DIY: Staircase Storage Panels

I'm not sure if I've made the official blog announcement yet, but we've moved! We're still in Grand Cayman, but now we're living in a condo in the Seven Mile Beach zone along one of the canals. Although our view is no longer the gorgeous Caribbean Sea, we love our new location, which is closer to work, nearer to all of our friends, and just minutes away from almost every activity we do on this island.

One of the perks of the new place is we have a lot more storage space. As an American who grew up in homes with attics and basements and closets galore, I simply cannot put a high enough price tag on extra storage. We finally seem to have room to stash everything, which helps to keep our place looking a little less cluttered. However, one of the big "bonus" storage areas is under the staircase, which opens right out into our living room. Although I was pleased to have one more place for our various odds and ends, within about 24 hours of us moving into the condo, I was convinced that a troll had taken residence in the stairwell.

See what I mean?

This would never do. I can't live with a troll in my house! I mean, I already have a husband!

I kid.

I decided that the only thing to do was to buy/make fabric panels to conceal the useful but untidy staircase storage space. (Oh, that's fun tongue twister!) It seemed like a simple enough task. When I was young, my mom helped my sister and I to sew little projects all the time. I remember sewing myself a travel kit, a bathrobe, skirts, dresses, more handbags than I can count...  I loved it.  All that sewing history made me think, "Sewing up two straight panels? No big deal!"

However, most of my past projects involved a pattern, a luxury which I did not have going into this project, and surprisingly, Pinterest wasn't any help in finding one. But that wasn't enough to stop me.

In our most recent trip to the States, I found canvas fabric at Jo-Ann Fabric (one of my favorite stores of all time, I'll have you know) that seemed like it would do the trick. Canvas has a good weight to it without being an actual outdoor fabric, and I liked the neutral color so that the result could blend into the existing wall. I bought enough fabric to run the full length of the left side of the storage space (approx. 82" high), and then added another half length for the right (shorter) side of the space. All together, I purchased 4.25 yards of fabric for this project, which I figured would give me some extra fabric for calculation errors.

When I got back to Cayman and remeasured, I estimated the long panel (the left side) would be about 82" long, plus a 2" seam at the top (for grommets), plus a 6" rod pocket at the bottom for a wooden dowel (for added weight), plus a quarter inch seam allowance at either end, resulting in about 91" of length. The short panel (the right side) would be about 49" long, plus 2" at the top, plus 6" at the bottom, plus the quarter inch seam allowances, for a total of 57" in length. So 4.25 yards was just enough. 

Cutting the first panel from my 4+ yards of fabric made me pretty nervous! If there is one thing that we severely lack on this island, it's craft and sewing supplies. In my mind, if I made a fatal cutting error, I'd have to wait until my next Stateside trip to find more fabric for this project. So I measured and marked and pinned and hemmed and hawed for a while, and then finally started to cut.

Once the first panel had been cut, I had to hem the sides to correct the width. I knew that the total space I had to cover was about 80" wide, but I also anticipated some overlap of the panels in the end result. The staircase already had two large existing hooks which I planned to use for hanging, so I estimated the location of the top corner of my long panel by using the far left hook as the placement for the top grommet. I then measured from that position on the floor to where I wanted the panel to end (just before the second existing hook), and found it to be 42.25" wide (plus quarter inch seam allowances). I measured and pinned, and then sewed a side seam on the righthand side of the long panel. I'll admit that I cheated on this step, because I used one finished edge of my fabric as the lefthand "seam". The finished edge of canvas looks pretty good (as compared to a fabric like calico), and it saved me from measuring and pinning another 91" of fabric.

                      photo credit: NS on the iPhone 5
Yes, that's a starter sewing kit at the bottom of the photo.
My first sewing project in over a decade!!

The next part was going to be tricky. I needed to sew a diagonal line at the top of my panel that mimicked the angle of the staircase.  At first, I assumed that I was working with a 45 degree angle, and all I'd have to do is make a triangle in my panel by taking the top right corner and folding it down to the lefthand edge. But when I tried this and hung up the panel to eyeball it up, I could see that my rough 45 degree angle was not even with the staircase.

