Q&A: Susan Pilchard on designing custom window treatments, upholstery and bedding

Aug 08, 2019

Susan Pilchard runs Pilchard Designs, one of Washington's top designer workrooms. She and her staff expertly make window treatments, bedding and upholstery for many of the areas best known decorators.Susan has been in business for 30 years and her seamstresses are all dressmakers so they have a great eye for detail.

Every week, Jura Koncius helps you in your quest to achieve domestic bliss. She and weekly guests, whether Martha Stewart, Marie Kondo, the Property Brothers or Amy Astley, editor-in-chief of Architectural Digest, answer your decorating, design and decluttering questions. Jura is always happy to whip out her paint chips, track down a hard-to-find piece of furniture or offer her seasoned advice on practical living and organizing. For more than 20 years, our Thursday Q&A has been an online conversation about the best way to make your home comfortable, stylish and fun. We invite you to submit questions and share your own great tips, ideas and gripes. No problem is too big or too small.

Susan Pilchard is a well known name among Washington interior designers. She owns a top workroom that has been in business for 30 years creating window treatments, bedding and upholstery. She prides herself on attention to detail and her seamstresses are all dressmakers with a great eye for perfect fit. She has worked in homes all over the world and loves creating magic from a bolt of fabric.

Looking forward to an entertaining morning talking about window treatments and upholstery.

I promise not to insult anyone....sometimes a challenge for me. But I know we will have fun.

Remember, there is no such thing as a dumb question.

(Not sure I mean that.)

So bring on any question and I promise I will have an answer.

What are the most stylish curtains for a living room these days? Just simple panels?

My favorite window treatments for living rooms are drapery panels. They warm up a room and I think pull the room together.

I love them hanging on smaller diameter poles that come in a million finishes and can be powder coated for easy traversing.

If you windows are wide they can be stationary panels...which saves on fabric....which saves on money.

Do you think duvets are practical? They are so much of a pain to take on and off the comforter.

I love duvets....but they are a pain. There is no way around it.

Teach you children how to do it....and tie their allowance to it.

My guest room still has beautiful Cowtan & Tout floral chintz balloon shades. I know, they look like the 1980s. But they go with everything else in the room and it's a bit Mario Buatta. But don't you think it's time to take them down - my husband still loves them. if so, what should I replace them with?

Well...you asked....something has to go. If you keep the husband then the balloon shades need to go.

Perhaps they could be repurposed.

Maybe make a suit out of them similar to the chintz suits that Mario wore.

Maybe make roman shades out of them..

On second thought....it's time for a change.

What is the "rule" for hanging drapes? Should there be 1/2' of clearance between the bottom of the drape and the floor? Where does the curtain rod hang - I know I am supposed to place it above the moulding, but should it be halfway between the top of the moulding and the ceiling, closer to the ceiling? I can't seem to find any definitive information. Thanks for your help.

If you have up to 8 inches above your framing I would hang them 1" below the ceiling. If you have a great amount of space above the frame then split the difference. You don't want the panels to look like they are flying. But they can definitely add to the elevation of a room.

As far as were they fall....that's a matter of opinion. I dread it when someone says they want a puddle. That's just a hot mess to me. I prefer a slight break on the floor like a gentlemans pant leg break.

If it's ripple fold it should just kiss the floor or you will lose the beauty of the ripple fold.

If they are really wide and you too much on the floor they will drag when they traverse.


And remember...most fabrics today have poly in them...like it or not..and there is always a little bit of growing to the panel over time

I'm really glad to see this topic. My husband and I just bought a house, and after a few minor disasters, we're safely moved in, and are unpacking and decorating. I don't want to get rid of our current living room furniture- it's insanely well made, and we don't really have the funds to replace our couch and chair with something of similar quality right now. However, the upholstery is extremely dated and has seen better days, and I'd like to cover it up with something a little less... '70's. Do you have any resources for inexpensive slipcovers? Or preferably, do you have any resources for someone with some basic skills and a sewing machine who wants to make their own?

You are so not going to be happy with this answer. In my opinion properly made slipcovers look like upholstery. And this is like hiring a tailor to make a good suit. It is expensive.

If you like the shabby chic look....and please don't...you might get them made for less. But typicaly slipcovers are more expensive than upholstery. 

With upholstery you are pulling the fabric across a frame and stapling it.... With a slipcover you are making it...fitting it...tailoring it....

I think you get my point. Today, it's cheaper to be new furniture than it is to upholster old.

Sad but true.

Has this replaced reupholstering furniture? Do you just throw away a 5 year old chair because it is worn out? And has this made workrooms close and therefore the ones that survive seem to charge so much for the labor?

I don't think this has put shops out of business. The problem is that it's a lost art. Sons are no longer following in the footsteps....(If they had daughters, we wouldn't have this problem....:)..

And no you don't throw it out, you give it to some one in need who will love it. And Habitat For Humanity is always good.

