Valancing Act


What did it take to go from this:

A very sad valance accompanying spindly mini-blinds in the kitchen of our 1958 house when we bought it.

To this:

The sad valance is gone, thankfully–but what window treatment would be best?  Not a lace cafe curtain, that’s for sure.

To this?

Got a minute?  I’ll tell you.

I’m a fabric person, so I wasn’t thrilled to conclude that the best window treatment for our kitchen was a blind. Not floor-length draperies (obviously), or little cafe curtains, which would leave too much hard, dark, shiny window glass exposed before sunrise and after sunset when days are short.

No, for what we wanted–to be able to watch the passing neighborhood scene or shut it out, according to inclination–a blind was just the thing. Back in February I called the blind and curtain company Smith & Noble to send a designer over. She walked me through the whole process of choosing the widths and colors of slats and twill tape, did the measuring and the ordering, and in a couple of weeks our blind was installed.  It looked and worked great.

I lived with the blind very happily, but it wasn’t long before I returned to the matter of adding more colors, patterns, and shapes by way of fabric into the view of our kitchen window wall.  I knew which fabric I wanted to use, too: a printed cotton from the legendary French fabric producer Souleiado.If you have ever seen Pierre Deux’s French Country: A Style and Source Book you may recall the gorgeous fabrics chapter showcasing Souleiado.

My well-thumbed copy, which I bought in 1985.

I had found this faded but still vibrant Provencal print at my favorite store in the world, Grandview Mercantile (right here in Columbus, Ohio), covering a little homemade comforter. I was immediately taken by the unusual combination of mustardy yellow, spicy brown, and vivid turquoise balanced by a terracotta pink. These weren’t conventionally pretty colors, but I found them arresting. I bought the little comforter for $35.

Months later, I took out my seam ripper and carefully undid the stitching of the comforter. That’s when I discovered this enchanting pattern was made by Souleiado. That was as exciting for me as it would be for someone else discovering that a lamp picked up at a garage sale was made by Tiffany.

I wanted to use this fabric where I could enjoy it every day, but I didn’t want to ruin it. That was a quandary so familiar to me as a clothing sewer: longing to use a fabric but fearing cutting into it before being certain the fit and the style of the garment were right.

How could I get to the point of being brave enough to cut into my precious, perhaps irreplaceable, fabric?

I thought, okay–I’ll just have to do a lot of mockups. Instead of thinking I would never know enough to be able to cut into my fabric, I thought about how many easy, cheap or free, reversible experiments I could run.

How about tracing the outlines of the kitchen window wall from a photo? After I did, I thought, “Everything but the faucet is a right angle! I want to mix in some curves!”

Here’s the photo…

…and here’s the tracing. It was when I traced the basic outlines of the wall that I noticed they were all right angles. How about adding some curves to this view?

Paper is cheap. How about testing shapes and sizes of valances in paper?

Better yet, how about color-photocopying my fabric at our local library for 50 cents a sheet? Tape the pages together and hang them to get a sense of the impact of the colors and patterns mixed with the existing colors and patterns on the window wall?

I also thought to try finding more of this fabric and set up a daily search on the word “Souleiado” on eBay. After a couple of months, a three-yard piece turned up, in perfect condition–a very lucky find.

I set up a Pinterest board to collect valance and cornice pictures. (I mostly found designs I didn‘t want.)

I used a scrap of the furring strip to balance the staple gun. Jack held the mount steady while I stapled down the Velcro.

I wanted a valance I knew could be machine-washed if it got dusty and dull-looking. That definitely meant I had to create my own construction plan to guarantee washability. But the instructions for the Zigzag Pelmet/Valance from the book Curtains and Blinds by Lucinda Ganderton and Ali Watkinson turned out to be very helpful.

I had two main questions to answer about the shape of this valance: the depth, and the bottom edge. I studied pictures to get a sense of what looked proportionate–not skimpy, and not like a hat that’s too big for its wearer. Then I tried paper mockups.

The mount was attached to the wall with angle irons.