Since we've always lived in rentals over the past ten years of marriage, we're not the most well-equipped when it comes to handyman tools. In other words, I couldn't just run to N's tool chest, grab some kind of leveling tool, and measure away. No, I had to do something even easier. I had to run to N's iPhone, download the Angle Meter app by Jin Jeon, and measure away.

This handy app will instantly calculate the degree to which you've tilted the iPhone away from zero degrees (which is what you get when you hold the device perfectly upright.) Using this new-fangled technology, we measured the staircase angle to be 48.6 degrees. 

To transfer that information to my fabric panel (now laying on a flat surface), I downloaded the Handy Tool - Protractor app by ofijo on my iPod Touch. With this tool, I could set my desired angle, lock the angle, and then use this as a guide for my measuring and pinning.

Once I was satisfied with the angle, I sewed a seam 2" from the top folded edge of the panel, so that I'd have an adequate area to place the grommets before the seam.

Speaking of grommets, this step might have been the most stressful part of the project for me. If you live in the States (or anywhere outside of the Caribbean, for that matter), I suggest you go to Jo-Ann's or Michaels or even a hardware store to get the grommet kit you need for a project like this. Follow the directions, and a few taps of a hammer later, you'll have lovely metal eyelets ready for use.

It didn't work like that for me. I found the grommets that I wanted at Super Stitch (in Pasadora Place), but they didn't sell the installation kit there. Nor did anyone else on the island, evidently. But I was convinced that grommets were the way forward on these panels, so I had to think outside the box (or rather, think inside the toolbox) to accomplish this step.

First, I marked the placement of the top left grommet (on the long panel), after holding up the fabric to the wall and estimating where I wanted panel to hang. I also measured the distance from the bottom of the grommet to the floor to ensure I still had enough length for the dowel at the bottom.

This next step would be easier with an x-acto knife, but since I didn't own one, I just used scissors to cut a rough hole in the fabric big enough for the large section of the grommet to poke through.

I then put the grommet through the hole, with the grommet's finished edge on the right side of the fabric.

Then I slid the small section of the grommet over top of the large section, rounded side up.

This next step is where you need a grommet tool that is designed for your specific eyelet size in order to flatten the large grommet section over the smaller one. However, I had to improvise, so I used pliers to bend the edge down toward the small section.

Lovely. Juuuuust lovely.

For what it's worth, here are my recommendations:

1. Don't use this method. It's difficult, inaccurate, frustrating, and dangerous (creating sharp edges.)

2. If you must use this method, put a rag between the pliers and the right side of your fabric, because I've found that tools coming from a toolbox owned by a male can be a recipe for some interesting rust-marks on your fabric project.

3. Use a hammer to flatten the grommet as best as you can (on both sides) once you've used the pliers to bend the edges of the large section down toward the small section. I had to alternate between the two tools to secure each grommet firmly in place.

After installing a grommet on both ends of the long panel, I added a second hook to the wall so that the right grommet had something to hang on. The last thing to do was to sew a pocket at the very bottom of the panel for a 3/4" wooden dowel (used to weight the panel to keep it hanging straight.) I decided I wanted the panels to be 1.5" from the floor, so I hung the panel on the hooks and pinned along the bottom edge to ensure a straight hem. I then sewed a 2.25" seam at the bottom, creating a pocket that would allow the dowel to fit inside securely.

I then basically repeated the steps above for the second panel. The only major thing I needed to match was the angle of the top edge of the fabric. I figured the most sure-fire way would be to lay the new panel on top of the first panel and pin the angle of the top diagonal seam accordingly. 

Fast forward to the moment when those pesky grommets were in, dowels inserted, hooks installed, and panels hung. Viola! The troll and his clutter have disappeared!

A special thank you to KO for lending me her sewing machine for this project. I genuinely enjoyed every minute of the sewing experience!

But I could do without installing another grommet for a while.


  1. You are so innovative! I loved the help with the iPhone apps :) What a fantastic result! You are a regular DIY-er. ;)

  2. Just brilliant! The key to an organized and pleasantly clean house isn't having a lot of storage space, but actually compressing stuff neatly and making use of unutilized space creatively. You can even use the steps as shoe drawers.

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