If you are not working with a designer who has a workroom, what should you look for when hiring an upholsterer?

You want to get great references. And you want to visit their shop and look at their work.

We have repaired a lot of work in our shop that was just plain shoddy.

So do your due diligence..

I have a couple of sturdy chairs from the 1940's. But both would need new cushions in addition to reupholstering . Given the cost of labor, fabric etc- how do you make that decision? Some of the carved wood details seem special to me but it could cost $1500 ? I guess I answered my own question? But would love your perspective.

Oh Lord...this is a tough one. When you have something that you really are crazy about, it's hard to let go. I had a couple husbands like that.

But if you can't let them go, I have no problem believing that it would cost you that much. Of course, the cost of the fabric could make a big difference, as well.

Hi, We have two sweet cats but one of them likes to climb. I won't mention what the other one does to the upholstery. I have tried scratching posts near these areas but are there materials and fabrics that are more resistant to damage? Thanks.

Get a dog...............................there's absolutely not a fabric ....well, maybe canvas...that would help

How best to clean pleated shades?

I have used a air dryer on cold air....and miniature lint rollers.

If they are not too fragile you can use you vacumn on reverse..

There are a lot of commercials about these new “performance” sheet sets like Sheex. What is the difference and are they worth it?

I think the cost of sheets is rediculous. I have bought the 600 thread count Egyptian sheets...and the sheets from Costco..Kirkland. And what do I prefer. Costco. I mean I love them.

Expensive sheets make us feel good when we first put them on the bed....but after that I felt taken..

We have four 30 year old rosewood dining room chair from Scan. Is it worthwhile having them upholstered since they there are a number of stains on them. Btw, two of the chairs have become a little wobbly.

Wobbly chairs are an easy fix..and if you love them they should not be overly expensive to reupholster.

And you can find inexpensive fabrics today for smaller jobs like that which wouldn't require you to mortgage your house.

My house is Second Empire, built in the 1860s. It has the traditional tall windows, which are shuttered with double shutters (typical wood Old Town shutters). I have installed plantation shutters elsewhere (bathroom and guestroom), which help with light, heat, and screening. Recently, I renovated my dining room, the central room of my house, which is adjacent to the interior stairwell. I had a roman shade that covered a stairwell window but it clashes with the new wallpaper so I'm moving it to the kitchen. I'd like to get a shutter to block the strong light and heat that comes in there. Also, I have a round window in my ground level door (read, porthole) that allows all passersby to look right into my family room. Should I get a shutter for that or look for another window treatment? My neighbor across the street told me that he's seen me folding laundry through it from his house! Which treatments will help with heat and light the best, as well as screening? And what about single french doors? Would shutters or roman shades be best on them? I don't care for bamboo - they seem to be dust catchers. Thank you.

He should come over and help you fold that laundry.

First of all....round windows, what genius came up with the idea...are such a pain. But we have solved it several times using a frosted tinting which looks as though the glass has been sand blasted. And it's a great solution. On french doors shutters can be a little bulky. And Roman shades could certainly work. But if they are for privacy and are always down then you blockout all of the light. One treatment we use a lot is what we call a brisbee. WE use 1/2" skinny nickel or brass rods with very thin rings. Then we pleat a light weight tone on tone or patterned sheer . We use rings at the top and the bottom so the pleats are pulled tight and they look awesome. Feel free to call and I can send you pictures of the.  For the staircase I think a shutter would be fine. And today you can get a shutter without the typical rail in the middle. It's cleaner looking..

Is it worth making them for a chair or sofa?

Certainly slipcovers for chairs are not so pricey. A sofa requires several fittings...like a dress. A chair is much simpler. It's also the amount of fabric required that drives up the price.

Oops..it just occurred to me that I didn't ask what kind of chair. If we are talking about a club chair....the situation is pretty much the same.

If we are talking a Parsons Chair....or a side chair..well you would be in luck.

I spilled some ketchup on a white top and it inspired me to do a summer stain story. Read it here.

I will red you story. However, I have a great stain story. I spilled red wine.......what a waste.....on my white pants. And I washed them with the predicted outcome.

I laid those pants outside everyday in the summer in the strong sun light for about 1 week....and it was gone.

I order 8 yards of Manuel Canovas fabric to go with about 75 yards that I had used in my house for a canopy bed and all the walls etc. It was a toile fabric. When the additional yardage came in the dye lots did not match.There was no hiding this.

I laid that fabric out everyday in the hot sun in the South of France on a terrace every day for probably a month until it faded just enough to work with the other fabric.

Necessity is the mother of invention.....and what idiot doesn't check out dye lot numbers................

Hello, We have an Arhaus sofa purchased 12 years ago that's in good shape but is sad looking because its two large down-filled back pillows sag -- especially after years of kids sitting on top of them when we're not looking! The back pillows/cushions are not attached to the back of the sofa. I read online about how to fix sagging cushions but couldn't find advice specifically for down. Is there a good DIY solution to make them stand straighter/neater, or is there anyone in the DC area who could help? We are in Silver Spring. Thank you!