I realized after trying out some curves in paper mockups that determining the right size is not as easy as it seems.   It was only after studying the print for awhile that I noticed the unbroken lengthwise curve that supplied the obvious shape of the border. I cut my photocopy along the curve–another cheap, easy, risk-free test–and had my answer.

On the taped-together photocopies I cut along the curve in the print. Would this curve make a nice border? Yes.

A closeup of the mount

The lining for the valance was another question. It had to be machine-washable and the right weight and drape. In my stash was a white cotton flannel sheet I had been saving for interlining coats that turned out to work very well.

All during this project I wished I could get a few minutes’ input from a designer for aesthetic guidance and from a window furnishings maker about construction techniques. That would have boosted my confidence and saved me time.

My idea of using separate pieces of Velcro for the returns helped to create crisp turns around the corners.

Instead, I dithered about the size and shape of the valance, questioned the completeness and accuracy of the instructions I was more or less following, and worried about drilling holes in the wall in addition to worrying about chopping into my fabric.

I had a lengthy conversation with the hardware store clerk about the right size of angle irons and wall anchors to buy as well as the dimensions of the furring strip for the valance mount.

The instructions I used did not call for pressing in a crease at the turns. A crease gave a much better look than the original floppy ends.

In the absence of professional advice I did learn a lot along the way, and I applied knowledge from curtain- and garment-making to create a pretty nicely finished, proportionate–machine-washable, even!–valance from a beautiful fabric.

Monday afternoon I finished the stitching and pressing, and Jack installed the valance on its Velcro’ed mount.

The lining can be glimpsed from the front, so I’m glad the flannel I used didn’t have a cute print!

What works, what doesn’t?

What works is, I’m satisfied with the construction.  With my level of knowledge as a home sewer of mostly garments, I don’t think I could have done better.

What doesn’t work? The best way I can put it is, I think this burst of color, shape and pattern will work better when the eye can travel around the room and pick up on other bursts of colors, shapes, and patterns that will set up an intriguing rhythm.

Putting objects in a room is just the first step. Creating relationships among the objects is where a lot of the fun is going to be. I have more of this beautiful print and am thinking about how I can use it to delight the eye.

A few of my favorite things

What Instructions Will Never Tell You


I don’t think it’s emphasized nearly enough how much this thing we call “sewing” is a process of formulating questions, cracking puzzles, experimenting, course-correcting, and adjusting expectations.

From idea to finished product can be a pretty circuitous route, and I am still surprised how many decisions are required along the way.

Take the shower curtain I made over the weekend.

Clamping a remnant over the curtain rod: Would this be a good shower curtain?

I’d been meaning for months to make one for our remodeled bathroom but had been shying away from actually committing to the project.

The bathroom when we bought the house: Hello 1958!

The remodeled bathroom, in need of a nice-looking shower curtain.

I have dozens of potential projects competing for my attention, and how any one of them finally breaks away from the pack and gets chosen would make a good research project. (I’ll put that on my project list…)

The dining room before we bought the house. We think the couch was placed to prevent innocent househunters from walking out the sliding door and tumbling 15 inches onto the brick patio.

The dining room now, with draperies I made with a Craftsy class taught by Susan Woodcock. Would leftover yardage work for a shower curtain?

Out of curiosity last week I Googled “how to sew a shower curtain” and looked at a couple of sets of free instructions, from Craftsy and from Good Housekeeping magazine.  I’d say the best thing about such instructions is their infectious cheeriness. “It’s easy!” they practically shout, and, in a way, they’re right:

  • Use the curtain liner as your starting point for measurements.
  • Use one extra-wide piece of fabric or seam together two regular widths.
  • Hem all sides.
  • Install grommets or sew buttonholes
  • Hang the curtain.
  • Stand back and admire your handiwork. Aren’t you clever!

In Instruction Land, making a shower curtain is a simple linear process, with one step logically following another till you’re done.

But in Getting Things Sewn Land, making a shower curtain is…well, anything but linear. And I think this is a big reason for my procrastinating on starting practically every project, however straightforward it may appear at the outset.

There’s the image of the dream at the beginning, and the reality of the finished object at the end–and between is the murky middle where I have to figure out what questions even to ask, let alone how to answer them.

