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Embrace your Inner Traverse Rod — pinch pleat draperies are #1 for mid century homes

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I know that Pottery Barn and the like want you to buy those tabbed draperies, or the ones that simply slide onto decorative poles. But this is definitely not the right answer if you are in a midcentury home and want an authentic vintage look. You need pinch pleat draperies, and that is that! In addition to looking so much better — in fact, I would go so far as to say that they are essential to a mid century interior — pinch pleats provide some insulation against drafts… and, you can actually open and close them every day, with ease. My husband is a real stickler about the open-and-close part, and he is right. Nothing beats traverse rods for functionality. nov-6-traverse-rods-2.jpg

It took me a long time to conquer my fear of traverse rods, but I endured – and triumphed! Now I have beautiful vintage draperies lining my living room walls and get this, they were only $20 — I bought them right off the windows at an estate sale. If you must make up your draperies new, you will have to work hard to find someone at a reasonable cost, the labor charge can be brutal. The cost of fabric can be shocking, too. So choose carefully — and plan on having your pinch pleats for a lifetime.

And, if you are really ambitious, consider pinch pleated sheers underneath heavier cloth pinch pleated draperies. I am going to do this someday, it is such a heavenly look – to have the sun filtering through sheers blowing softly in the breeze.

Some other tips:

  • Draperies that go all the way to the floor create a more formal look, a bigger statement. In the 50s you certainly saw drapes that only went to the sill or just below it. That’s fine, especially in bedrooms, but in living rooms and dining rooms, I think that to-the-floor…just brushing the floor, not puddling, is better.
  • As in the bedroom photo, draperies also can go along an entire wall, if this works in the room you are dealing with.
  • In addition to layering cloth with sheers, you can put horizontal Venetians underneath — see my story on 2″ aluminum blinds — as in the first photo. You can also layer over a roller blind.
  • When you’re planning, you need to plan for the ‘stackback’ — look this up online.
  • Regarding how high to install draperies, this is an aesthetic decision. You want to balance the height of the perceived window (and the drapery becomes part of the window) with the rest of the room. In general, I think that people make the mistake of installing the draperies too low, rather than too high.
  • Finally – I actually spray painted my Kirsch traverse rod to blend in with my grasscloth wallpaper. It turned out Great!

  1. Liz says:

    I learned drapery manufacture in a professional workroom. We made draperies for the top interior designers in our city. To do the best job, you need an industrial sewing machine – they’re fast, a work table longer than the length of the drapery, a good heavy iron and a number of other materials. We never used weights because they eventually caused the hems to hang unevenly. Some fabrics are better suited for drapes than others and you may need to experiment. We hand hemmed delicate fabrics and blind hemmed most others. The pinch pleats were tripled or French pleated. They’re spacing depends on the width of the panel and you want to hide the seam. So much goes into making these types of draperies that buying them new or used might make more sense. If buying used, remove hooks and send to your local drapery dry cleaner which can be found in most large cities.

  2. toni says:

    For once I’m way ahead of the curve! I have pinch pleated drapes AND pinch pleated sheers in my living room. Ruffled Pricillas in my bedroom to go with my flowered chenille spread. ( Actually, I have several flowered chenille spreads. How to choose which to use!)

    In my curtain box are some Montgomery Ward fiberglass very loosely woven beige on tan curtains. Love those curtains. Need windows to match. I bought them in 1977 and they hung for over 25 years. Then I moved and they don’t work on the windows here.

  3. Jess S. says:

    I have been slowing making pinch pleat curtains for most of the rooms in our house, using a really lovely semi-sheer drapery fabric (108″ wide so I didn’t have to railroad it) that’s modern – no print, just a nice woven linen-like pattern. I did one curtain that covers an 18 foot wall, corner to corner. I’m also a professional fashion designer… so I have the industrial equipment. It took me a few nights to make, so just be prepared to spend TIME on these if you’re making long curtains. I also used pinch pleat tape that I googled, and pinch pleat hooks from JoAnns. Plain traverse rods from JC Penney that I ordered in store and had shipped to home. They look FANTASTIC in our MCM house, they are floor to ceiling and really give our house the correct period appropriate look. I think it’s worth the time and fabric expense!

  4. Mary Elizabeth says:

    Back in the 1970s, I had very good luck making my first pairs of drapes using the triple pleat tape Catherine mentioned. I had only made gathered curtains before. The drapes were for a dining room with yellow parson’s table and yellow and white bucket-seat dining chairs. It was a white-yellow-orange-brown barkcloth in what looked like an abstract stained glass pattern. The fabric was a mill remnant with a few printing errors that were not obvious.

    I remember being so nervous cutting into that fabric because what was on the bolt was the exact amount of fabric I had calculated I needed for two pairs of drapes–not a scrap more! I also was careful about hiding the misprints inside the pleats. But in the end I gathered my courage to pleat (pun intended) and loved the cloth so much the work seemed like play in the end.

    Another trick I remember from working on draperies in barkcloth is that I needed to hang the completed curtains for a few weeks before measuring the hem line up from the floor and then taking them down and hemming them. That way the fabric loosened up about as much as it was going to and the hems were even with the floor.

    Thanks for rerunning this story, Pam!

