Homemade Thermal Window Shades

1 / 4
Homemade thermal window shades can be as decorative as they are functional. When Velcro strips are used as fasteners, the quilted shades can be placed on the windows without interfering with existing drapes or shutters.
2 / 4
A close-up view demonstrates how the Velcro strips are placed on the window frame.
3 / 4
When not needed as a window treatment, this shade becomes a snuggly quilted sleeping bag for the baby.
4 / 4
The design variations are limited only by your imagination. Here, a cattail appliqué dresses up the Westbrooks' bedroom window shade.

Are valuable Btu seeping out through your windows? Well, you can keep them in with money-saving thermal shades . . . and you can do so at one-tenth the cost of buying ready-mades!

When MOTHER EARTH NEWS-reader Mike Westbrook of Kirkwood, Missouri wrote to tell us about the homemade thermal window shades that he and his wife whipped up after seeing costly commercial models at an energy show, we were intrigued . . . and decided to come up with an easy-to make, inexpensive window blanket that our other readers could duplicate.

The Westbrooks’ window cover (see Image Gallery) consists of two layers of fabric surrounding another two layers of polyester quilt batting. (The whole affair was tie-quilted to keep the filling from shifting.) Mike attached the shade to the window using Velcro brand fastening tape, which was stapled to the frame and affixed along the back edges of the quilt . . . and, as a result, Mike’s thermal covering is versatile as well as attractive: He and his wife sewed the Velcro onto the shade in such a way that it could be folded to serve as either a child-sized sleeping bag or a puffy pillow cover when it wasn’t screening out gusts of wind.

What’s more, Mike claims that his thermal shades moderate room temperature — in 30 degree Fahrenheit weather — by as much as 15 degrees. And a window quilt for a fair-sized single unit cost the Westbrooks only $23.16, a price that included all of the fabric and batting.

Well, we liked Mike’s idea so much that we set out to see if we could 

[1] trim the cost a bit and 

[2] improve upon the design. 

After referring to William K. Langdon’s book, Movable Insulation (Rodale, 1980) we came up with a thermal shade that’s handsome and even more efficient than Mike’s window blanket . . . since it incorporates a draft- and moisture stopping vapor barrier.

There are three different approaches you can use in assembling your window curtain, depending on your sewing skills and the materials you have available. All of the cost figures that follow refer to the expense of covering a 34″ X 56″ single window, but we believe that the technique we’re going to describe will be practical for swaddling smaller and larger — up to 4′ X 8′ — units. Excluding shopping (or scrounging) time, a single shade should take two to three hours to complete.

The Preliminaries

The first steps will be the same regardless which of our quilts you decide to make. Begin by measuring the inner dimensions of the window to be covered, adding 2″ to 3″ to the resulting figures to provide for seam allowances. Then go out and buy the amount of fabric you’ll need.

Up to a point, you’ll have the same shopping list for any of our thermal shade designs. Because of its low cost and ease of handling, we recommend using a pretty, chintzlike cotton-blend fabric that’s already quilted to a layer of polyester filling and to a backing of thin cloth (such piece goods are customarily used for bedspreads). We also backed two of our models with muslin, and took advantage of’ a nearby cloth outlet where we were able to buy all of the necessary fabric by the pound. (When making our 34″ X 56″ trial window covering, we spent $3.20 . . . $2.25 for the prequilted material and 95 cents for the muslin.)

Next, we hunted for the best price on Velcro, since five yards of this rather expensive fastener were needed. We were able to find a source that would sell it for $1.09 a yard ($5.45 total), a price that compared very favorably with the $3.00 per yard that was most often quoted. By judicious shopping, we were able to limit the base price for our thermal drape to $8.65. (We did, of course, also need a spool of heavy-duty cotton thread, which was already on hand.)

The Various Options

Before you actually start cutting and stitching, pick out one of the designs listed below and round up the rest of the components that you’ll need to construct your quilt.

Model 1: This option consists of a layer of batting-backed quilted material, then a layer of 4-mil polyethylene (the vapor barrier), another layer of polyester batting, and finally, the muslin backing. The expense for the additional layer of polyester filling ($1.00), plus the polyethylene (we used one-third of a 65 cent drop cloth, for a cost of 22 cents), brought the total to $9.87. (One of MOTHER EARTH NEWS staffers used plastic garbage bags, which cost a nickel apiece, to serve as vapor barriers in some thermal shades she constructed.)

Model 2: This window cover consists of a layer of quilted fabric, a polyethylene bubble sheet (the material — which provides a vapor barrier and an additional air space — is used to wrap items for shipping), and a muslin backing. You should be able to scrounge bubble packing if you’re resourceful, but you could purchase as much as you’ll need for this project for about $1.35.

Model 3: Our third design consists of quilted fiberfill ($2.25) backed by a nonporous reflective material such as Mylar, which is used in the heat-retaining “space blankets” carried by many backpackers. We used a twin-sized space blanket ($3.75), which brought our total — including Velcro — to $11.45 for this option. This is perhaps the least efficient model — because it lacks the bulk to thoroughly block air drafts — but it’s definitely well suited to applications in which light weight is of primary importance.

