life in a tiny apartment.

March 31, 2016

organizing linens in a tiny space | reading my tea leaves

Tip #137: Organize Your Linen Closet/Bag/Box

A few weeks ago I took a photo of my mostly empty closet shelves and posted it to Instagram with the caption that empty shelves and baskets look prettier than full ones. Because, well, it’s true. But I’m somewhat concerned that readers think that my closet shelves actually are empty; that I’d finally lost it and decided to carelessly throw my last set of sheets out of the top-floor window with a cackle and a cry, “Sweet Freedom!”

No, I haven’t opted instead to sleep on a bare pallet on the floor for sake of Mother Minimalism. Sorry to disappoint. And I don’t live in a house where keeping a spacious, Spartan linen closet is entirely possible, even if the collection itself is modest. You might not either.

But we do live in a world where images of styled spaces show us light and bright and just one white towel hanging daintily on the hook. So, while I’m the first to advocate an approach that means you aren’t cramming your closets full of stuff you don’t use,  and while I’d never disparage the god or goddess who manages to keep an utterly pristine closet, I also want to paint a realistic portrait. 

Sheets and napkins and toilet paper gotta go somewhere and the spaces we have for them is often small (in any size home). To note: When I took these shots, we were out of toilet paper, slobs that we are. The rolls usually go up there next to the towels. And, of course, I straightened the shelves before I took the pictures. And fine, maybe I moved a brightly colored dish towel that was throwing off the look. And yes, we’ve recently divested ourselves of a gigantic pile of cloth diapers thanks to the magic of potty training. And yes, that’s freed up a whole lot of space. And yes, some of our linens are in use: in the bathroom, in the hamper, …on the floor. You get it.

But even if the reality is that things are a little cramped and pillowcases get a little topsy-turvy in the space of a week, it’s nice to feel inspired by a fresh space and it is possible to stay organized even without the spacious closet shelves of dreams. Here are a few tips for keeping linens manageable in whatever kind of space you have:organizing linens in a small space | reading my tea leaves

+ Be particular about your folds.

I grew up in a house where my parents had specific instructions on how we were supposed to fold laundry, and with the linens, the guidelines were especially clear. Growing up in an old, old house, closet space was limited and our linen closet looked like a tightly packed (very neat) can of sardines. My mom was a big fan of the tri-fold, wherein towels and pillowcases were folded into neat rectangles after being folding into thirds. Whatever kind of fold you choose, keep it consistent. This is the first place I’ve lived in with a more-or-less dedicated linen closet. But neatly folded linens have helped me stay sane in every apartment I’ve lived in. Most linens are made in relatively uniform sizes, so use the uniformity to your advantage and fold everything the same way. It’ll make for neater piles, or stacks, or rolls, or whatever you decide fits best in your space.
organizing linens in a small space | reading my tea leaves+ Keep like with like.

Sometimes there’s simply no closet to speak of. Before we moved into our current apartment, James and I shared one tiny closet under our stairs and there wasn’t room for linens in it. We had to divide things up: sheets lived in a bag under our bed; towels lived in a basket, hand towels lived permanently on hooks in the bathroom. The only spot for the huge stack of cloth diapers we had would have been strung from the ceiling like prayer flags. Even if space dictates that not all of your linens can live side-by-side, try to keep like things with like things and work with what you have. Your sheets might be able to all hang out together even if they can’t also co-habitate with your towels. I recently started tucking sheet sets into their matching pillowcases, envelope-style, to keep things organized. GAME CHANGER. I was forever searching for matching sets in a closet of white sheets, and the sheets themselves would get messy in the process. No longer. 
organizing linens in a small space | reading my tea leaves+ Create enclosures.

Some people are really good at keeping extremely neat piles. (My mom.) Other people are a little less good at this. (Me.) Other people are downright terrible at it (Naming no names, but you know who you are.) If it would help you to keep things organized, separate your space a bit. I use a basket to keep napkins in one neat spot. I tuck little-used but still-loved tablecloths into a small linen bag for safe-keeping. I dump all of my rags, unfolded, into a bag made from an old pillowcase (above). I tuck the bag of rags into another basket, and call that neat-enough. organizing linens in a small space | reading my tea leaves

+ Play around with it.