  5. Marguerite says:

    That’s what I love so much about RR…Pam, you bring back so many happy decorating memories for me! I grew up mid century so everything here is etched in my memory somewhere. My mom and pretty much everyone I knew back in the 50s and 60s had pinch pleats on the living room and dining room windows. They were beautiful and made such a dramatic statement. When they were closed, it was such a warm cozy feeling. And if they matched any of the furniture, well that was really a bonus. I can remember when my mom had our couch and two living room chairs reupholstered, she had custom drapes in a beautiful print made to coordinate with the cocoa and turquoise. And yup, there were pinch pleated sheers in a cocoa shade under them. You could open them both or just the heavier floral. Either way, they were gorgeous. We didn’t have a fancy house…just a plat cape, but splurging on the decor was worth it!

    1. MJ says:

      Cocoa and turquoise! Hadn’t thought of those curtains in years! I baby sat in a house with wallpaper and curtains in those colors on, I think, an off-white background. Our house was Victorian with velvet drapes and gold cords & such. I just loved that modern cocoa and turquoise!!!!! Thanks for reminding me of that great memory.

  6. Joye says:

    My parents moved into their 1950 colonial home in 1955 and stayed there for 55 years. Upon leaving in 2011, we were told by the realtor to take down all the gold pinched pleat drapes in the living room and dining room along with the sheers underneath for resale purposes. I wish I had known about this site then! They had the traverse rods at the ceiling as the height of the room was 7 1/2 feet, which was common then. We did leave those up so there would not be the obvious holes in the walls. The drapes and the sheers both went to the floor. My mother would close the drapes at night to keep out the cold and open them every morning to let in the filtered light. The upstairs had pinched pleat drapes to bottom of the window sills in every room, which we left up. All were custom made and quite expensive at the time, I remember, but my mother had them up for 40 years (dry-cleaned when needed)! The double kitchen window even had a pinched pleat curtain with traverse rod.

    They also had their avocado fridge from 1971 when they redid the kitchen. I especially loved the beautiful ceiling light shades, if that is what you call them. They had delicate flowers and patterns on them – the realtor said to leave them. Also, the bathroom had the perfect spring green tile in the tub area as well as halfway up the wall – sigh. So glad there is appreciation for these beautiful homes now and I love your website!

    1. marguerite says:

      I love that ceiling to floor look! I think that the valance only or mini blind thing killed that look. Love to see it come back!

      1. pam kueber says:

        Marketeers working hard, still, to make us dislike what we have so that we’ll buy their new stuff…

        Kids do the opposite of what their parents did… which often means, they do what their grandparents did…

        It’s the circle of life…

        1. Joye says:

          Yes, that is so true. My daughter (26) is the only grandchild (also the youngest) who really enjoys the vintage look and was thrilled to inherit my mother’s china, sterling and delicate 1940s Fostoria stemware and other serving pieces. She will also eventually have the solid cherry hutch to put it all in. She learned to knit from my mom at age 8 and now knits the same intricate Irish afghans my mother knit. It was very comforting to my mother to know her precious belongings would be well -loved in the future.

  7. Hi Pam- You might want to mention that your investment in fabric and labor will be protected if you LINE your pinch-pleated drapery. It will make them a bit heavier, but will keep the sun from damaging your lovely fabric. Also, wood or brass rods with rings are perfectly fine for a mid-century look. Traverse rods were “modern” in the mid-century, but you saw a lot of more decorative rods with nice finials, too. My parents had brass ones. As a set decorator, I have seen a lot of great wood rods in research.

  8. Dana says:

    I inherited traverse rods with pinch pleat curtains when I bought my 1956 split foyer house. Now I wouldn’t live without them. They are sophisticated looking, timeless, and so easy to use. Thanks for the suggestions about looking for secondhand pinch pleat curtains when the time comes to replace mine.

  9. Kathleen says:

    We just put up our custom grass cloth avocado green pinch pleat draperies in the living room of our 1961 atomic ranch. We found the original traverse rod in the garage and it still works perfectly. You can order custom drapes in great mid century patterns at Lowes for a pretty reasonable price, and they come already buck pleated and the pins installed, making installation a breeze.

  10. Tim Baker says:

    I remember our custom draperies, pitch pleated of course, with a row of custom pinch pleated sheers hanging behind on vintage kirsch traverse rods. They were beautiful and set the style for the living and dining rooms. I have just bought back this house and over the forty years it has been in other hands both the drapes and rods have been ripped out and sent to the dump. The classic pink tile bathrooms have had their original pink tile, nutone heater fans, and light fixtures ripped out and now I have to restore it back to what it was. I will send pictures soon of my 50’s ranch restoration tragedy. It won’t be that way for long!

    1. Pam Kueber says:

      Wow! Welcome to our community. Dig into all our categories and subcategories (up top) and I think that you will find lots of help to get to all the resources too you need. Stay in touch and update us on how your Retro Renovation is going!

  11. Al says:

    Oh my gosh, thank you for mentioning spray painting your Kirsch rods! I was tearing my hair out last night looking at their more decorative options – for nearly 10x the cost of the basic ones – and thought the basics would be good candidates for spray paint, but all the design/DIY bloggers are going the Pottery Barn route and not addressing traverse rods. We have pinch pleated drapes on the front picture window of our 1948 house, and they are wonderful but the previous owners put in a heavy box valance right up at the ceiling to cover the pinch pleats and the rod. I’ll be taking the valance down and making new drapes – can’t wait!

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