The main difference between these versions and Mike Westbrook’s window curtain is the added vapor barrier. Other refinements include the use of the prequilted fabric, which is easier to work with than loose fiberfill and which doesn’t have to be tie quilted to prevent slippage (indeed, you should not puncture the vapor barrier, except at the edges where it’s necessary to attach the Velcro, in order to be sure the layer will offer maximum resistance to moisture and air flow).

Construction Techniques

After the windows have been measured, the components of the shade selected, and the pattern pieces cut out, it’s time to pay close attention to the assembly of the thermal “sandwich.” Start off by placing the quilted fabric right side up on a table, then lay the backing layer (either muslin or Mylar) directly on top, right side down. Next, add the other components to the top or bottom of the stack. (When you use this method, you can be sure that you won’t wind up ripping out seams because you’ve gotten the wrong side facing inward.)

Once you’ve added and pinned the polyethylene, batting, packing bubbles or whatever, thread your sewing machine (using a large-sized needle) and set it for a fairly long stitch (this adjustment will keep the polyethylene and batting from becoming bogged down in the machine’s feed dogs). Now, after making absolutely certain that your backing material and quilted fabric are right sides together, sew along the outer edges of your window quilt. You’ll probably find yourself taking wide seams to insure catching every layer in the stitching. We did this, too, and as a result our first effort wound up a little smaller than was desired. Therefore, we strongly recommend that you cut the components with rather large — 1″ to 1 1/2″ — seam allowances, as suggested previously.

Continue sewing around three sides of the curtain, leaving a generous opening on the fourth edge. Now, turn the whole bulky package right sides out, being careful to square the corners, and finish up by slip-stitching the open edge closed.

Putting Up and Shutting Out

With all that done, it’s time to attach the Velcro. Because of its superior adhesive qualities, we found it best to separate the nubby Velcro strips from their fuzzy “mates” at the outset, as they tend to tangle at your ankles while you’re trying to attach them to the slippery thermal shade.

We decided to opt for Mike Westbrook’s novel Velcro application idea, even though it does call for quite a few yards of the expensive fastener. We sewed the fuzzy side of the tape along the top and halfway down each side on the rear of the shade. Then, to the remaining edges, we attached the gripper side of the tape. Next, we stapled the corresponding strips of Velcro along the edge of the window frame. This method allows the shade, when not in use, to be folded into either a pillow cover or a child-sized sleeping bag, and the technique worked so well that we decided the cost of the Velcro was justified.

However, there are other methods of fastening the thermal quilt to the window casing that would considerably reduce the cash outlay. One obvious technique would be to attach continuous stretches of Velcro only at the corners, with snippets of that material strategically placed along the edges. Then again, you could — as did one MOTHER EARTH NEWS staffer — attach cloth casings along the top and bottom edges of the rear of the shade and thread lath through them . . . then simply staple through the wood into the window casing. Yet another possibility would be to secure the lath to the woodwork with thumbtacks or upholsterer’s tacks. (Other folks claim success using magnets and magnetic strips, but we haven’t actually tried this method.)

The Velcro technique described works pretty well and it looks OK, too . . . mainly because it allows you to place your quilt behind a window’s drapes or shutters. Thus, the method of attachment is hidden by the existing window treatment . . . a feature most commercial thermal coverings can’t boast.

The Care and Feeding of a Thermal Curtain

Mike Westbrook tells us that his window quilts admit sufficient light, and he very seldom feels the need to remove them during the day. Some folks will undoubtedly desire more sunshine, though, and if you’ve attached the quilts by means of Velcro you can easily peel them off . . . or even reposition the shades at half-mast to let in more light.

Those who decide to leave the curtains constantly in place should be forewarned that moisture may condense on the windows and run down into the wells, although the inclusion of a vapor barrier in the shades will alleviate this problem somewhat. The best way to deal with this annoying situation is to check frequently behind the drape, wipe away any condensation, and then replace the curtain. There may even be some mold formation where moisture has been allowed to collect. In this case prevention is the best cure: Periodically wipe the window surfaces and wells with a rag dipped in diluted liquid chlorine bleach.

The Outcome

It’s difficult to predict the exact number of dollars and cents that you could save by making thermal window shades. However, we can tell you that a properly constructed quilt will halt those icy blasts of wind that whiz through cracks and chill your back as you’re toasting your toes in front of the woodstove.

Finally, aside from increasing the comfort index — and energy efficiency — of your abode, our homemade draft stoppers are downright inexpensive to make. Do you recall that our most costly model required only $11.45 to construct? Well, we called a shop that specializes in thermal window coverings and asked for a quote on the price of a shade for our trial window. After a couple of minutes of excruciating figuring, and hemming and hawing, the voice on the other end of the line announced that the shop could get the job done for $93 a window . . . without the decorator fabric.

Well, thanks, but no thanks. We’ll do the job ourselves, and we’ll make our shades as decorative as we want to!

Need Help? Call 1-800-234-3368