Curtain Maker Sheri Downer of Downers Design

Andrew Montgomery

Helping to make an interior designer's vision a reality can be hard work. Get it right, however, and bring a little of your own sparkle to the equation, and you could become indispensable. Take, for example, Sheri Downer of Downers Design. Her company's skills at making curtains and blinds are so sought after that many of its clients do not think twice about flying her out to Los Angeles, Mustique or Kuwait to measure up a window and work her magic.

One such client is Max Rollitt, who is working on a large, century-old house in Massachusetts at the moment. It is a massive project and there are plenty of windows that are going to need dressing. 'On a job like this, you need to know that it's going to be right. It has to be measured properly and done systematically,' he says. 'And the quality has to be assured.' Max is not alone: many of House & Garden's Leading 100 Interior Designers are no strangers to Sheri's way with windows.

Sheri was taught traditional curtain-making by the legendary Dorothy Gates, the first female president of the Association of Master Upholsterers and Soft Furnishers. At the age of 19, she began a 10-year stint working in the 'textiles laboratory' of Marks & Spencer, getting to grips with rub fastness, tensile testing and more - a period which she credits as providing her with a foundation in quality control. She started making curtains in the evenings and at weekends, and in 1991 set up her own company with her sister Kelly, who runs the loose covers side of the business. Based in south London, her workshop now employs 24 people.

As with any company in business this long, Downers has had to change with the times. Innovations in design have often required updates to the way fabric is handled and worked. Following a series of tragic accidents involving the cords on curtains and blinds, new child safety regulations were introduced in 2014. These require, among other things, breakaway chains that pull apart under more than 6kg of weight. This presents a challenge for particularly heavy blinds. Many of the commissions Downers receives are for blackout blinds and curtains that are three layers thick: front, interlining and backing. 'That created a real opportunity for motorisation, which bypasses the need for a chain or cord,' Sheri says. Over the past few years, automated blinds and curtains have been a fast-growing part of the business. It is a wonderful combination: the most traditional of skills married with the latest in technology.

Practical problem solving is as important as producing the perfect pinch pleat. One recent project entailed coming up with a solution for a house in which all the windows open inwards - common on the continent and with newbuilds in Britain. Extra wide tracks meant the curtain fabric could be pulled to the sides of the windows, allowing them to open. In a Maison AD project in Paris, one room had walls lined in a hand-painted de Gournay silk. Because the curtains were to be made in the same fabric, it had to be measured and cut so the motifs were aligned consistently throughout the room. The only way to do this is by site visits. There are rarely less than three: an initial measure and quote, a more detailed measure, and then the fitting. 'We often have to elbow our way around painters and decorators and carpet fitters with delicate fabrics,' Sheri says. 'But, for me, it is important to be as proactive as possible.'

Pinch pleats and wave headings are the most requested styles and form the company's bread and butter, although Downers is no stranger to exuberant confections of swags and tails, or curtains in leather and suede.

Six large tables in adjoining workrooms are rarely uncovered by swathes of silk, cashmere, leather and suede, with pleated, wave, ripplefold and eyelet headings being sewn. The majority of the work is hand-stitched: you will not find trims glued into place. Downstairs, two work benches are dedicated to blinds and pelmets in various states of assembly.

'Development and training is a big part of what we do,' Sheri says. 'When it comes to manufacturing, it is difficult to get young people interested.' The company has previously taken on apprentices and would like to take on more. 'In the old days, your knowledge was your power and you didn't reveal anything. But we share our knowledge and technical know-how. It's the only way to keep the skills alive'

Downers Design