Winter Fluff

I realized this week that not everybody knows how to winterize a home. I grew up with wood heat and old houses. I’ve spent the last many years in New England living in even older houses. My Massachusetts farmhouse didn’t even have heating ductwork. (It did have fabulous iron grates in the floors for the heat to rise through…) The siding and windows were made to 18th century standards, meaning not much of a barrier between inside and outside, though there were 20th century storm window additions and some attempt at attic insulation. (It covered about half the house, meaning the roof was two-toned in winter, snowy on the insulated side and bare on the other.)

Obviously, the homes around me have been similar, so my neighbors had many of the same concerns. So I’ve just not noticed how uncommon my autumn routines are. Nor how few people have this knowledge. I think this is a skill set that will be increasingly necessary. Perhaps many of you are already floundering around trying to figure out how to keep the house warm despite unaffordable fuel costs. So I thought I might share my down home ways…

Many of the things that the market is telling you to do — insulate your house, install those triple-pane windows, put a new heat pump on the side of your house — are all good things, but are not within the budget of any but the most wealthy of us. (Particularly as many of us do not own the building we live in.) Nor could you get that work done in the short term for any money. I suspect you’d be put on a waiting list that stretches on to next spring if you wanted windows put in professionally, for example. And next spring might be optimistic, given various material shortages and transportation snafus… You should absolutely be planning on insulation and doing whatever else is possible to your home to reduce its energy needs. But there are other things you can do right now.

One of the easiest and most effective barriers to heat transfer is quite within the average budget and skill set. It is the old time-honored tradition of hanging curtains. (And you thought they were just décor…) For the same reasons that humans wear clothing, curtains are exceptionally good at keeping heat and cold separated. This works for keeping heat out in the summer as well as keeping heat in during the winter. You can cover a large window for as little as $50 in fabric and curtain hardware.

Having started this project years ago, I now have charming hardware on all the windows, holding thick fabric an inch or two off the window, but in loose contact with the window-frame woodwork, creating a well of air between the glass and the room. It’s this air that is the main goal in insulation because heat can’t quickly pass through diffuse gas. Air doesn’t have so much particulate mass, so heat can’t transfer from one particle to the next as efficiently as in denser liquids or solids where particles are in contact with each other.

This air space is also why woven materials are generally more efficient than solid materials like plastic blinds — or… um… glass — though blinds made of real wood slats are probably somewhat of an improvement, since the cells in the wood contain lots of air space. But there is much more empty space in a weave. Similarly, many synthetic fabrics are so densely woven — and from thread lacking the fuzzy edge spaces of natural fibers — that they are not very good as insulation. The fabric you want to use is textured and fat. It can be wool or plant-based or even some synthetics that are trying really hard to feel like natural materials. But it must have a thick feel in your hands. I have cotton velvet and jacquard linen on my windows now. The curtains in the rooms that are used primarily for sitting have linen or wool black-out liners sewn onto the curtain, creating even more air space. My curtains are heavy!

If you want to just throw something up there and don’t much care about looks, I suspect a cheap cotton quilt hung on hooks would be quite effective. Might even have a certain shabby chic or rustic primitive flair to it. (I’m thinking an Amish quilt draped over rough twine strung between wrought iron hooks, maybe with old-fashioned wooden clothespins… ahem…) I have also seen patterns for turning a quilt into a roller shade though I’ve never done that. I have hung small blankets up as Roman shades, the kind of fabric blind that you tie up. But I don’t like shades as much as curtains. To be effective heat barriers, you need thick fabric, you see. So the resultant shades either have to be mostly closed all the time or you have to reconcile yourself to having a rather large lump of fabric rolled up on top of your windows when you want the light to flood in. To my eyes, it looks like the window has a naked bumroll. It’s just an aesthetic hang-up… But I’m weird, so don’t let my tastes interfere! Because it was a really easy thing to make. You don’t even have to make the quilt. Just buy a thrift-store blanket.

Cut the quilt to fit your window frame and bind the edges with flexible and somewhat attractive binding tape (it will be visible, you know). Sew a curtain-rod pocket (a sleeve) on one end, and hem the other end to fall just a bit below the window sill. Then attach wide ribbon (or perhaps the remnants of the quilt) to the top edges, both inside and outside the shade, at two or three places along the width of the fabric. These ribbon ties should be at least a foot longer than whatever length you want for a closed shade so that there is enough ribbon to tie the shade up a bit. I’ve seen the ties sewn directly onto half the length of the curtain and topped with fancy lace or burlap rosettes or any number of other creative edge coverings, but a well-done whip stitch along the top edge looks just fine and works just as well.

I have heavy curtains. But I also live in the mountains in Vermont, meaning there are plenty of days when there is no sun and temperatures are at the lower end of human tolerance. So I am grateful that this house has really good storm windows. This is another way to create air space. It is a window on a window, making a thick layer of dead air in between two panes of glass. On sunny days, the outer window will admit sunlight and, just like a greenhouse, heat up the air between the windows so that the heat in my house has much less reason to try to escape. Heat (high energy) diffuses toward cold (low energy), and that heated greenhouse between the windows presents much less of a differential than that between my cozy interior house and the frigid exterior. Heat will still try to escape to that cooler place between the windows, but since the difference in temperature is smaller it won’t do so as quickly.

