To anyone browsing through bolts of fabric or stacks of swatches, it's obvious that fabrics come in an astonishing range of choices, many of them suitable for any given window treatment. Some basic facts about fabric and a few shopping tips will help you select with confidence.

Understanding fabric

Fabric is a material made up of a fiber, such as cotton or rayon, or a blend of fibers. But shopping for fabric isn't as simple as asking to see a cotton or rayon curtain material. That's because the same fiber can be made into diverse fabrics; for example, cotton can be woven into filmy scrim, crisp chintz, plush velvet, lustrous damask, or stiff canvas.

Usually, the heavier the fabric, the tighter the weave should be if the treatment is to hang properly. The looser the weave, the more a fabric is affected by heat and moisture. In humid climates, the hemline in loosely woven draperies can rise and drop noticeably.

A pattern can be woven into or printed onto a fabric. In woven patterns, which are durable and generally costly, the colors show in a reverse design on the wrong side. In printed patterns, dye is applied to the surface, though it often seeps through to form blurry images on the opposite side. Modern fabric mills use machinery that can print dozens of colors, making more intricately hued, richer fabrics possible. For example, you can buy affordable printed versions of such expensive woven fabrics as damask.

Although some fabrics hold their colors better than others, an absolutely colorfast material doesn't exist. Bright colors appear to fade more than subdued colors, and solids more than prints. Sun rot can be another problem. If the window treatment will be exposed to strong sunlight, choose a rot-resistant fiber such as linen, polyester, or acetate.

Choosing fabric

An interior designer can show you material suitable for your situation. But if you're shopping on your own and fabric stores are unfamiliar territory, here are some guidelines. You'll be looking at the store's decorator fabrics, which are often grouped apart from garment fabrics.

Most decorator fabrics are 54 inches wide and are wound on cardboard tubes rather than flat cardboard. They usually have a higher thread count (they're more tightly woven) and stand up better over time than garment fabrics. Because they're not preshrunk, they shouldn't be washed. Another reason to avoid laundering them is that they're treated with finishes to make them resistant to stains, mildew, and wrinkles and to add more sheen or stability.

Consider a fabric's suitability for the window treatment you're planning―for instance, fabric for a swag should be supple, and one that will be drawn up in folds should have body without being too heavy or stiff. Check on fiber content and special finishes, information usually printed on the selvage (finished edge) or on the label. When choosing more than one fabric for a single window treatment, such as a curtain panel with contrast banding, look for similar weights and cleaning compatibility.

A knowledgeable salesperson can help you choose, as well as figure out how much fabric to buy. Take along paint chips, carpet scraps, and upholstery samples from the room that will contain the new window covering. Also bring accurate measurements of the window and your plans for its treatment.

Don't just look at a serious contender on the bolt. Unroll several yards and gather one end in your hand. Does it drape well? Does a pattern hold its own, without getting lost in the folds? Stand back several feet to see how it looks from afar. Ask for samples so you can examine them at home in daylight and under artificial light. If a sample is too small, consider buying 1?4 yard.

Once you've decided on a fabric, buy all you need at one time―and, if possible, from one bolt. Before cutting, though, unfurl the bolt and inspect the fabric for flaws. Slight color differences among bolts may be noticeable in the finished window treatment. If not enough fabric is available on a bolt, ask to have a larger bolt special-ordered.

If you're ordering from a swatch, ask for a cutting of the current dye lot for approval before investing in the full yardage required.

Comparing costs

Fabrics sold through interior designers usually cost the most. Retail outlets that rely on sample books generally sell at higher prices than stores that stock fabrics by the bolt.

You can save money by buying "seconds"―fabrics that have minor defects, though sometimes they're simply overruns. Some outlets sell seconds clearly marked as such; others mix seconds with first-quality fabrics and offer them at the same price. If you see flaws on a fabric and it's not marked as a second, ask about it.

When comparing the cost of two fabrics that look the same, make sure they really are the same. Fabric houses often "down-print" a pattern on a less expensive or flimsier fabric―one that may not hold up as well as you wish.

What next?

If you've chosen material on your own and don't sew, who will fabricate the window treatment that you have in mind? A designer or decorating service may agree to work with your fabric―or you can go directly to a drapery workroom, the place where designers go to have window coverings made for their clients.

Some workrooms will just fabricate the treatment you want based on measurements you give them; others offer a turnkey operation including measuring, fabric selection, and installation. Because selling fabric is a source of profit for most workrooms, they may charge an extra fee for using fabric you've purchased elsewhere.

To find a drapery workroom, look in the yellow pages under Draperies, or ask at a fabric store. Get references and check them; also find out if the workroom guarantees its work in writing.

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