I wanted the curtain to extend a little beyond the plastic liner. A pesky detail: How much beyond? Where shall I position my buttonholes?

In Instruction Land it’s assumed that all technical and aesthetic questions have already been settled. What’s left is a simple matter of assembling the parts.

How high or low can I hang the curtain? How much clearance does the rod need?

But in Getting Things Sewn Land I find myself asking technical and aesthetic questions right down to the finish line.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m grateful for the clarity and optimism of Instruction Land. I just have to keep reminding myself, though, that step-by-step, linear instructions represent only part of the process of getting things sewn.

The curtain top reaches the top of the ring: is that okay? Make a sample and check it out.

In my experience real sewing projects are almost always better represented by a diagram starting with a central node with many nodes linking to it to capture ideas and questions first, then decisions and experiments, then more decisions turned into steps.

The curtain sample looks crowded against the rod and inside the ring. Moisture could accumulate and cause a mildew problem.

Part of my hesitation was over whether yardage left from the dining room drapery project would be a good choice for a shower curtain.  (By the way, this is Buffalo Check by P Kaufmann in the colorway Biscuit and it’s 100% cotton.) As I discovered laundering and pressing a sizable remnant, Buffalo Check didn’t retain its crispness and stayed a little wrinkly.  So, not an ideal candidate for a shower curtain.

The buttonholes are positioned closer to the top in the actual curtain.

However, the curtain would not get a great deal of use being slid back and forth on the rod or being splashed, since this shower and tub are backups we use only when we surrender the upstairs bathroom to overnight guests.  The curtain would be functional, but from day to day would be just decorative.

I decided to match the check by hand-slipstitching and then machine-stitching my two remnants. Then I would cut the length of the shower curtain.

Speaking of decorative,I also wondered about the color, pattern, and scale of this fabric working in this scheme.  It can be tempting to use remnants because it’s economical and convenient and can make you feel inventive, but the materials should fit naturally into the visual context, too.

Slipstitching the check for a perfect (I hoped) match.

The colors in the bathroom are cool, but I thought it would be interesting to introduce a warm counterpoint.

When I pressed under the edge of one length, the cotton shrank a little compared to the other length–hence, the puckering.

I was lucky to buy Buffalo Check on clearance for under $6 a yard, so my financial investment would be minimal. I was also hankering to make a little home improvement. So the two 3-yard cuts of Buffalo Check wrapped around the cardboard tube got their work assignment.

Machine-stitching along my hand-basted line.

I made samples to check the size and positioning of the buttonholes and whether my sewing machine would balk at stitching through two double hems overlapping at the upper corners.

I figured out my finished and cut widths and lengths.

I don’t know what went wrong matching the checks. I decided to slipstitch the two remnant lengths together and then machine-stitch the seam.  Okay, so it’s time I learned to use my walking foot to match the checks vertically perfectly.

My pattern-matching left something to be desired!

But whatever caused that horrible slant at the bottom of my curtain? I’ve never made such a big sewing blunder without understanding my mistake. (I still don’t know what happened. Was one cut off-grain?)

The frustrating reality. This is my worst off-grain problem ever.

This is where I had to weigh my options, and Instruction Land was not going to be a big help. I was on my own, making judgment calls in Getting Things Sewn Land.

I debated whether the mistake would be less glaring at the bottom or at the top of the curtain.  I draped the panel over the rod and guessed the bottom.

No, I don’t like this result, but the curtain will be pushed to the side 99% of the time, minimizing my embarrassment.

It was somewhat consoling to realize

  • the curtain would be pulled to one side almost all the time.
  • when it was closed there would be only one person–the one taking a shower–witnessing the error.
  • the witness would almost always be only Jack or me.

So I brought the panel back to the sewing room and finished hemming it Sunday evening without very much satisfaction.

Monday I hung the curtain and steamed most of the wrinkles out with my garment steamer.

The finished curtain. We are not amused.

Maybe it’s my imagination, but even when the curtain is arranged to one side I feel as if I can see that slant, and it  bothers me. So I don’t know how long it will stay in its place. It could be a year or two.  Or ten.

