Clean curtains are as important as clean windows for a well-kept house or apartment. No matter the fabric from which they are made, curtains and draperies collect dust, dander, pet hair, and anything else floating around in the air — even mold spores. All that debris spreads throughout the room, settling on the floor, shelves, and upholstered furniture every time you open or close your window coverings.
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Though the terms are used interchangeably, it's important to note that curtains and drapes aren't the same thing. Drapes usually hang to the floor, and they have a backing and are usually made from heavier fabric than curtains. Nevertheless, the procedure you use to wash curtains is pretty much the same as the procedure you use to wash drapes — although the best method depends on the fabric. Before you do anything, always check the care label for the manufacturer's care instructions.
Step-by-Step Routine Maintenance
To prevent dust and pet hair from getting embedded in the fabric and becoming more difficult to remove, it's a good idea to do some routine maintenance every two weeks or even every week if someone in your household has allergies.
The most efficient way to clean curtains is to take them down, bring them outside, and shake them out. If you can't go outside, shake them while they're hanging in the window, wait about 10 minutes for the dust to settle, and then vacuum the floors and upholstery.
You can also use a long-handle vacuum cleaner with a soft brush attachment to go over the curtains from top to bottom. Keep the vacuum on the lowest setting. For lightweight curtains, you might want to cover the brush attachment with a piece of cheesecloth to protect the fabric, using a rubber band to hold the cheesecloth onto the brush.
If you're in a hurry or the curtains have delicate embroidery or beads that could be damaged by vacuuming, you can wipe them down with a microfiber cloth or a lint roller. Use a step ladder to reach the top of the window covering and wipe downward in a continuous motion. This is easier if you have a helper to hold the bottom of each curtain or drape panel tight while you're wiping.
Clean Curtains in the Washing Machine
You should use a mild detergent for deep cleaning curtains by hand or in the washer, but even mild detergents can cause discoloration, so be sure to test first. Mix a little detergent with water, dab it on an inconspicuous part of the curtain fabric and wait for it to dry. If the color holds fast, you're ready to go.
- Take the curtains off the curtain rod, remove all the hardware, take them outside, and shake them out.
- Check the label for any specific cleaning instructions. If there aren't any, put one or two panels at a time into the washer (you don't want to overload it), select cold water, add mild laundry detergent, and run the washer through a gentle cycle. Do not use bleach. If your white curtains are faded and discolored, use 1 cup of a bleach alternative per load, such as lemon juice or vinegar.
- Put fragile and lacy curtains in a mesh bag before dropping them in the washer and use a delicate cycle. If the label specifies hand washing, wash each panel separately in a basin using cool water or warm water (not hot) and a very mild detergent, such as dish detergent.
- Hang the curtains outside on a clothesline to dry. If you have to hang them inside, put towels underneath them to absorb dripping water and protect the floors. If the curtains are made of garment fabric, you can also dry them in the drier at a low heat setting as long as the label doesn't indicate otherwise.
- Iron the curtains on an appropriate heat setting when they are dry and rehang them.
If you have beaded or macrame curtains, the individual strands will tangle if you take down the curtains. The best way to clean them is to hang a sheet behind them, put a towel on the floor, and spray them with a mixture of one or two drops of dish soap per cup of warm water. Wipe down the strands with a cloth while they are wet and then switch the sheet to the opposite side and repeat.
Steam Cleaning Is a Gentle Alternative
When it's too much trouble to take down your window coverings to launder them or when the fabric is delicate and requires hand washing, an easy way to clean them is to use a steam cleaner. You'll want to shake them down or vacuum them first to remove dust, and when used properly, the steam will penetrate the curtain fibers and remove stains, dirt, and allergens that are locked in.
A steam cleaner is a modest investment that you can use for several other cleaning jobs, including cleaning upholstery, sanitizing your toilets and trash bins, and even refreshing tile grout. Use an upholstery attachment to clean curtains and drapes and run the attachment along the length of the window coverings, starting at the top and working down.
Work in small sections with the steam cleaner on its lowest setting, allowing steam to penetrate the fibers without drenching the fabric. Steam cleaning usually deodorizes effectively, but if the curtains need a little extra help, spray them with a fabric and upholstery deodorizer and let them air dry.
Dry-Clean-Only Curtains and Draperies
The labels on velvet drapes or heavy ones with liners often specify dry cleaning, and this is either because the color will run or the fabric will shrink if you try to clean them any other way. If the window coverings are new or in as-new condition, you don't want to risk damaging them by washing them, although it's still safe to vacuum them and wipe them down on a regular basis — but not to steam clean them. When the time comes for dry cleaning, take them down, remove all the hardware, shake them outside to remove loose dust, bundle them up, and take them to a dry cleaner. When they come back, they'll be in pristine condition, so all you have to do is hang them up again.
If you have older curtains or drapes with a dry-clean-only label but it's obvious that they have seen better days, you may want to avoid a trip to the dry cleaner by washing them yourself. Before you do, test an inconspicuous part of the fabric by pressing a wet washcloth against it and noting whether any color transfers to the cloth. If it does, the fabric needs to be dry cleaned.
If the fabric proves color-safe, wash one panel at a time in cold water either by hand or in a washing machine set to a gentle cycle. After washing each panel, lay it flat on towels to dry or hang it from a clothesline. Do not put dry-clean-only drapes or curtains in the dryer because they can shrink. Keep in mind that washing dry-clean-only fabrics is risky, so if you don't want to be disappointed, do as the label says and take them to a dry cleaner.
Chris Deziel is a contractor, builder and general fix-it pro who has been active in the construction trades for 40 years. He has degrees in science and humanities and years of teaching experience. An avid craftsman and musician, Deziel began writing on home improvement topics in 2010. He worked as an expert consultant with eHow Now and Pro Referral -- a Home Depot site. A DIYer by nature, Deziel regularly shares tips and tricks for a better home and garden at Hunker and Family Handyman.