Twitching the curtains…

I stood at the window, doing the dishes and watching the sun set behind the houses. The old lady who lives at the end of the street walked by and smiled at me through the glass; there is no sense of privacy when the footpath runs right outside your kitchen window. Another window looks through the kitchen of my little flat to the bathroom and I panicked a few times, just after I moved in, realising that I was in the bath with a clear view to the street… The bedroom and living room look out onto fields, but they are also visible to the cows, the birds and anyone who happens to be in the gardens either side. When I notice, I still find this odd.

I was raised in Yorkshire, at a time and in a place where everyone had lace curtains. They were important. You could hide a good deal behind net curtains, from the poverty that neither asked nor expected to be helped, to the tragedies and comedies that are played out in every family home. As long as the ‘nets’ were white and the doorstep scrubbed, all was right with the world…at least as far as your public image was concerned. The curtains, often discoloured by coal fires, would be washed with ‘dolly blue’ to counteract the natural fading of the white fabric, or with lemon juice, borax or soda… it didn’t matter, as long as they ended up white.

My own generation grew up and the nets became more of a style feature than a social necessity. Heavy cotton lace gave way to light, synthetic fabrics that allowed more light in, but still preserved privacy…and still needed laundering once a month on principle. I never grew out of that.

As modern housing incorporated more efficient heating and glazing, the windows, and therefore the nets, got bigger and so did the washing of them. Status… according to some unwritten, underlying hangover from an older era, came with having matching nets throughout the house…and although you could suddenly buy coloured nets, if they were white, they had to be properly white.

But for all our new-fangled fabrics and fancy designs, the net curtains still hid the tragedies from public view and kept the sordid secrets of many a family and gave but a hazy view of the outside world.  There was a time when the heavy lace curtains served a very real purpose, giving dignity by protecting the poverty they so often hid. When they became a fashion accessory for the home, I wonder if we missed the point somewhere and, instead of preserving dignity, they served only to help us isolate ourselves.

These days, modern decor trends state that, unless you are going for a romantic, country or shabby chic look, net curtains are passé. When I moved in to the new flat, my own net curtains were never going to fit…and they were already passed their best. I didn’t fancy clambering over the sink once a month to launder them and the ‘look’ I was going for was sparse and practical, largely due to the new limitations on space. From what had been a fair-sized family home, I was downsizing to a place just for me, the dog and an aquarium full of inherited fish. Lace curtains were the least of my problems.

Even so, for a good while I felt exposed… vulnerable. That veil between me and the world, I thought, had served me well over the years. Without the nets, not only did I have an unobstructed view of the world, but people could see in. I found this strange and disconcerting, until I got so used to it that I no longer notice until something reminds me.

It has changed a few things though, this living in full view. I now make conscious choices about where I stand in the bathroom, if I should close a door, where I dress or whether to pull the big curtains closed. I choose what I allow the world to see, rather than automatically being hidden behind the nets. It is a subtle but important distinction.

It has made me conscious too of how much, over a lifetime, I have hidden behind my own ‘lace curtains’, presenting a socially acceptable picture to the world regardless of inner turmoil, tragedy or personal distress. That may sometimes be a matter of dignity, but it can also hide a deeper significance.

It is easy to retreat behind a polite facade and hide from the world, as long as the ‘nets’ look  white. It is even easier to use them to hide from ourselves, pretending that the ‘unwashed dishes’ and ‘unmade beds’ that cannot be seen through the veil, are not really there. It is not until the curtains come down and the light floods in, illuminating the dark and dingy corners of either a room or a life that we see what is really there…and it is only when we do so that we can begin to act to put it right.

Fewer windows, these days, seem to be veiled by lace curtains. I wonder how many others have noticed the difference it makes to their personal outlook on life as much as to their homes. Are we beginning to hide less, in this climate where so many things that were once swept under the proverbial carpet can be spoken of with an ever-lessening stigma? Spousal and childhood abuse, once so well concealed by those net curtains and never spoken of except, all too often, with blame for the victim, are no longer quite so easy to hide and are  little better understood by the general public. Are we ditching the nets because we are moving towards a more open society or the other way round?

When I first moved in here, I could not help noticing just how much is blocked by those net curtains, looking from both the outside in and, more importantly, from the inside out. I no longer need to leave my home to be intimate with a dawn or a sunset. I can see the stars from my bed… or step outside; it is no longer a necessity, it is simply a choice. By allowing the light to stream in unfiltered, I look out at an undiminished world… knowing all the while that it could gaze back at me, yet most of the time, it has better things to do. That seems to bring an unexpected freedom, a new honesty to the relationship with land and sky as well as a new level of choice and responsibility. Unadulterated light shows me the dust ball under the bed as clearly as the ones in my own being… and once seen, both can be addressed. Living in the laight also makes the colours sing and the crystal sparkle and shed rainbows… and perhaps it could do that for me too.

