The great new book Green Guide: The Complete Reference for Consuming Wisely has some really sound advice for curtain-buying and I recommend you follow it for everything but the one thing I could never do myself, and that is to vacuum my curtains weekly. Kill me now! But truly, this advice is worth the read.
Like upholstery, drapery fabrics can be made of either natural fibers like cotton, linen, silk, and wool, or petroleum-based synthetics like polyester, nylon, and rayon. Avoid the latter whenever you can, both for environmental reasons and to avoid coming into contact with any chemical residues. Currently, ready-to-hang organic cotton drapes are tough to find, but if you’re willing to do some additional legwork, it’s possible to purchase organic cotton fabric online or at a local retailer and have it made into custom drapes (or make them yourself, if you’re crafty). Even better, choose fabrics that have been colored with less toxic, “low-impact” dyes, or opt for naturally pigmented fabrics such as “color-grown” cotton.
In addition to choosing a better fabric, it’s wise to avoid curtains coated with stain treatments and flame retardants. As with upholstered furniture, these treatments on drapery fabrics can be a source of toxic PFCs and PBDEs. If you’re concerned about the fire risk posed by untreated fabrics, make wool your fabric of choice, as it’s naturally resistant to fire and doesn’t stain as easily as other fabrics.
To make the most of your curtains’ energy-saving benefits during the summer months, look for styles that have a light-colored backing, which will deflect the sun’s rays and help reduce summer cooling costs. (If your chosen curtains don’t have backings, they can always be added later by a skilled seamstress.) On hot, sunny days, be sure to close the curtains on windows that face the sun–doing so will help keep things cool and ease your air conditioner’s workload. In winter close the curtains in rooms you’re not using in order to keep chilly drafts out and precious heat in.
Finally, regardless of what your drapes are made of, it’s important to maintain them properly, as the layers of fabric can gather and trap lots of indoor air pollutants such as dust, mold, and any chemicals that may be floating in the air, all of which can lead to respiratory problems. Vacuum curtains weekly using a vacuum with a HEPA filter to remove loose particles. Dirty drapes made of cotton, linen, and wool can often be hand-laundered and hung to dry; even delicate fabrics like silk can sometimes be washed at home. (Check the care label to be sure.) Avoid dry-cleaning your drapes, as freshly dry-cleaned items can contain residues of perchloroethylene, a potentially carcinogenic solvent used by most dry cleaners. If you must dry-clean, allow your drapes to air out on a clothesline for a day before bringing them back into your home.
Adapted from Green Guide: The Complete Reference for Consuming Wisely by the Editors of the Green Guide Magazine (National Geographic, 2008).