Storm windows are probably not going to happen this year if you don’t have them up already. (If you do, now is the time to be cleaning nature out the window wells and getting them closed… as I will be doing this week…) Since most are made from aluminum, which is still hard to come by (because China…) this might be another project that will get you put on a waiting list at best. But you can make really cheap, if none too attractive, barriers out of translucent sheet plastic and tacks or staples, plus masking tape to seal the edges. Son#1 does this on the window in his apartment bedroom — which is right by his head when sleeping. (His landlord frowns on things like installing storm windows… don’t know why…) Even though that window doesn’t get much direct sunlight, being shaded by trees and a porch roof, his plastic sheeting is merely cool to the touch, not frost-bite inducing like the window glass. So that’s a quick and easy way to keep the warm in. Buy heavy enough plastic and good thumbtacks, and you can reuse the whole assembly for many years.

In addition to the storm windows and the heavy curtains, I’ve also been known to just hang actual blankets in the coldest weather. In those weeks around the solstice, when the polar express comes to call, I use upholstery tacks to hang thick and nubby linen sheets between the curtains and the window glass, creating yet another air pocket, but one that allows warm light to pass. This is not as necessary on my current house because this building has fewer windows. Until recently, windows were the only affordable light aside from the hearth fire, so the Massachusetts house was lousy with them. Every room had at least three tall 9-over-9 pane windows. Lovely wavy glass… but so very cold! And they built the house facing west, so the front exterior with its classic Georgian four windows on either side and one above the central door was facing right into the dominant weather flow pattern. Fortunately, the house also faced upslope with a nice thickly wooded swamp (complete with Bog Yankee homesteader…) to serve as a wind break (however offensively smelly…). But still, you could not set a lit candle in those western windows. Even with the window closed, it would blow out… So I acquired a number of good linen sheets that first winter and tacked them up in November every year thereafter.

One other hack to keep the exterior on the exterior is one that really appeals to the fluffy bunny in me. This is the draft blocker. (I’ve also seen it called a draft dodger… you can be the judge on that one…) This is simply a pillow made to block the open spaces at the bottom of windows and doors and sometimes the top of the moveable pane of glass on sash windows. Wherever there is the potential for cold air to flow. Remember from school physics, fluids will flow faster through a narrowed space. So those edges are like putting your thumb partially over the end of a garden hose nozzle. Makes for a powerful jet of flow! Heat may be trying to flow out through the open spaces, but if there is a jet stream, all the air of whatever temperature will rush wholesale from outside to in (higher pressure to lower pressure, denser to less dense, cold to hot, etc). (This is why cracks in natural gas delivery pipes are so very bad…)

Old, arthritic women sitting and spinning by the light of the window figured this out before Bernoulli… and they made the draft blocker. Probably it began as a rolled up wad of whatever fabric was on hand shoved into the cracks. But it evolved into its own cozy art form. Over the years, I have made many draft blockers — which are essentially just stuffed socks with both ends sewn shut. I have also used wool blankets tied into rolls to cut the breeze flowing through the gaping holes between the walls and the floor in the 18th century farmhouse. But I really love what other people with more refined skills than I possess can make. I have draft blockers shaped like elongated dogs and cats. I’ve a pair that have sheep heads facing into the room to look like a small flock lined up and contemplating a munch of your carpeting. Several draft blockers are knitted in interesting Nordic or Irish patterns. (Such things, with my knitting skills, are only ever aspirational…) And there is one — made of elegant brocade and stuffed with eiderdown — that would look just as good as a bedding pillow. If it wasn’t so short and wide… 

A couple mornings ago, I was surprised by a dip from the 70s (°F) to the 30s overnight. I hadn’t closed the storm windows, much less got the furnace serviced and the oil tank filled up. (I’m on a wait list now…) But I did have my pile of draft blockers in the stairwell closet. So I ran around the house in the pre-dawn darkness, putting them down on all the open spaces. I did close off the kitchen storm window, which is both the cleanest window well and the one room with multiple sources of air flow (because I’ll want to open the house up again… it is still September, you know; there will be warm weather for weeks yet…). Then I opened all the curtains to get as much light into the house as possible. By the time I got home from work, the ground floor of the house was at 65°F and my upstairs bedroom was 69°F, just perfect for sleeping. I closed the curtains and snuggled into the bedcovers and was just fine with no heater, while outside was flirting with first frost.

One final note… I’m sure you’ve noticed that all of this requires creative storage. Even the curtains might be changed out from light summer linen to heavy winter velvet. (I don’t do this… anymore…) These are all bulky things that need to be kept dry and free from rodents (who suck all the joy out of life by pooping on every last surface they encounter… among other nasty habits…). This is the reason things like linen cupboards exist (not, as in this culture, to contain a plethora of bath towels…). Now, that does entail an expense, but it’s not one that is likely to land you on a wait list. It might even be something you can call a holiday gift, with the shopping experience in vintage shops and antique stores being part of the gift. Especially if it includes cider donuts and warm cider, as it does here in Vermont. So head off to the boonies and find yourself a pile of heavy fabric things and draft blockers and a nicely aged cedar cabinet to keep it all tucked away until winter begins to bite.

Next week, I think I’ll maunder on about wood heat and the perils of intermittent electricity… I’m sure you’ll be waiting for that one with bated breath… Now, I have to go move my geraniums into the house and cover up the tender herbs…

©Elizabeth Anker 2022

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