Whether it's down fill or foam fill, over time cushions will just collapse.  What you really need to do it just get new fillers for them....Down envelopes are the best but can be a little pricey. Foam is inserted within the envelope..so the foam pushes the down up and you aren't refluffing all the time.

Good Lord...I just saw a terrible typo in you answer.

What I as saying was that the when you pull away from the cushion the foam that is in the down envelope pushed the down back in place.

Down envelopes are like down comforters that are f0lded and sewn on 3 side with a zipper in the fourth side. The foam is placed between the layers of down..........and voila, problem solved.

Would I have to contact two different businesses--one that specializes in upholstery and another one that does furniture repair?

And good upholster worth his salt can do both.

First of all you generally have to do some repair work anytime you upholster. So it's sort of expected.

I can't really remember the last time we didn't have to shore up a frame after we removed the existing fabric...

So it's not a big deal

We have a very pampered dog who believes our couch belongs to him! We have resigned ourselves to this but it's not pleasant when company comes. Is there a particular fabric or brand that will hold up better to pets? He's a big chocolate lab so shedding is not a huge issue - just the wear and tear. Thanks!

You really just need to get this pouch his own sofa. 

Remember the plastic in the old days that people had on their furniture to protect it.....DON'T DO THAT.

But in the mean time...when you purchase fabric you should pay particular attention to the number of "rubs" that the fabric can take before showing wear. This will not totally going to solve your problem. But it will definitely help. I vaguely recall Hines having a line of fabrics that was supposed to be pet proof.

I would actually google....pet proof fabrics. The only issue with them is the "softness" or comfort of the fabric. Canvas would be great but not warm and fuzzy.

If you get a fish you will have none of these issues.

Post Point Code HF2592

Do you know of a good place to buy fabrics in the Washington area at retail? Or any fabric outlets?

A lot of people love G ST fabrics. They aren't my favorite because most of their fabrics seem to be for crafts or dressmaking.

Calico Corner is a great choice...or go to..FabricDirect.com

They are amazing and inexpensive.

I just had someone tell me that you can google different fabric vendors with the pattern name and that you can find companies that have them at a great savings.

That's great......but you know that old line...you get what you pay for. It is never more true than here.

If you find an expensive fabric at a great savings, it is general a second. 

We had a designer who's client insisted on this and the fabric came in. The color was a little off....but the bigger problem is that it was screened off center. So the design in all of the fabric ran down hill. There are certain things that even the best workroom can not solve. And this is one of the.

So the color could be off, the design could be off or there can be flaws. So make sure that you can return it....and good luck with that.

While we are on the subject of getting things cheaper....and believe me, I'm all over that.

Several years ago we gave a quote for Lucite hardware. The designer was shocked at the cost....and it is embarrassingly expensive.

So she ordered her own lucite from a well known on line company....I can't mention the name but you all know who it is and if you don't...ask a neighbor.

The lucite she bought had a diameter of 1" The span she wanted to cover was over 10 feet and would have required a support about every 2 feet....How attractive is that?

So naturally, she wasted all that money and had to order the 2" hardware which was originally quoted

Window treatments, fabric etc. are an investment in your house. I'm always a little amused by people that have a Bentley in their garage but can't wrap their head around the cost of their draperies and furniture.

This is an investment you will hopefully live with for many years.

That Bentley...well wait until you trade that bad boy in....

You don't need to spend a fortune on your draperies. But you should certainly remember how good it will feel to walk into a room that is beautiful and friendly and warm. It's an investment in happiness....

Except for the damn dog and cat screwing everything up:)

What is a modern kitchen curtain look>

Love Roman Shades......just the amount of color you would need. Warms up the room.

Woven grass shades are also always great.

How do you find an upholster who can replace the coverings on antique furniture?

First of all any upholsterer can do that.

I guess you question is how do you find them...probably the old Google would work. Be careful with things like Yelp.

I know people that have been slammed on Yelp just because some one didn't get their way, or was having a moment and hadn't taken their meds....check the person out. Don't just read on line reviews

The question, is how do you find one that knows what they are doing.. check references, look at sample of their work.....or you could save yourself time........ and call me.

Thank you one and all...........Had the best time.

Didn't have to deal with any emails the entire time.

Made my day. Let's do this again!

Susan love your sassy answers! And you are such an expert. Great chat. Thanks all for being here. Next week the topic is joy in decorating and how to make your home happy with Ingrid Fetell Lee  founder of The Aesthetics of Joy.

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Jura Koncius
Jura Koncius is a Washington Post staff writer who specializes in home and design. Read her daily Twitter feed @jurakoncius for the latest in decorating trends, shopping, decluttering and organizing.

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