For years, Ivy Gilbert cringed at the pile of crumpled wrapping paper, bows, and ribbon in the middle of the living room after birthdays, Hanukkah, or other gift-giving occasions. All of it was destined for a landfill.
"There was just this bag of trash," said the writer and mother of two, who lives in South Philadelphia near the former Graduate Hospital. "It bothered me profoundly." In the United States, annual trash from gift wrap and shopping bags totals four million tons, according to RecycleWorks.
Gilbert, 45, wished she had an easy, reusable option, something that fit snugly and didn't require fancy knots. Neighbor and sculptor Sarah Peoples, 35, who encountered the same pile of paper waste every Christmas, used her sewing machine to concoct a cloth prototype. The two women saw the possibilities.
That was in 2008. Many attempts later (including ones that involved magnets, ribbons, and rubber bands to hold the cloth together), Wonderful Gift Wrap was ready for prime time. Launched this year to coincide with the holidays, the use-again-and-again square of polyester with an embedded, pull-through silicone disk gets rid of the paper waste and all the trimmings.
"You take three edges and feed them thru [the disk] and the edges become the bow," said Gilbert, demonstrating as she wrapped her husband's boxed iPad prettily in seconds.
"We see this," Peoples added, "as changing the face of gift wrap."
Fabric wraps have slowly built a following in recent years, especially among the crafty and those looking for a more eco-friendly way to give gifts without the aesthetic trade-off that comes, say, with reusing the comics pages. Besides Wonderful Gift Wrap (www.wonderfulgiftwrap.com), several other companies offer fabric wraps with creative designs and bold colors, including Chewing the Cud, BOBO Wrapping Scarf, and ellaWrap.
"It's a trend that is emerging," said Jenn Playford, founder of Furochic fabric wraps and author of the 2009 how-to book Wrapagami. "It's functional and practical, and it's fun to do. It looks beautiful, and you don't throw it away. It just makes sense."
Still, Playford doesn't expect paper, part of the $3.2 billion gift-wrap industry, to go the way of the incandescent lightbulb anytime soon. "I think there's a psychological barrier," she said, "where people think it looks hard to do."
Fabric also is often more expensive than paper, especially Dollar Store bargains. Furochic is among the lower-priced at $8 for a 27-by-27-inch cotton wrap. Wonderful Gift Wrap is $14 for the smallest size (big enough to cover a book) to $18 for the toaster-oven size. For now, it comes in two designs by Joy Deangdeelert Cho, she of the popular design, fashion, and food blog "Oh Joy!" Floralism is a print of bold orange, fuchsia, blue, and green mums, and Aqua Zaggle is a chevron pattern in blues.
Peoples said the product was positioned as a stylish way to present a special gift and was, in itself, a gift. "It's luxury wrap," she said, "when you want the outside to be just as grand as the inside."
The concept of fabric wrap is ancient, dating back centuries in Asia. Playford styled her product after the Japanese furoshiki, a square piece of cloth used to bundle belongings, gifts, or goods. Traditionally, furoshiki - it means bath spread - was used to carry clothes and toiletries to public bathhouses.
In more modern times, it still serves as a way to take lunch to work or school and to wrap gifts, often creating packages that look like art. In an environmental push, the Japanese government a few years ago issued a guide on how to wrap different gifts in cloth rather than paper.
Similarly, the traditional Korean wrapping scarf known as bojagi was widely used to transport goods, according to the BOBO website. The company has updated the concept with its gift-wrap scarves that come in a multitude of colors and textures.
"It's amazing how many things you can do with a square piece of fabric," Playford said.
According to the Sierra Club, if every family wrapped just three gifts in reused materials such as old maps, gift bags or cloth - the club suggests old bandannas or pillowcases - enough paper would be saved to cover 45,000 football fields.
Not all fabric wraps are equally green.
"There are all kinds of options," said Avital Andrews, a lifestyle editor for the organization's Sierra magazine. "The best ones are organic or locally made or made of recycled materials." Chewing the Cud, for one, uses organic cotton and soy-based inks for its wraps, though they are made in India.
While Wonderful Gift Wrap does not have those sustainable traits, largely because the financial numbers didn't add up, according to Gilbert and Peoples, the product is reusable. And if really reused enough times, it can benefit the environment just as well. "Whenever you buy anything," Andrews said, "whether it's sustainable or not, you want to take into account how much you're going to use it."
Customers of Wonderful Gift Wrap not only reuse the wraps for presents, but also repurpose them as chic carriers for jewelry, lingerie, or knickknacks. Gilbert's daughter uses them to dress her dolls.
"It lives on," said Donna Petrecco of Fallsington in Bucks County. "That was one of the main buying points for me." Petrecco has already used one of the five she purchased online to wrap a heavy Tom Ford coffee-table book. She said she had no worries that the wrap would tear, as she would have with paper, and the finished look was "really cool."
David Waxman of Fitler Square wrapped a present for his mother in Wonderful Gift Wrap. "For gift-wrapping-challenged men like myself, it's a real winner," he said, laughing.
It went over well with mom, too. Perhaps a little too well.
"She actually liked the gift wrap more than the gift," Waxman said. "It was a French press, too, which was a pretty nice gift."