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What a wrapper!

Janet Smith knows all the angles in making challenging gifts gorgeous. She proved it to a panel of judges with $10,000 to award.

Janet Smith with several finished gifts and a hockey stick. To disguise it, she needed - but didn't have - cardboard. "Frankly, I don't think it's always important to disguise a gift," says the expert gift wrapper.
Janet Smith with several finished gifts and a hockey stick. To disguise it, she needed - but didn't have - cardboard. "Frankly, I don't think it's always important to disguise a gift," says the expert gift wrapper.Read moreGERALD S. WILLIAMS / Inquirer Staff Photographer

How's that holiday shopping coming along?

Got the Easy-Bake oven for Johnny, the football jersey for Jane? And more to the point, have you figured out how to wrap them?

Not to worry. We have tips from Janet Smith of Willow Grove who won $10,000 last week and the title "Most Gifted Wrapper" in a national contest sponsored by 3M, the company that makes Scotch brand cellophane tape.

In the contest, held Friday in New York's Rockefeller Center, Smith, 65, was pitted against a mix of six professional and amateur contestants from other states in a battle to wrap a set of ice skates, a snowboard complete with boots and bindings, and then an eight-foot-long 2008 Yamaha Phazer snowmobile.

Contestants had to work outside the box, so to speak - none were provided. But Scotch provided plenty of paper, cutters, pre-made bows and wristband tape dispensers.

Smith won by being better and faster than the others - and she wowed the judges by making her own bows.

A widow and a grandmother-to-be, Smith has 18 years in as a gift wrapper at the Bloomingdale's store near her home.

She entered the contest as an individual, not a representative of the store. But her friends from work are like family, Smith said, so she called them first with the good news.

"I'm happy for everybody that supported me," she said. "Now I can go back and say without your support I couldn't have done it."

Angela Pompilii, a colleague who nominated Smith for the contest, received $1,000 from Scotch for her effort.

Years ago, Smith taught Pompilii, now in customer service, how to wrap gifts.

"And she was so nice about it," Pompilii said. "She never made me feel like an idiot, and that's what I wrote in my nominating letter."

"There was never a doubt in my mind," Pompilii said. "I knew she would win."

However, we skeptics here at The Inquirer were not so sure Smith would be a shoo-in.

So, days before the Scotch contest, we presented Smith with a challenge of our own: wrap four items with differing degrees of difficulty - at home, without boxes.

We showed up at Smith's front door with a small stuffed elephant, a wine bottle, a hockey stick and a large animal skull with pointed horns and a movable jaw.

"That skull was the biggest challenge," Smith said after her win. "It really helped prepare me."

Janet Smith went to work at Bloomingdale's in 1972, when the company opened a store on Old York Road in Jenkintown. She worked part time at first, three nights a week and all day Saturday, and stopped for a time when her son was born. She wrote on her job application that she enjoyed craft projects.

"So they put me in gift wrap, and here I am still. I really enjoy it," Smith said.

At her work station, in a quiet corner of the store's third floor, Smith has easy access to bright-colored paper and lots of ribbon in coordinating colors.

At home, she works with paper she bought at the local Dollar Store while two perky Pomeranians circle at her feet and jealously guard her glue gun.

In the weeks before the contest, Smith practiced every night at the dining room table.

She made a borrowed basketball look like giant hard candy and a football resemble a pineapple.

Ice skates? She made red cardboard slips to protect the blades and put the skates in a cellophane tote with red rope handles.

She made quick work of our stuffed elephant and wrapped the wine bottle to resemble a firecracker. Then she faced the hockey stick.

"I'll tell you," Smith said, "I could easily wrap it so it's covered, but it will still look like a hockey stick.

"Frankly, I don't think it's always important to disguise a gift," she said sagely. "But if that's what you have in mind, I'd need cardboard and I don't have any on hand."

She would have made a boxlike frame from the cardboard to disguise the shape of the gift (ditto for wrapping umbrellas and golf clubs). But we let her off the hook because we had something scarier: the animal skull.

"This is my challenge for the day," Smith said. "If I can do this, I can do the snowmobile."

She focused first on the head and later the horns.

Her hands seemed to shake as she draped a roll of shiny green paper over the skull to measure the amount she'd need. The skull was sharp in so many places, Smith worried about tearing the paper.

But she managed to avoid that pitfall and began work on the horns, which are removable. She could have wrapped the horns separately and just tied them loosely to the skull, but Smith went for the full effect.

She wrapped each horn, leaving enough ribbon at the ends so she could reattach them to the skull, and then decorated the whole things with color-coordinated ribbon.

"Whew," she said, standing back to admire her finished work.

Of course, our contest had no prize. And Smith insisted ahead of time that she wasn't entering the Scotch contest for the money.

"I want to help a couple people I know out who are having hard times," she said Friday after winning. "And maybe put a fence in my yard for the dog."

Wrapping Like a Pro

Here are some wrapping tips from Janet Smith:

Measure the right amount of paper before you cut it off the roll.

As you cover the object, use your fingers to make firm creases at the sides. Clip excess paper from the edges for a cleaner look, even without a box.

Practice the "seamless wrap," in which the paper meets itself at the edge, not in the middle of the object. That makes the gift look great from top or bottom.

Don't leave all your gift wrapping until the last minute. Give yourself time to figure out what supplies you need and assemble them in one place.

Use cardboard mailing tubes or bare gift-wrap rolls to disguise umbrellas or golf clubs.

Use clear or opaque cellophane wrapping paper. It's stronger than tissue paper and provides more flexibility than regular paper.

Shop for wide ribbon with wire hidden in the edges.

Many wrappers start out with the ribbon on the bottom side of the item, making a T there, and then wrapping the ribbon around to the front.

But Smith says that makes for an unnecessary bulge on the bottom and the package won't sit flat. Instead, she makes the T on the front side and builds the bow from that point.

Fold fresh ribbon in loops in your palm and staple in the center. But don't cut off the excess yet.

Using the long ends of the folded ribbon, tie it to the T on the package. Finally, use sharp scissors to cut a V into the ends for a professional look.

Shop for holiday doodads that can be slipped into the center of a ribbon or pinned to the front of a box for a finished appearance.

Don't be afraid to reuse paper from gifts you've received. Press out creases with a light touch of the iron.

- Dianna Marder


Watch Janet Smith tackle a difficult present and get some gift ideas too at