The 411 On Curtain Clean-Up

by Lisa Mulcahy

Expert advice on how to give your stage drapes a long life

Stage drapery maintenance seems like a no-brainer—you just beat your curtains with a broom from time to time, and that should take care of things, right? Not so fast. If you want your stage drapes to last for many cost-effective years to come, you need to clean and maintain them properly and regularly. Curtain and backdrop manufacturers recognize the importance of regularly evaluating the state of a drape or drop.

“As a backdrop rental house, we must constantly inspect our backdrops before releasing for rental,” says George Christo, CEO of Charles H. Stewart in North Andover, MA. “Common problems that require immediate remedy include black grease staining from cherry pickers, dirt from stage floors, and fabric tears or burns.”  The good news: once you’ve identified these kinds of problems—or to prevent these kinds of issues from ever taking place—cleaning your curtains the right way is pretty easy to learn, and doesn’t take a ton of time and effort. Let’s sit down for a roundtable with some drapery pros to share their expertise on the right curtain maintenance procedures. Read on for their sage step-by-step advice, plus some tips that can help preserve the quality of your curtains’ fabric, and extend its usage time.

Step One: Know the Material You’re Dealing With

Stage Directions: What’s the difference between caring for napped velour curtains as opposed to smooth fabric curtains, like muslin or satin?

Mary Beth McLaughlin, soft goods manager at Scenic Solutions in West Carrollton, Ohio: “First of all, you should know that curtains need to be stored in a clean dry area, prior to their use. Exposing any kind of curtain to humidity gives the fabric the chance to collect moisture leading to mold. Speaking to the specific type of curtain fabric you might be dealing with, napped curtains will collect dust in the nap; with muslin and satin curtains the dust will lay on the surface. Dust on muslin or satin fabric will easily brush or shake off, however.” 

Greg Christo, president, Charles H. Stewart: “Napped velour curtains can be lightly vacuumed, dry cleaned, or lightly beaten like a rug for dust and surface dirt. They can also be lightly spot cleaned with a mild cleanser. Muslin backdrops can be whisk-brushed or shaken for dust and surface dirt and can also be spot-cleaned. Both napped velour and muslin can also accommodate sewn repairs. If a rapid turnaround is necessary, you can use duct tape on the back of a curtain made of either material, too. The tape will keep any tears or holes together until there’s time to do a complete sewn repair process.”

Step Two: Spot Clean Smart

Could you give a few tips for a proper brushing technique for stage curtains?

MBM: “You should always use a soft bristle brush. For large areas, you can use a broom, and for smaller areas you can use a scrub brush. But no matter the size of the curtain you’re cleaning, always remember to use a clean, soft bristle brush. Before you start, check to make sure your brush or broom doesn’t have any dirt or grease residue on it. If it does, it could transfer to your curtains. Then, just remember to brush with the nap on a velour curtain.”

A GREAT INSIDER TRICK: To brush out your curtains most thoroughly, start with the back of your material first, moving from left to right until the entire surface has been brushed. Repeat on the opposite side of your curtain. Make sure you check out the inner parts of any folds and pleats as you work, and brush these carefully to remove hidden dust. Synthetic, satin, and muslin curtains can be brushed once, but it’s a good idea to go over napped velour drapes twice to ensure they’re completely clean. 

What about spot cleaning with liquid? What’s the safest way to go about it?

GC: “Choose a mild cleaner, and test it in an obscure corner of the fabric before you use it. Give your curtain a quick brushing to loosen any surface dirt before applying your cleanser. Then let the fabric dry before trying a second application.”

Can you steam or iron stage drapes?

MBM: “Yes, but when using a hot iron or a steamer you have a risk of water spots on the fabrics that can leave a stain. Test a small unseen spot to determine if what you’re using is safe for your material. Oh, and in terms of the cleansers you might use, remember that if they stain, sometimes this can be can be removed with water, but any stain that’s grease-based will often need a chemical to remove it.”

A GREAT INSIDER TRICK: As built-up dirt can gather in hard-to-reach places on your curtain surface, it’s a good idea to fly your drapes between shows, so they can avoid gathering any dirt close to the ground, or by contact with cast or crew members’ hands.


Step Three: Wash Your Curtains Correctly

How should you launder stage curtains in order to preserve their flame retardancy?

MBM: “Professional dry cleaners specializing in work with theatre curtains are the best way to go.”

NOTE: Check with your dry cleaner to make sure a 100% pure solvent solution is used to at least partially preserve some flame-retardant chemical on your curtain surface (but you’ll still need to retreat, in all likelihood.)

Step Four: Pack ‘Em Away the Right Way

How should you maintain your curtains prior to storing them?

GC: “Since rental curtains are constantly being unfolded, installed, and then taken down, folded and return shipped, the first thing we ask our customers to do is to sweep the stage before you place any curtains on it. Also, place them with the front side up. That way if there is any remaining dirt on the stage, it goes on the back side. When using a cherry picker, make sure the greased parts of the machine are covered so that they don’t touch the drapes.”

When you’re finished using your curtains, what’s the procedure for storing them safely?

MBM: “Well, the best way to store curtains is to leave them hanging. Napped fabric if folded can crush the nap. Folding muslin or satin it can leave fold lines that sometimes cannot be ironed or steamed out.”

A GREAT INSIDER TRICK: If you do choose to take down your curtains, lower and untie them, then completely spread them out on your stage floor. Start folding the curtain, face-to-face, until you’ve made a bundle with a fold of approximately three feet. Now fold the ends of your curtain toward your curtain’s center, and store it in a canvas bag or container away from any sources of humidity.