. Lace curtain production didn’t end with the advent of Modernism; we’re producing Art Deco and now, Mid-Century Modern panels for these thriving restoration markets.