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The Perfect Swag: Options & Variables

Swags come in many different shapes and sizes. Understanding exactly how the different parts of the pattern contribute to the finished swag will give you the ability to tailor each and every swag pattern to the desired results.

General Rules:

Pattern material.

Use lining to make your patterns. It drapes better than muslin and is relatively inexpensive.  As you develop proficiency, your pattern can then be incorporated into lining the finished product - no waste.

Bias cuts versus straight cuts.

Whenever possible, cut the face fabric for the swags on the bias.  This softens the draping of the swag folds.

Always cut the lining and interlining for small to medium swags on the bias.  Even if the face fabric is cut on the straight of grain, the bias cut of the lining and interlining will help to soften the finished folds.

Exceptions for cutting on the bias:

1. Extra wide or extra long swags.  Swags which are over 54" wide and/or 25" long.  Larger swags cut on the bias require piecing of fabric where the pattern is wider than the fabric.  On oversized swags, this piecing will cause a seam line to cross too close to the center point of the swag.

2. Striped or plaid fabrics, or fabrics with an obvious horizontal or vertical line.  Cutting on the bias will turn the lines of the fabric on a diagonal slant.  In some cases, this look is acceptable. However, it is usually not recommended.

Basic Swag Shape:

Basic Pattern Shape:


Top Width of Pattern:

The top width of the picture on the swag is the top width of the swag pattern. Visualize the finished swag. Determine how wide the picture will be in relation to the finished width of the swag.


This picture is 1/2 of the finished width of the swag. If the finished width is 40", the top of the swag pattern would be 20."   For most swags, 1/2 would be your default.

This picture is 1/3 of the finished width of the swag.   If the finished width is 40", the top of the swag pattern would be 13."

This picture is 2/3 of the finished width of the swag. If the finished width is 40", the top of the pattern would be 27".

Some considerations when determining the top width of the pattern:

You should be aware that the fullness of the finished swag (the cut length of the pattern) should be taken into account when choosing the width of the top of the pattern:

If you choose a narrow picture (second illustration), the pleats have to make up the rest of the finished width. The pattern length should be very full in order to have enough pleats to spread across for finished width.

If you choose a wide picture (third illustration), the pleats will stack heavily on each other. This could create bulk at the ends of the swag. Keep the fullness to two times or less to reduce the bulk.


Length of pattern:

The length of the pattern determines how full the swag will be. The fullness is distributed in the swag between the picture and the folds. There are several points to consider in determining fullness:

Most treatments will follow a standard of two times fullness plus 4." Multiply the desired drop length of the swag by 2 and add 4."

Light-weight, silky or sheer fabrics look better with more fullness. The pattern length can be cut 3-4 times the desired drop length - if cut on the bias.

A soft, medium weight fabric which can be cut on the bias and drapes well can be cut 2 1/2 times the finished drop plus 4."

Stiff fabrics, or those cut on the straight of grain will tend to kink or dimple in the folds on the front of the swag. With these fabrics, stay with the 2 times plus 4"  standard fullness.

When in doubt, always cut the swag pattern longer. A pattern can be cut down if too full, but cannot be added to if too skimpy.


Bottom curve of pattern:

The curve along the bottom edge of a swag is a catenary. That is, the shape of a perfectly flexible chain which is suspended by its ends and acted on by gravity. It is not perfectly oval or eliptical. Therefore, a standard template cannot be applied to the pattern of different sizes and shapes of swags.

Cutting the bottom curve on your pattern is an art. It has two characteristics, rise and center point, which determine how the bottom fold of the swag will hang. Because every swag is unique in shape and fullness, there is no hard and fast rule for drawing the bottom curve. However, the following guidelines and defaults should help you experiment for the finished look you want.


The rise is how far the curve rises from the longest point of the pattern to the outside edge.

If the rise is cut too high, the bottom fold of the swag will be too large and will hang down away from the swag instead of tucking in neatly. Cutting a rise 2-3" too high is a design option which you can use to highlight a trim or banding on the bottom of the last fold.

If the rise is but too low, the bottom fold will not be incomplete or very small looking in relation to the other folds on the swag.

For swags which are a perfect half circle (the length is 1/2 the width), the rise should be cut as 1/2 the finished length. If the swag is to be 16" long, the bottom curve should rise 8".

