DIY Decorating on the Cheap, Zelda Fitzgerald Style

Happy nesting, if you’re the nesty type.
Publish date:
January 30, 2014

OK, so “Zelda Fitzgerald” and “living within one’s means” are not exactly synonymous, but by the time she advised her daughter on interior decorating, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s career had plummeted and the family had struggled through the Depression.

Besides, Scott was dead years before and Zelda had lived on a small, fixed income for quite some time. Zelda’s daughter Scottie married Lt. Samuel Jackson Lanahan in wartime, 1943, before completing her education at Vassar. When the war ended and Scottie settled down with her husband, Zelda offered advice on decorating. Scottie was like, "Yeah, right, mom, you’re a thousand years old now."

But I think Zelda’s advice was solid, and pretty easy to adapt to modern taste.

1) Avoid “imitation decorator’s items.”

Some people like to say, “You get what you pay for,” but I’m gonna go ahead and tell you that’s bull. In our consumerist economy, the price of things has little relationship to the quality. Don’t think that a $300 handbag is better than a $50 one by virtue of price, because they were made by the same exploited workers in the same far-off countries.

On the other hand, certain respectable retailers sell their wares at slightly higher prices than megastores like Target and Walmart, but for good reason. Take L.L. Bean for example -- they’re not the cheapest, but their prices are thoroughly reasonable considering both the quality of their items and the fact that they manufacture goods in the U.S. Their boots are East Coast essentials and ubiquitous in cold weather ’round these parts.

What Zelda means, I think, is that you shouldn’t bother with cheaply made trinkets sold at, say, Pier 1 or Pottery Barn or Crate & Barrel. Those places sell their wares at highly marked-up prices with no guarantee of quality. Especially decorative pillows. Do you even know how easy they are to make, guys? DO YOU? If you can cut a square of fabric and use an iron, you can make any kind of pillow you goddamn feel like. If you don’t want to sew, use something like Steam-a-Seam, which is like the duct-tape of sewing, only invisible. This tutorial shows you how.

Check for fabrics -- even if you buy silk, maybe a nicely texture Dupioni, you can make a pillow for $25. If you’re a little kitschy and bored by sedate color palettes, like me, you could make cotton pillows out of bright rainbow chevron or some cutesy print with foxes, maxing out around $10/pillow. If you want something more classic, try something called “ticking,” a canvas-y decor fabric also lovely for kitchen towels.

You could also make a cushy faux-fur rug on the cheap. Faux-fur fabric is usually 60” wide, so for a 3’ x 5’ area rug you can buy just one yard (36 inches) of fabric and some fray-stop glue, like Aleene’s or Helmar, to prevent the cut ends from unraveling for a fluffy, cozy accent under $30.

2) Gingham tablecloths and calico curtains.

These were the kinds of fabrics Zelda suggested for Scottie’s new home, and for good reason. Calico and gingham are both plain-weave cotton fabric, and differ only in prints. Gingham is a checked fabric, like Dorothy’s pinafore in "Wizard of Oz," and calico refers to basically any printed, woven 100 percent cotton fabric. Look at me in an adorable gingham dress:

Gingham’s not only cute as hell, it’s famously one of cheapest fabrics around, and that hasn’t changed since the 1940s. Most gingham is poly-cotton blend, because its predominant use is fitting test-garments. The poly-cotton stuff is super cheap, between $3 and $5 a yard. If you prefer, the 100% cotton kind is $8-$10 a yard. The amount of fabric you need for a tablecloth depends on the size of your table, obviously, but if you’re young and broke you probably don’t have a banquet table.

Depending on the length of your table, you need 2-4 yards. If you don’t have a sewing machine and can’t work a needle, use this amazing stuff called Steam-a-Seam 2 to hem the fabric and throw that puppy on your table.

Curtains can also be finished with Steam-a-Seam 2, saving you from actual sewing, and either in calico prints like Zelda said or even cheaper, muslin. Now, there is every print of calico in the world, and if you discover 1930s reproduction fabrics you might just die from the cuteness. My mom made this pouch for me out of 1930s repro, and I mean, these kittens:

Or, make your curtains out of quilter’s broadcloth in any color you like. But for minimal cost, you can make airy muslin curtains that let in soft daylight. Muslin’s another fabric popular for mock-up garments and very lightweight, so it’s inexpensive. Besides, all those pretty Regency-era dresses were muslin. You can do plain white or unbleached, one layer or two, and the stuff tops out at $4 a yard.

3) Dishes

After years of shopping for wedding gifts for this cousin or that one, I know lots of people commit to plain white dishes. What varies more than anything is the cost. Now, a set of mugs for $4 from the dollar store is not as well-glazed and chip-resistant as a slightly more expensive plate, but there’s no reason to pay $28 for the same number of mugs at Pottery Barn.

Feel free to buy the dollar store plates, though -- a few people seem to think they have more lead, somehow, but really they’re just slightly misshapen and might crack and chip easily. This isn’t too off-putting for me, because if I break one I can replace it painlessly. Besides, these black-and-white striped plates from Dollar Tree are so early-20th century!

Zelda herself recommended Fiesta-ware dishes in plain white. The company is still around, and their wares are good-quality, but still cost a little more than I’d like to pay. You can buy complete sets of dishes from Target, etc., for $50-60 bucks.

4) Cool it on the kitchenware.

Zelda warned Scottie, “Don’t buy all the spoons and sauce-pans which one always seems to need . . . They breed under the kitchen sink if left to themselves.” The kind of kitchenware you buy depends on how kitchen-y you are. Lodge, an American company, sells cast-iron cookware for straight-up ridic prices, given that cast iron will actually last you the rest of your life. A regular, good-sized cast-iron skillet from Lodge runs you under $20 dollars if bought on Amazon, but that skillet is your baby and requires more maintenance than other cookware.

Buy the best-quality saucepans you can afford, but don’t be fooled by celebrity names. On Amazon, an enameled cast-iron Dutch Oven by Lodge big enough to make mass quantities of soup costs less than $80 -- Le Creuset’s version is $275. I swear to you, the only differences are the name and price.

I come from a super-crafty family and am well-versed in the traditional wifely arts (one roommate called me “The Stoned Martha Stewart”), but even a helpless straight dude baffled by hair-braiding could successfully execute the rugs, pillow, and curtains with good results.

Happy nesting, if you’re the nesty type.