In early Chinese dynasties, beginning about 2600 BC, the queen of fibers, silk, was woven into such astonishingly beautiful sheer and lightweight goods that Europeans who first laid eyes and hands on the sensuous silks decided they were woven of spider webs, or clouds, or a mysterious substance known only to God.
Centuries later, during the Rococo period and in the Late Georgian Era (mid-1700s), sheers were gathered into poufs as both stationary and operable shades by the designer Daniel Marot and termed Parisian shades (later to become known as pouf shades).
In the early 1800s, French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte (during the Federal/Neoclassic and Empire periods) preferred sheers overlaid with asymmetrically tied-back sheers and trimmed with passementerie. These were made of cotton, linen and even wool. Surprisingly, fine denier worsted wool can be woven into wonderful semi-sheers.
Throughout Europe, cotton was the fiber of choice for the lace curtains that have been popular for about 200 years in residences. These give daytime privacy, filter light and provide delightful patterns in light and shape.
SHEERS IN THE 20TH CENTURY
Early in this century sheers were used in homes, particularly in the 1920s, as a lacy carry-over from the romantic Victorian era. Each succeeding decade used different styles of window treatments, sometimes incorporating sheers but often not.
For example, the 1930s introduced "Venetian blinds"—today's two-inch metal blinds. The slats were always held in place with wide, usually beige, non-decorative vertical twill tapes, which made them hard to clean. (These were before the days of sonic cleaning.) This high upkeep eventually led to widespread dissatisfaction with Venetian blinds in the home, although they continued to be used for decades in offices.
During the 1940s a softer, although streamlined look was desirable in Western homes and "undercurtains" returned. They were not always long or sophisticated, more often they were short, just to the window sill, and sometimes ruffled.
During the post-World War II era much exploration took place in the interior design world and a fascination with Scandinavian design was among the forerunners. Most dwellings in the Nordic countries were of modest scale, but featured wide window expanses to make them seem larger and to bring in light and nature scenes. Rather than sheers, a favorite drapery textile was the casement fabric so the precious light of the far-north could be enhanced while the stark qualities of the broad plate glass could be softened.
As Scandinavian designers had by-passed the Victorian era, they were much more interested in "designing for the machine," meaning good quality design that could be mass-produced of man-made materials. Many of the thin, lightweight window treatments from this period became known as "architectural lace." This was a significant step in the evolution of textiles as we know them today because they were made of 100 percent polyester.
Most of the casement fabrics made of a combination of synthetic fibers were popular through the 1970s in earthy interiors. Some who are reading this will recall the original Earth Day in 1970 and the wave of back-to-nature lifestyles and marketing that resulted from this important event. These casement fabrics often were made of bulky novelty yarns in such appealing colors as pumpkin orange, avocado green and harvest gold.
The bulk and weight of these yarns caused them to sag and stretch, and pleated draperies often had uneven hem lines. We learned from that experience that semi-sheer weight textiles needed light-weight yarns.
As non-residential high-rise offices were built in record number during the 1970's boom, the refinement of casement fabrics paralleled their success, softening light, sound and hard architectural lines in the working environment.
TECHNOLOGY ASIDE HISTORY
Also during the 1970s the successful mass production and use of hard alternative window treatments had an impact on and decreased the use of fabric at the window. Much of America came to believe that the best window treatments were those that were frankly modern. They also represented a new attitude of rejecting the ways of the older generation or "the establishment."
People also fell in love with the handsome sleek lines and instant light manipulation of blinds. With a twist of the wand the slats could transpose from near transparency to nearly complete privacy. They also boasted the advantage of never needing to be sent out for cleaning (today we know better) and, more importantly, unlike fabric they would not be subject to disintegration.
However, not every window was covered in blinds. The result of polyester research was the production of mass quantities of fabric suitable for sheer underdraperies (overlaid with draw draperies of antique satin) and sheer swags. These two treatments were vastly popular from the late 1960s to early 1980s. Pleated over- and underdraperies and tailored, folded top treatments had a mechanical precision that echoed the polished perfection of the era.
In the 1970s, an interesting turn of events then took us away from mechanical perfection toward a softer look. The impetus was the bicentennial celebration of the American Revolution with its nostalgic recreation of traditional interiors. When France also commemorated its historic revolution, our attention again turned to the styles of the Napoleonic era resulting in a long-running love affair with Empire and later Neoclassic styling. Both of these periods delved heavily into the use of sheers and asymmetry at the window.
Thus, during the 1990s we have entered a new era using the best that both history and technology can afford. Being simul-taneously faced with the demands and pressures of lives filled with stress, we began seeking interiors with a softer, stress-reducing and slightly romantic look.
The appearance of sheers at the window was warmly embraced, first as a draping around the alternative treatment, then as an alternative treatment itself in fused shadings, and now as a treatment alone (always provide a means of privacy, however).
THE AGE OF SENSUALITY
Through this brief but fascinating walk through the world of sheers, we are now in a position to judge where real beauty lies and what is useful to us as we look toward the next century and the next millennium.
