Stage and theatre curtains can be made of all sorts of different materials, depending partly upon the purpose they are to serve and partly a matter of choice. Front of house curtains, or auditorium curtains, have to be fire resistant of course, but they also have to impress the audience, so they are often made of heavy cotton velvets and are heavily pleated. They are frequently red in colour, and this is partly because in days past the colour red showed up fire retardants less than other colours. Today we have fire retardants that are clear and so don’t show up anyway, but red is still often used simply because it has become traditional.
While cotton velours are chemically treated in order to make them flame retardant, other fabrics are inherently flame retardant and so need no treatment. Polyester velvets are one such material and are ultra-low maintenance. They are also much more resistant to moisture and creasing than other kinds of velvets which makes them very suitable for touring.
Fabrics that are treated with flame retardants will need occasional re-treatment and how often will depend on the atmosphere in the theatre and how often the curtains need cleaning. If the atmosphere gets humid, the flame retardants won’t last as long and will need re-treating more often. There are companies that provide a curtain cleaning service and in most cases these companies will also provide a re-treatment service as well. How often curtains will need retreatment will also depend on the type of material.
Some materials will lose their flame retardance after only two or three dry cleans, while others may last as long as a dozen or so cleans. Of course, if you have the curtains washed, they will need re-treatment each time because the flame retardant is made from water soluble materials that will simply get washed out. It is perfectly safe to wash inherently flame retardant materials such as polyester because washing them won’t have any effect on the flame retardant qualities of the material.
Dry cleaning is the best method for most materials, and you need a specialist company to carry this out because in the majority of cases theatre curtains are far too large to just pop them down to your local dry cleaner in the high street.
There are many different kinds of curtain materials, and velvets are the most popular. Velvet was originally made from silk, and while you can still get silk velvet it is horrifically expensive. Some velvet that is marketed as silk velvet is in fact a combination of silk and rayon. Synthetic velvet can be made of rayon, viscose, polyester or nylon.
Velvet is made on a special loom called a double cloth which produces two pieces of velvet at the same time. It has a very even pile height. There are a number of different types of velvet which depend on the materials used and the method of weaving. Plain velvet is usually made of cotton and is heavy and won’t stretch very much. It doesn’t have the same sheen as velvets made from silk or synthetics. Stretch velvet has spandex included in the weave and is quite stretchy and flexible.
Crushed velvet has a shiny and patterned appearance and a "crushed" look and this is a result of pressing the pile in different directions. Embossed velvet is similar in some ways, and the effect is achieved by using a heat stamp which applies pressure and pushes the pile down, creating a pattern. Another type of velvet is panne velvet which is similar to crushed velvet and is the result of pressure being applied to push the pile in one direction. Pile-on-pile velvet has piles of varying lengths which create a pattern. Both pile-on-pile velvet and embossed velvet are commonly used as upholstery materials.
Velveteen is not a velvet at all and has pile that is much shorter than velvet. The pile comes from the horizontal weft threads rather than the vertical warp threads of velvet. Velour, which is used in many theatre curtains, is made from cotton and polyester and is a knitted fabric that looks similar to velvet, but is not so shiny, and stretches more.