I’m not really in the camp of organize once and live happily ever after. Maybe it’s that I only get my sparks of genius in fits and starts, but I think that finding the best way to organize a closet, or cabinet, or drawer happens overtime. It requires some amount of regular maintenance and patience and yes, even, getting so flustered that you take everything out of the closet, admire the bare shelves, and start over again. Plus: time changes things. One week you have a gigantic pile of diapers, the next week you don’t. Roll with it and develop a new system when you need it.organizing linens in a small space | reading my tea leaves
What about you guys? Genius tricks for keeping control of your linen cabinet?

For the curious:
+ My various metal baskets have been gathered over the years. What you see here have been available at various times from Kaufmann Mercantile, West Elm, and Brook Farm General Store. Similar baskets can be found in home stores all over tarnation.
+ Bottles and pitchers and other miscellany are all vintage.
+ We’ve recently achieved small apartment Nirvana and currently have nothing stored under our bed. We use our fabric under-the-bed-storage bag from Muji in our closet for stowing maternity and baby clothes, swaddles and wraps and other things for someday.
+ James and I just upgraded our bed situation. After ten years of sleeping on a double mattress, we’ve made the leap to a Queen, which prompted a fall down the rabbit hole of bed and bedding options. More on all of that to come soon.

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  • Reply Lydia @ lupinelydia March 31, 2016 at 9:12 am

    oh. my. gosh! my mom trained me in the way of the fold as well! we kept dishcloths and dishtowels in drawers, beach towels in closets, bath towels under the vanity, etc. and every single thing needed a different fold to fit perfectly in its space with maximum efficiency! also – keeping the sheets inside their pillowcases???? genius!!!!! my mind is blown, seriously.

    • Reply Erin Boyle March 31, 2016 at 9:20 am

      ha, exactly. i rolled my eyes then! but the pillowcase trick is new territory. so good for our space!

  • Reply first milk March 31, 2016 at 10:04 am


  • Reply Anna March 31, 2016 at 10:27 am

    I have tried time and time again to learn how to neatly fold a fitted sheet and I CANNOT figure it out. I’ve even watched those YouTube tutorials! Putting the sheets into a pillowcase and folding it could be a total game changer for me as well!

  • Reply Anna Kristina March 31, 2016 at 11:13 am

    We folded our towels in fifths (fold in half, leaving 1/5 of the towel showing on one side, then fold in thirds). I thought that was just how everyone folded towels until I got married, and realized the fold was to fit my parents’ linen closet. I now fold towels differently to fit a new linen closet. And I’m now motivated to take a fresh look at said linen closet!

  • Reply Sydni March 31, 2016 at 11:13 am

    Thank you for being realistic and knowing that everyone doesn’t have tons of storage space! I think it’s better that way because it motivates you to only keep what you really need. Recently discarded a decent amount of linens and our closet is SO much happier now 🙂

  • Reply Research Warrior March 31, 2016 at 11:44 am

    The sheets inside their pillowcases tip really is inspiring – but how do you get the fitted sheet in there? I keep reading/watching tutorials on how to neatly overcome the elastic edge but I usually end up just balling it up in some semblance of folded and hiding sheets towards the back…

  • Reply lauren March 31, 2016 at 11:52 am

    Got such a kick out of this line here: The only spot for the huge stack of cloth diapers we had would have been strung from the ceiling like prayer flags.


  • Reply Nancy March 31, 2016 at 12:12 pm

    I’m curious about your potty training method – I have a daughter two weeks younger than Faye and we are gradually moving away from diapers. Any tips?

    • Reply Erin Boyle March 31, 2016 at 12:24 pm

      We went a quick and dirty route, pretty much cold turkey, although Faye had lots of diaper-free time for the past year or so. We use training pants (the cottons ones by Gerber) that have been great! It’s going pretty well but it’s always going to be a little topsy turvy! Dry undies the past three nights, but pee in the sandbox this morning! Whatchagonnado?!

      • Reply Nancy March 31, 2016 at 11:58 pm

        Ok I’d love a baby proof post on this, because I feel like it is such a daunting endeavor, but in the meantime — what do you do when you go out? Do you bring a mini potty everywhere you go!? I like minimize what I cart around but I don’t know how to get by that one. Just one of the many logistical issues I haven’t quite figured out…

        • Reply Joyce April 1, 2016 at 3:24 pm

          When we were potty training we kept the going out to a minimum. Potty before you leave , when you get there , and don’t study long.

