Christmas is on Friday. And I have a hunch that some of you might be in the midst of wrapping presents. Or, at least, starting to gather together the gifts that you’ve slipped into various sock drawers and cabinets and onto high closet shelves for safe- and secret-keeping. If you’re like me, you rely on a tried and true formula for gift wrapping. You know it well: kraft paper + festive and vaguely elfin woodland element + twine + luggage tag. As with many things, I blame my infatuation entirely on The Sound of Music—brown paper packages tied up with string, and all that jazz.
It’s a sweet formula because a little bit of woodland flair can make even an old pair of socks look charming without much effort. And in addition to offering a neutral-colored blank slate, as far as paper products go, a recycled roll of kraft paper is a relatively gentle environmental choice.
But even more environmentally friendly than heading to your local hardware store in search of kraft paper, is gathering materials closer to home. This year, in the weeks leading up to Christmas, I kept a small tote bag hanging in the closet and have put into all manner of paper and packaging that’s come into my house and that might be useful for wrapping gifts.
In case you’re needing inspiration, here are a few of my favorite wrapping supplies to save you from the cartoon Santas and goofy reindeer and to encourage a Christmas trash pile that’s a little smaller and a little gentler on the planet.
Paper’s perhaps the easiest material to gather second-hand from the recycle bin. I’ve been saving pretty sheets of newsprint and packing paper and grocery bags since Thanksgiving. When embracing the once-used approach, if you don’t worry about crumpled sheets or wrinkled corners, the happier you’ll be. (And I promise everyone will be too distracted by your spritely sprig of juniper to notice the wrinkles.)
Newspaper: You can wrap a present with any kind of newspaper page, but I like to save pages with pretty pictures, interesting graphics, or seasonable headlines. It’s admittedly a little nicer to wrap a present in a newspaper page with a photograph of blue sky than one portending environmental doom or reporting bloodshed. Because the ink rubs off of newsprint, use it for presents that are already boxed—nobody wants an ink-covered hand-towel, for instance. For smaller gifts, magazine pages work too, and their ink is less likely to rub off.
Grocery bags: We do our best to always bring our own basket or tote to the grocery store, but on the occasion that a paper bag does make its way into our apartment, I know it can be cut open and put to work as well as any roll of kraft paper. (Note: it’s helpful to use slightly heavier duty tape—like packing tape—when wrapping with thicker kraft paper.)
Maps: If you have an old map hanging around, it could make for an artistic bit of wrapping paper. Depending on the thickness of the map, you might need to use heavy-duty tape here, too.
Packing paper: I receive a fair amount of work-related packages and I’ve been saving the best bits from inside of them to repurpose for my own gifting needs: even if it’s been wrinkled in the mail, thick black paper makes a nice statement and Greenwrap Protective Paper has thankfully been making its way into packages lately instead of bubblewrap. I think it makes an artful gift wrap all by itself.
If used over and over again, cloth is perhaps the most environmentally friendly gift wrapping choice. In the form of drawstring bags, squares of cut up fabric for Furoshiki-style wrapping, or simple totes, you can put the same small collection to work year after year.
Drawstring Bags: I’ve mentioned before that I keep a stash of small cloth bags on hand for repurposing. They’re the perfect thing for wrapping tiny presents and can be used over and over without showing much sign of wear.
Furoshiki and Bento Wraps: The Japanese custom of wrapping gifts in square cloth is centuries old and as useful today as ever. I have a few squares of thin muslin that I keep on hand for wrapping up presents for James and Faye. (Unless the fabric is part of the gift itself—a bandana or a scarf, or instance—I try to use cloth for gifts for family members so that I’ll be able to save the fabric for use on another occasion after the presents have been unwrapped.
Canvas totes: I can’t remember the last time I bought a paper gift bag, but I do like to use plain canvas or muslin totes for wrangling harder-to-wrap items. If you’re looking for a plain tote, Muji sells them very affordably (and they’re sturdy enough to put to use at home—I use several of these bags to wrangle other bags in the closet).
At the risk of acting like the sales clerk in my very favorite scene of a favorite Christmas movie (“This is so much more than a bag…”) it’s nice to add a little something special to a plain brown paper package wrapped up in string.
String: I like to use plain hemp string or cotton twine to wrap my packages. If I keep the lengths long enough, I find I can reuse them over and over again, but if they get scooped up before I can gather them, the untreated string is recyclable and biodegradable. But there’s also a practical purpose: traditional wrapping paper is thin and creases easily making it great for wrapping boxes neatly. Using slightly more quirky materials can mean a package that needs a little more help staying wrapped. String helps!
Greenery: A snip of just about any kind of greenery will do for adding a wintry flourish, but I like to choose delicate greens with interesting pops of color when I can. A cinnamon stick or a glued-on bit of star anise make for a sweetly spiced gift. A bit of cedar berries or juniper adds a bit of understated color. Bonus points for tiny pinecones.
A brief and fascinating history of wrapping paper.
A helpful diagram of Furoshiki techniques from the Japanese Ministry of the Environment.