The rise is tied into the finished shape of the swag. If the swag shape is very wide and shallow, the bottom curve is gentle and arches gently up toward the board. Therefore, a lower rise should be cut in the pattern. If the swag is very long and narrow, the bottom curve is very pronounced. A higher rise should be cut into the pattern.

The book, The Professional Workroom Handbook of Swags, Volume 1, contains detailed instructions for troubleshooting the bottom curve of a swag. It also contains a table in the Appendices which calculates the proper rise for a swag based on its finished length and width. Using this table will eliminate the guesswork of cutting a proper rise.

Center Point:

The center point of the bottom curve works with the height of the rise to shape the last fold at the center of the swag. When drawing the pattern, the closer to the center point that the curve begins to rise, the more the last fold will hang downward at the center.The farther from the center point the curve begins to rise, the more that last fold will tuck up. This is a subtle difference, but helpful in drawing the final curve.

The finished width of the swag determines how much of the bottom curve remains flat before it begins to rise. The bottom curve should remain flat for 20% of the finished width of the swag. If the swag is to be 40" wide, the bottom curve must stay flat for 8" in the center. This gives the swag a nicely rounded look along the bottom curve.

If the flat section of the bottom curve is cut and inch or so wider than 20% of the finished width of the swag, the last fold will hang downward and be wider at the bottom, thereby showing off contrast banding or decorative trim.


If you cut the bottom curve with a rise that is 2-3" too high, and bring the bottom curve to a point in the center,this will result in a point in the center of the last fold of the swag from which a tassel can be hung. An informal and creative option to the tailored swag.


Once the bottom curve and rise have been established, you must draw a line to connect them. This line should have a very gentle curve with no obvious angles. If the curve is too pronounced, the last fold of the swag will swerve inward at the point it reaches the board. If cut too straight, the edge of the last fold will have an angular look.

When in doubt, draw the bottom curved line with an exaggerated curve. Once the pattern is pinned to the board, you can trim the curve to the shape you desire. If the curve is cut too straight, you cannot add to it.

For a pointed swag, you will want a rise of at least 1/6th. Draw a straight line from the center point to the rise.


Pattern sides:

Once the top width, pattern length and bottom curve have been drawn, simply draw a line from the edge of the top width to the end of the curve line for the swag sides.



The sides of the pattern are pleated to form the folds of a swag. Consider the following variations when marking a pattern:

The first pleat forms the picture on the swag:

A default of 5" will usually give a nice picture. The narrower the swag, the larger the picture a 5" pleat will make. The wider the swag, the smaller the picture.

For a larger picture, increase the first pleat in 1/2" increments until the desired picture is obtained. For a smaller picture, decrease the first pleat in 1/2" increments until the desired picture is obtained.

Always set the first pleat on your pattern first. Its size will determine how much fullness is left to distribute in the rest of the folds.

The last pleat forms the 'return' on the swag. Mark this at 4" from the bottom. After pleating the swag, you may wish to make this slightly larger or smaller to adjust the last fold.

The space between the first and last pleats are the folds for the swag.

Divide the space between the first and last pleats into even segments which are as close to 4.5" as possible. On most swags, it is important to keep all of the pleats equal in size.


The following pictures help to illustrate the relationship of the the number of pleats to the size of the picture frame. They are pictures of one swag, pleated two different ways. They are pleated to form a 35" wide swag with a 16" drop. However, the number of pleats and the size of the picture differ between them.

This swag was pleated with seven folds. This required making the picture frame relatively small, thereby compressing the picture. The result was a swag which was too busy looking. The same swag, pleated with six folds and a slightly larger picture frame looks much better. By reducing the number of folds by one, we still keep the rich fullness, but the swag does not look as busy.


This article was written to assist you in designing and building a truly custom swag. However, please understand that this is not an exact science. Fabricating custom swags is an art form. It requires patience and practice. The end result is always worth the effort.

For more detailed information on how to manipulate a swag pattern, consider ordering The Professional Workroom Handbook of Swags, Volume 1. The chapters on Options & Variables and Troubleshooting contain much more detail with pictures and diagrams on the information given in this article. They also have information on return options for swags and for reducing bulk at the pleat line. It is a valuable source of reference for new and veteran workrooms alike.


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