gift wrapping alternatives.

December 21, 2015

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. recycled_gift_wrap_reading_my_tea_leaves_IMG_1877
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). recycled_gift_wrap_reading_my_tea_leaves_IMG_1882

Finishing Touches:

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.
I love the look of  tiny luggage tags, but a classic single-hole punch is a useful thing to have and can turn just about any kind of paper into a tag with just one punch.
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.

Other things:

A brief and fascinating history of wrapping paper.
A helpful diagram of Furoshiki techniques from the Japanese Ministry of the Environment.
Beautiful Furoshiki-style wrappings: here, here, and here.

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  • Reply Danielle December 21, 2015 at 9:14 am

    I like your suggestion about adding a little greenery. Usually, I have a little extra after shaping my tree.

  • Reply Stacie December 21, 2015 at 9:17 am

    I love these ideas! I have two daughters (4 & 5), so this year I bought Kraft paper and let them watercolor it to their hearts content. It has made such great wrapping paper!

    • Reply Erin Boyle December 21, 2015 at 9:35 am

      So great!

    • Reply Emilie December 23, 2015 at 9:13 am

      What a fun idea, Stacie! My kids are grown, but I can see us “doodling” with watercolors while talking and creating pretty paper!

  • Reply Katharine December 21, 2015 at 9:21 am

    I am such a fan of this! Nearly all of the presents I’m giving this year got wrapped in inside-out Trader Joe’s bags that a I reclaimed when a friend was going to toss them out. Tied up with a seasonally-colored string, they look nothing like grocery bags.

    My parents’ present, being rather large, got wrapped up in a pretty damask tablecloth and tied with a leftover bit of ribbon. And I keep a small stash of gift bags and tissue leftover from presents that other people have given me. Wrapping paper is so awkward to store in a small space, I much prefer not buying it at all!

    Also, did your parents train you not to rip wrapping and tissue paper when you were growing up so that it could be saved and reused? Because that was a thing that happened in my family, and I wouldn’t be surprised if yours was the same!

    • Reply Erin Boyle December 21, 2015 at 9:36 am

      We definitely did some paper saving, and there are boxes and bags that were used in our childhood that my mom still pulls every year!

  • Reply Mefi December 21, 2015 at 9:45 am

    I use kraft paper and twine with most of my wrapping. Will be adding newspaper and greenery too – thanks for the tip!

  • Reply Christine December 21, 2015 at 10:05 am

    My favorite is wrapping things in magazine pages! I always pull out my favorite fashion ads and then use gold washi tape–it always looks so much fancier than it is! On a similar note, I’ll use plain brown wrapping paper/old paper bags and “decorate” it aka draw random lines in gold Sharpie, and write who it belongs to in gold Sharpie! again: looks so much fancier and more expensive than it is!

  • Reply Rachel December 21, 2015 at 11:40 am

    We are great fans of newspaper and Kraft paper for giftwrapping too! Where do you get your luggage tags? I’ve been on the hunt for ages for ones just like those pictured in your photos, but to no avail. Help?!

    • Reply Erin Boyle December 21, 2015 at 11:43 am

      These are just from an office supply store! There’s a link in the story!

  • Reply Angela December 21, 2015 at 2:50 pm

    I have always loved this idea! Understated parchment and brown paper bag-wrapped gifts tend to stand out among the brighter, traditional wrapping papers. And you can never go wrong with re-using and using recyclable materials! I started saving my grocery paper bags a few months ago and also re-use gift bags that I have been given. I purchased some festive twine to spice up my gifts and hold them together! Can’t wait to get wrapping!

  • Reply Jason @ Havenly December 21, 2015 at 7:22 pm

    Soooo… Where do we signup to get a gift from you?

  • Reply Heather December 21, 2015 at 8:19 pm

    I like to buy secondhand, and several years ago I bought old Christmas tablecloths that I cut up and made into gift bags. We use them year after year under our own tree, and I just love them! The thick weight of them is perfect for concealing what’s inside. I also have a small collection of square silk scarves that we use furoshiki-style. None are strictly Christmas-y (though most are red), so they can be used all year. So no wrapping paper needed for the gifts under our tree. The gifts I sent out this year were wrapped a lot like yours, brown craft paper (some gather here and there, and some from a roll) tied up with string. I like red and white kitchen string. Tags were scavenged red cardstock or cut up old Christmas cards. Sometimes I miss picking out cute new wrapping paper, but mostly not. I like the challenge of being creative with what I have.

  • Reply lowolf December 22, 2015 at 1:04 pm

    Giving my roomie the gift of doing all her laundry…maybe i’ll find a nice linen bag in my stocking….

  • Reply Emilie December 23, 2015 at 9:26 am

    Oh Erin! Your gifts are so beautifully wrapped. Light bulbs are going off in my brain! Never thought to use material – such a good idea. For many years I used watercolor paper cut into the shape of medium size gift tags for family. I did an elementary mini, mini painting on the gift tag, of something in that person’s last 12 months . Made it a little more special.

  • Reply litterless December 23, 2015 at 9:08 pm

    These are gorgeous. Love sustainable options that don’t sacrifice style. And so much of this good stuff can go straight to the compost after!

  • Reply Joanna December 8, 2018 at 12:12 pm

    This could not be more beautiful. It is why I love seeing what you are doing.
    Classic and truly simple. I love it. Thank you Erin, as always.

  • Reply Kelly December 11, 2018 at 3:01 pm

    There’s one Talbot’s shirt box that has been used and re-used for gifts in the family since my dad was a kid. This year, because we’re traveling, I have some of those muslin bags you love packed, some festive washi tape for labeling, parchment paper to wrap food gifts, and some salvaged colorful tissue paper. (There’s a tin of cookies in my carry-on I’ll decant once I arrive). I even have some crinkly packing paper that I’m sure was meant to be easter grass, but I’ll use it to pad a tiny present. I’m sure greenery won’t survive the trip, but I’ll make some kraft snowflakes to tie on. They’ll pack flat in my suitcase no problem. If anyone gives me a present with a pretty ribbon, I actually use them as garland on our tiny rosemary tree. It’s nice to look at it and see memories of gifts past.

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