          • Erin Boyle April 4, 2016 at 9:13 am

            Same! And sometimes your kid will pee on the floor of the MoMA! Take it in stride!

  • Reply Lexie March 31, 2016 at 12:14 pm

    Do you feel pressure to post images that are totally styled even to your instagram? Perhaps sharing some of the “before” shots would help your readers relate a bit better?

    • Reply Erin Boyle March 31, 2016 at 12:22 pm

      Nope! But I definitely like to post what catches my eye as the prettiest. The empty shelves appealed to me in a way that the full ones didn’t, so I took a photo of that! I think that’s relatable for a lot of people!

      • Reply Lexie April 1, 2016 at 12:01 pm

        Interesting reply given that there has been increase in sharing about transparency on life “behind the Instagram.” Not trying to be critical, just wanted to throw out a suggestion — sometimes it’s helpful to see the whole picture, not just the final product.

        • Reply Erin Boyle April 1, 2016 at 12:04 pm

          I get that, I really do. But I’m just not interested in sharing all of the messy stuff. Some messes are sacred. Just for me.

  • Reply Rachel March 31, 2016 at 12:19 pm

    I’m curious what you did with all those stacks of cloth diapers. I also wonder how you decide what functional baby items (like cloth diapers, or a baby-size snow-suit, etc.) to save and what to purchase or borrow again.

    • Reply Erin Boyle March 31, 2016 at 12:27 pm

      We used a diaper service so they’re all back there getting laundered and ready to go home with someone else! I’ve saved what I really loved and what was super useful, and passed along everything else!

  • Reply Samantha March 31, 2016 at 12:42 pm

    You’re linen closet is the stuff of dreams, now if only I could get my husband to appreciate a tidy closet as well

  • Reply Lauren @ Lauren, Etc. March 31, 2016 at 12:53 pm

    In my last apartment, we didn’t have a linen closet so all the extras had to find a home closer to where they were used. Toilet paper, towels, and wash cloths were kept in the vanities of each bathroom. Dish towels, cloth napkins, and cleaning supplies were kept in the kitchen. We also don’t have any extra sheet sets. Each bed get is laundered and remade once a week. Somehow that system has worked for me since I was in 7th grade so it translated into adulthood. The twins each have an extra fitted sheet & waterproof mattress cover. We keep the crib mattress doubled up (liner, sheet, liner, sheet) in the event of a blow out. That way we can just strip off the dirty and clean sheet & liner are underneath!

  • Reply Kari.M March 31, 2016 at 1:39 pm

    We live in a small, old house which has only two closets. So space is much too valuable to waste on linens. Everything is kept in the room in which it’s used. And we have only one set of sheets per bed and one set of towels per person. Everything is washed and then put right back into use again. So the only extra set of towels and sheets is for guests.

  • Reply Tonya March 31, 2016 at 2:42 pm

    I wash the sheets and put them back on the bed straight from the dryer. We do keep a few old sheets and pillowcases for trips to the cabin but keeping one good set per bed helps cut down on things.

    • Reply Erin Boyle March 31, 2016 at 2:47 pm

      Ah, yes. The realities of baby + no washer and dryer have meant that multiple sets of sheets is a new and wonderful luxury for us.

  • Reply Erin March 31, 2016 at 3:41 pm

    Looking forward to hearing about what bed you chose and why! We are considering upgrading to a king and looking at tuft & needle (so affordable! ships in a box?!), after 11+ years on a queen. It’s enough space for me and my husband, but we sort of co-sleep with our 20 month old… which means we each get 6 inches at the edge–if we’re lucky!

    • Reply Erin Boyle March 31, 2016 at 3:50 pm

      We’re going to give the full report…just wanna test ‘er out for a while first 😉 Hear you on the “and then there were three” front, for sure!

      • Reply teegan March 31, 2016 at 7:53 pm

        Count me in on the curious-about-the-bed group! Baby #2 is turning a year soon and moving out of our room, and we’re looking to upgrade the bed hubby had before we met(!) from double to a nice queen/king, but we’re still on the fence over which size we need. He wants a king; I worry that when we move out of this home, we may not have quite so large a bedroom to accommodate it!

  • Reply Susan S March 31, 2016 at 3:45 pm

    I, too, enjoyed this post and feel the urge to sort my linen storage right away! Also, I was wondering if you would share the source of your lovely apron…?