In interior design there exists a bell curve, or a cycle of popularity, and although sheers may not be so popular 10 years from now, today they are fulfilling real needs. These needs fall into distinct categories: privacy and protection; vision and light; tactile and touch; acoustics or sound control; and color.
• Privacy and Protection: Privacy and protection go hand-in-hand. Privacy is the need to have a space where we cannot be reached, or where we can control the ways we can be contacted by others. Privacy means going to a place where you have complete control, where the things you use are yours alone. We need to be away from people at times, as a direct reaction to the many ways others can intrude upon us.
Coupled with this feeling of invasion is a concern of first order at the close of this century: fear of harm. We feel insecure even in our own homes because of the unpredictable violence in our culture. Although we have alarm systems and many security devices, if there is inadequate privacy, then our protection is psychologically nullified. Sheers offer daytime privacy, and when coupled with nighttime privacy provided by under- or overtreatments, they can do much to assure psychological protection.
• Vision and Light: Coupled with the need for privacy and protection is the need not to feel locked-up in a sort of prison. We need, we crave, we demand freedom in our environments, else how could we justify the cavernous, towering spaces of new construction?
This ability to mentally soar to new heights within our built environment—to fill our minds with lofty yet attainable ideas— is integral to 21st-century design. These imposing spaces typically include at least two-story windows.
Large vertical or horizontal expanses of glass often expose beautiful views, especially when framed in handsome architectural woodwork. However, glass and wood are hard and empty. Softening hard architecture with operable sheers that do not obscure the view is a valid and appealing treatment. Sheers allow us to see through—through the window, through its veil to the frame of the chair, through the draped softness to the room or bed beyond. It screens and it defines, yet it allows visual expanse.
We are living in a day when the general public now has willingly accepted the fact that light and well-being are inseparable. Thus full-spectrum light (natural sunlight) in interiors is desirable. Yet the reality of living with the inconsistency of sunlight is that it is unpredictable. It is not always wonderful. It can be too bright, too glaring, or too obscured by clouds.
Sheers enhance, soften and diffuse light, and to an extent control light. The result is more pleasant, more enjoyable light.
• Tactile and Touch: Visual and actual touch are the two ways we read texture. Texture has become a key design element. In fact, an important trend in interior design is away from excessive pattern and toward texture and simplicity.
Life has become streamlined; a majority of us feel we are living several lives at once, trying to do too much, please too many, work too hard. We rely on our technological devices to make this happen, but there comes a limit to how much we can endure of this kind of life. Perhaps as a reaction against the machine/technology/information age we live and work in each day, the human part of us is craving more texture.
Texture of all varieties is as healthy as full-spectrum sunlight. Variety in our line of vision stimulates the neuron connections of our brains—we think sharper and enjoy life more when there is variety in our environmental textures. So plain windows, undraped beds and even hard dining chairs can benefit from textured or subtly patterned sheer fabrics. It makes an interior more interesting because we see and can touch the sheer, its softness is stimulating to the skin, it feels wonderful whether we are touching it or looking at it. The inspiring variety of textures and elusive patterns in sheers today gives them far greater flexibility than every before.
• Acoustic and Sound Control: Acoustics have become vital to the complete interior. Music is not just heard from the source; it is wired into speakers inside and outside the home. The science of acoustics is based on the fact that sound waves that hit flat or hard surfaces refract and can become louder and abrasive. Thus the variety of textures mentioned above becomes crucial for proper acoustics. Sheers can help to achieve this perfection as it absorbs some of the sound waves. The result is more comfortable room acoustics.
Although machines that do our work within the built environment are being engineered to make less noise, it will be years before all machines are easy on the ears. We live in an age in which too much sound, too high a decibel level, is commonplace. It has been estimated that more than 25 percent of the young people entering the work force have a hearing loss equal to that of the elderly. That is significant and potentially dangerous. Sheers and textiles can help reduce noise levels.
• Color: Color is the most emotional element in our lives, and sheers color the light as it traverses through them. Happily, we have a wonderful variety of neutral sheers with various undertones that can set the right tone for the color perception in the room. Sheers soften light and thereby soften color. Softer colors are easier on the eyes and are stress-reducing.
THE SENSUAL INTERIOR
The sensual interior, a phrase you will hear and probably use much in the future, is the combining of all elements including aroma (which has not been discussed yet) to make the interior healthful and pleasing. We are not just pleasing or gratifying our senses and our perceptions, but fulfilling, rejuvenating and revitalizing them.
We have discovered, as a culture in general, that we can and must survive as human beings by paying attention to the real needs of our minds, our bodies and our spirits. As we increase our well-being, we will be more productive, more happy and more fully functional in a day and age of dysfunction. We want not just to survive. We want to thrive. We want to feel life and fill our needs so that we can reach our best selves, better able to serve others, to interact with them, better able to share our love and concern with others. Try some softness. The benefits are indeed sensual!
Karla J. Nielson, Allied ASID, WCAA, is assistant professor of design at Brigham Young University. She is a practicing interior designer and has authored several books including Window Treatments and Understanding Fabrics. Nielson is a regular correspondent for Draperies & Window Coverings addressing the areas of fashion, education and merchandising.