After all, I have a lot of other projects competing for my attention.

The completed curtain in place. I’m okay with it–for now. Just barely.

Planning My Eminent Sewing Domain


Today finds me in a winter wanderland. My mind is wandering and just doesn’t want to sit still.

The view from our front door.

The view out our dining room window.

Maybe this mental cabin fever is a natural reaction to being cooped up after the 9.9 inches of snow the latest storm dumped on us, and learning that this is Minnesota’s coldest winter in 35 years.

Or maybe it’s because I’ve spent the last month avidly checking online real estate listings in Columbus, Ohio, searching for my next sewing domain.

Last summer, getting ready to strip wallpaper and paint. If necessary, I'll do it again in our new home.

Last summer, getting ready to strip wallpaper and paint. If necessary, I’ll do it again in our new home.

Click, click, click. Househunting has sure changed in the 22 years since Jack and I bought our little 1940 Cape Cod. Now I can race through dozens of property listings, scores of photos, and hundreds of lines of exuberant copy in the time it takes my tea bag to steep.

I’m definitely not in the mood to sew for winter. By the time I’d finish what I really could use–a super-warm, full-length coat–it’d be April.

The brilliant sun warms up our back room. That's a plus.

The brilliant sun warms up our back room. That’s a plus.

And I’m not in the mood to sew for spring, which is no more than an abstract concept at the moment.

No, if there’s anything my mind is dwelling on, it’s real estate in Columbus, Ohio, where I’ll be flying back to on Monday for another week of househunting.

Edith, my sewing teacher, says “Do what the fabric wants to do.” This fabric wants to think about its next sewing domain.

Will my next sewing space look like one of the workrooms at the London bespoke tailor Huntsman?

Will my next sewing space look like one of the workrooms at London bespoke tailors Huntsman?

Will it be a natural light-filled but oddly shaped converted attic? Will it be a roomy but dim knotty pine-paneled basement rec room? Will it be a drafty, unfinished, but potentially wonderful utility space?

You see, even though a large, well-lighted, finished sewing space is high on my wish list, Jack and I will probably choose our next home on the basis of a convenient location, an updated kitchen, or a great floor plan. So it would be well for me to start seeing possibilities in spaces that are different from my current workspace but that could still work well in getting things sewn.

If I don't have one big space for all sewing functions, I could follow the example at London tailors Anderson & Sheppard: use a separate space. It works for them.

If I don’t have one big space for all sewing functions, I could follow the example at London tailors Anderson & Sheppard: use a separate space. It works for them.

Last spring I spent an hour or so listing the main functions I wanted to perform in my sewing space and then designated zones for them. Having lived with these zones now for several months, I’m completely sold on this interesting and fun exercise.

Here are zones I’ve listed for my next sewing domain. Each zone is a place where I perform a function that may require floor space, or wall space, or both.

This list will top the sheaf of papers on the clipboard I bring when I make the rounds with our real estate agent.


Pattern and fabric layout and cutting

  • Floor space: At least two 72″ x 30″ tables
  • Wall space: Pegboard for rolling cutters, shears, rulers.


  • Floor space: Table for sewing machine, table for cut-out fabric pieces, chair
  • Wall space: Pegboard for notions, equipment


  • Floor space: Table for serger. Chair (probably same chair as for sewing)


  • Floor space: Ironing board, maybe a rolling clothes rack, maybe a steamer
  • Wall space: Pegboard with pressing equipment

Writing and planning

  • Floor space: Desk, chair, TV and DVD player
  • Wall space: bulletin boards

A simple photography space

  • Floor space: Mannequin, seamless backdrop, tripod. Lights?
  • Wall space: Seamless backdrop

Storage for fabrics, patterns, notions, tools

  • Floor space: Bookcases or utility shelves
  • Wall space: Bookcases or utility shelves, pegboard for tools, bulletin boards for button storage bags

Storage for sewing library

  • Floor space: Bookcase. Table or counter for opening up books
  • Wall space: Bookcase

As I transcribed this list into this post I could feel my restless mind relaxing into defining functions and allocating spaces.