29 thoughts on “Twitching the curtains…

  1. The concealment of burglary, a raiding of personal proerties going on in full view of the nets. I wonder how many homes are missed off the to be turned over list; because they have none? That standing joke … the twitcing of net, concealing crime and hiding the prying eyes that gather fodder for tomorrows gossip at the womens institute. Never has such a piece of fabric, in my memory been cause of such terrible atrocities, yet laundered so well. I curl my lip in distaste, then wonder about the cost of shutters…

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  2. Oh, how right you are. Those lace curtains may be bright, but they hide what is behind the window. A perfect analogy to life and all it’s complexities. You write about this beautifully, Sue. Thank you.

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  3. A lovely post, Sue. Thoughtful as usual. I’m not sure we are in a more open society though; mostly I feel we’re all being placed into certain ‘open boxes’ and told we must tolerate/accept one another – but only in the way we’re told to. Does this then put the covering of a ‘net curtain’ back over free expression; over our own desires to find our own freedom of thought and beliefs in our own way. I don’t want to be controlled by anything but my conviction that there is a basic goodness in us all, that we should celebrate our differences. In that way, our openness is genuine. Not sure I’ve put that over properly but it’s the best way i feel I can do at the moment. Thanks again for making me stop and think.x.

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    1. You may well be right, Judith, certainly in respect of what comes under ‘political correctness’. I don’t think that kind of forced acceptance changes attitudes at their source, it is no more than a ‘net’ of its own and may well build a deeper but hidden resentment.
      Choosing to ‘take the nets down’ is a different matter, I think, and it is there I’d like to hope we are heading. x

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      1. Ah, I see.I struggle to be ‘Un-netted’ personally. Hiding me from me – or finding me, is both a relief, and painful, sometimes. Letting others in behind the net takes a lot of courage and trust. Great analogy. xx.

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  4. I never realised the origins of net curtains Sue. I always thought it to do with being ‘posh’, having two sets up at the window and can remember the whitening and red polish for the front steps.
    When I was first married, we had them and I made a mistake of washing them in the washing machine. That wouldn’t have been so bad, but I spun them too and never got the wrinkles out, despite the ‘folding’ techniques I was told about. Last time I looked (2005 ish) the net curtains were still up at the windows in my first house from 1977. They were far from white though, but then double glazing tends to distort the colour and in subsequent houses they always looked grey so when we moved to the Cottage in 2007, we had venetian blinds.
    In the Avenue the amount of houses without them far outnumbered those that did, I could never work out whether it was to show off the latest TV screen or because the rooms were otherwise dark.
    It is our curiosity and human nature to be attracted to an open and clear view inside people’s homes. When I visited a friend in NZ she drove me down ‘Posh Street’ as she called it where properties were the most expensive because she could see in to all of the properties and admire (or not) their furnishings. Some were hideous and they paid thousands of bucks for it!
    We don’t have nets here, opting for vertical blinds as a curtain track would be awkward to fit because of the shape and design of the bay window. Before we put them up though we had nothing, and anyone walking by just looked into a room with a second hand sofa in it. We waved, and so did they, and most have struck up conversations since asking if we’ve settled in. It seems to be a nice little community here.
    A very interesting and thought provoking post.

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    1. You didn’t spin them in a twin tub, by any chance? Those things were lethal…

      I think that you raise an important point here, Di, with regard to people being able to see in and see…with envy perhaps… what we have. My concern is that by displaying a showpiece home, as they did on your ‘Posh Street’, we may have just moved the ‘nets’ back and are covering an inner poverty with the latest gadgetry.

      It is nice to have nice things… but unless they are used to make a home, not a social statement or showpiece, I wonder if they really matter or whether they are simply a shield. Much like the heavy lace in the old street houses.

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      1. Yep. A twin tub it was. Doh!
        I know of a couple who had to have the latest gadget or whatever and showed it off, even when they couldn’t afford it. Keeping up with the Joneses comes to mind here, but for some, they feel if they don’t have these things, they are frowned upon. I find that sad, but hold my hand up as years ago I felt exactly like that.

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        1. Ye gods the things those machines killed… especially woollies for the rookie housewife 😉

          I think I have always been late to the party where gadgetry is concerned…much as I love modern technology. Apart from my first proper kitchen, where I managed to get everything a dedicated cook and baker could ever wish for… then left it all behind. There are things more important than material possessions and we can forget that too easily.

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  5. Such an interesting thought with those lace and net curtains that I gave up years ago. Allowing privacy vs. hiding us from the rest of the world, even concealing poverty ? My grandmother provided white crocheted curtains, of which she was so proud. They added warmth and a very personal touch. Heavy draperies were popular here for a time. I hated the blocking out of light, and they all needed dry cleaning. Now, it’s all about mini blinds and fabric valances, ample windows and bright light that came with new construction. I think those window coverings do indeed correlate with phases of my life. Fascinating, Sue.

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