Shopping: The second hand

Having new curtains made is a costly business. Obviously it depends on the size, what fabric you want, and whether you want them lined or even interlined. But a decent lined set made, say, 8ft wide, with a 10ft drop, are going to cost at least pounds 400. And that is just one set. The obvious answer is to buy second hand.

There are various things to watch for. The first and most important thing to do is accurately to measure the width and the drop. It is far better to err on the big side. There is nothing worse than "caravan curtains" that finish just above the window sill. With the width it's important to take any pleats into account, so check the top measurement carefully, to avoid curtains that do not quite meet in the middle. That said, remember second-hand curtains are, by definition, used. Check that they have not faded in the sun. Sometimes faded curtains can be all right, if you can swap them round so that the fade is on the edges: also, the fade is usually on the outside, and the material facing the room may be fine. Check this, because a fade is a strong bargaining point. Another important thing to check is whether the fabric has begun to rot. If it has, forget it.

There are two ways of buying second hand. You can either go to the markets, antique fairs and auctions yourself, or you can go to a specialist second- hand curtain shop. The shops are the quicker option and you are far more likely to get what you want, but it's more expensive and not nearly so much fun. Auction houses tend only to deal in serious antique pieces. The market is strong and prices reflect that, but both Bonhams and Christie's have regular soft furnishing sales. Portobello Market in London's Notting Hill Gate has three or four stalls on a Friday dealing in fabrics and curtains. Anything antique will be pricy; original William Morris prints, old silk damasks and Nottingham lace (known as store curtains) are dealers' favourites. Coming into vogue now are bold Seventies prints. The two big monthly antique fairs at Ardingly and Newark are a must for the canny collector.

That said, many people do not have the time to go around the antique markets, in which case the Curtain Exchange is the place. This is a nation- wide chain of shops selling new and used curtains, from the eminently affordable to the ridiculous. Contemporary designer fabrics by companies such as Liberty, Bennison, Sarah Churchill and Osborne and Little are the staples, but they do also do the exotic, such as Fortuny, hand-blocked textiles from Venice that sell for the proverbial king's ransom. This shop really is an exchange. First, they will let you take curtains on approval, saving worry about whether they will fit. Secondly, should you move house they are quite happy to take the curtains back. Anything they sell, the client gets 60 per cent of the proceeds. Which just shows that curtains are worth taking seriously.

Markets: Bermondsey Street Market, Long Lane & Tower Bridge Road, London SE1 (Borough tube). Friday morning, very early.

Camden Passage, Islington, London N1, (Angel tube) Wednesday morning.

Portobello Market, Notting Hill Gate, London W10 (Notting Hill tube) Friday & Saturday.

Auctions: Bonhams, Lots Road,London SW6 (0171-393 3900), next sale 19 December (viewing is often the day before); Christie's, 85 Old Brompton Road, London SW7 (0171-581 7611), next sale 3 Dec, 15 sales a year.

Antique fairs: Ardingly, West Sussex (01636 702326), next fairs 6 Nov, 1 Dec.

Newark, Nottinghamshire (01636 702326), next fair 10 Dec.

The Curtain Exchange: call Anne Ellerton (0171-229 4923) for branches.

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