There, there, mind, calm down. Imagine being in those zones–and being in the zone.

Spring is coming.

And so is spring sewing.

Spring is coming.

Spring is coming.

Lessons in Pleatership


Jack prepares to take down the pegboard and pull off the grasscloth wallpaper.

Jack prepares to take down the pegboard and pull off the grass cloth wallpaper.

I miss my sewing domain.

A week ago Jack and I folded up my worktables and took my pegboard, which stored a lot of sewing tools, down from the walls. Jack pulled off most of the grasscloth wallpaper that a previous owner had put up.  Sunday I started scraping off any remaining paper backing and dried adhesive still on the walls. I was pleasantly surprised that in an hour I’d cleaned up about 50 square feet.

My turn! Ready to sponge the walls with warm water and scrape paper scraps and adhesive off.

My turn! Ready to sponge the walls with warm water and scrape off paper scraps and adhesive.

I have to be careful not to overdo pressure on my elbows and wrists, so I’m breaking up the scraping job into more hour-long segments over the next several days.

I have a bunch of sewing projects started. They are either on the runway waiting for takeoff or flying in circles overhead waiting for the signal to land. They’ll have to wait a while longer.  I could set up a temporary sewing space, but it might not be worth the trouble.

Our builder expects to come next week. The plan is to make a finished storage space behind the mystery door, refinish the staircase, install recessed lights in the ceiling and put some shelves in an alcove.  Jack and I will prime and paint the walls.

Once the work starts it may go quickly. But not quickly enough for me.

I miss my sewing domain.

Catalog# 1983.050.001: Circular red and green wool plaid cape, 1890-1899.

Catalog# 1983.050.001: Circular red and green wool plaid cape, 1890-1899. (Photo: Goldstein Museum of Design)

In the meantime, I’m continuing my one volunteer morning a week at the Goldstein Museum of Design, sifting through the donor files. I always like to see whether  the donated clothing, shoes, hats, or other accessories have been photographed yet for the image database.

This week I handled the file of Mary Sue Reed, who donated this magnificent cape made in the 1890s. And, happily, it had been photographed. Isn’t this detail amazing?

When I got a closer look at the trim, I said to myself,

“That’s box pleating!”

Box pleating finishes the hood and collar. (photo: Goldstein Museum of Design)

Box pleating finishes the hood and collar. (photo: Goldstein Museum of Design)


Good old box pleating. I had made yards and yards of it for the draperies, valances and pillows that now grace our living room and dining room.

And now I was seeing it on a garment, used to great effect.

As I looked more closely I realized that I had relegated box pleating to the realm of soft furnishings. But now I saw how versatile this technique could be.

Shelly Isaacson could have told me that.

Box pleating run riot. (photo: Goldstein Museum of Design)

Box pleating run riot. (photo: Goldstein Museum of Design)

She’s the one who designed all the draperies, valances, upholstery, seat cushions and pillows in the living room and dining room, and who taught me how to sew most of them. (The upholstery I farmed out to a pro.)

Shelly doesn’t create artificial boundaries between dressmaking and soft furnishings. Things must be designed for their purpose, of course, understanding the requirements of the wearer–be it a person, a sofa, or a window.

But a technique like box pleating can work within those requirements just fine. Here are examples.

Small box pleating finishes the edge of the valance, while the leading edge of the drapery has a large version.

Small box pleating finishes the edge of the valance, while the leading edge of the drapery has a large version.


Closeup: small and large box pleats

Closeup: small and large box pleats


Box pleats similar in size, but different in bulk, complementing the neighboring fabric.

Box pleats similar in size, but different in bulk, complementing the neighboring fabric.

Box pleats serve as a transition between the two main fabrics in these draperies.

Box pleats serve as a transition between the two main fabrics in these draperies.

A reward for getting up close.

A reward for getting up close.

Box pleating finishes the edge of a pillow.

Box pleating finishes the edge of a pillow.

A closer look.

A closer look.

So, what is my lesson in pleatership?

Don’t box yourself in.

Start here.

Start here.