    • Reply Erin Boyle March 31, 2016 at 3:49 pm

      Oh, sure! The apron was a gift to me from a former boss. It’s from Rough Linen.

  • Reply Mun March 31, 2016 at 4:17 pm

    I dream of a neat linen closet but it hasn’t been very successful for me as I tend to not iron any linen and fold everything in a rush. Next time I think I just have to embrace the process.

  • Reply Stacy March 31, 2016 at 7:15 pm

    Great timing. I’ve been itching to do something about our linen closet as well. Because its the same space we’re forced to keep the kitty litter box in as well, the door has to be left ajar for her to get in and out, so seeing an ugly mess is not fun. It’s certainly a process, as this particular closet has become a dumping grounds. This post has definitely inspired me to take a deep breath and find something that works for us, and looks good! PS My mom taught me to fold towels the same way, but a certain male that I share the house with just folds them in messy quarters and shoves them on a shelf. It pains me, and I end up refolding them all 😉

  • Reply Rebekah April 1, 2016 at 10:25 am

    Folding is everything.

  • Reply Emilie April 1, 2016 at 2:21 pm

    Two tips from my mother-in-law that helped me keep order in a house full of kids: I put labels on the designated space in the linen closet for “twin fitted”, “twin flat”, etc. and helped the kids know where to return folded sheets after laundering. [I’ve always had a couple extra sheet sets because we have lots of nieces/nephews in town who came for ‘sleepovers’ on weekends!] Another life saver – we got blue towels for our wedding, and so each child got a blue towel *with his/her monogram on it* when they were old enough to have one. Since they all shared a bathroom, this kept everyone knowing whose was whose; helped me know who to talk to when a towel somehow “walked” somewhere it wasn’t supposed to be, and I know it cut down on laundry. First child is now married and son-in-law’s monogrammed towel is in the linen closet!

  • Reply Kira April 1, 2016 at 3:22 pm

    Folding is such a big part of my life! We make do with no linen closet and our open shelves’ success relies on said fold! Also, there’s something meditative for me about folding our towels perfectly 😉

  • Reply Joyce April 1, 2016 at 3:29 pm

    I loved this post. Tips are always helpful. We will be moving to a smaller house in a few years so the Decluttering has begun. I love seeing my closets with less in them.

  • Reply Miina April 2, 2016 at 8:44 am

    Big yes on folding and keeping things not where they should be by popular opinion, but instead of keeping them where it works.
    I keep my dish towels in the drawer in the kitchen, because there’s more room than in the line drawer (yes, one! drawer for all the linen, though it’s big). Everything that doesn’t fit in the drawer, has to go.

  • Reply Charlotte April 3, 2016 at 9:50 am

    Just ordered my pinafore in indigo. Thanks Erin! Love your blog, Instagram and book. I am a devotee!

  • Reply MissEm April 3, 2016 at 10:33 pm

    Nothing under the bed?! I really need to go through everything and get back to minimalism! Looking forward to when Faye is older and you have good ideas for dealing with all the stuff kids get from everywhere and everyone and get attached to. That’s our storage suck, even when we get rid of a lot of it.

  • Reply Adie April 4, 2016 at 5:00 pm

    Loved your remark: “the huge stack of cloth diapers we had would have been strung from the ceiling like prayer flags”. Reminds me of my mother-in-law, who, a long time ago, washed the diapers and hung them on the clothesline to dry. She called that The Flag of Our Union. It took me a while to catch on ;;

    • Reply Erin Boyle April 4, 2016 at 5:03 pm


  • Reply Bryan April 4, 2016 at 10:48 pm

    I have to tell you Erin, I love your writing style and wish I could take photos like you. Nice Job!

  • Reply Océanne September 16, 2016 at 8:52 am

    Hi Erin,

    J’aimerai savoir sur quel site je pourrais trouver une housse de rangement comme la votre ? Car sur le site indiqué dans votre article elle n’est plus disponible. Et si possible un site sur lequel je pourrais acheter en Europe.
    Merci pour votre aide.

    Bonne continuation, votre travail est formidable !

    • Reply Erin Boyle September 16, 2016 at 9:38 am

      La housse en tissu? Ca vient de MUJI!

  • Reply emily December 22, 2016 at 3:51 pm

    where are those baskets from? they are stunning!

  • Reply Kim April 18, 2019 at 12:42 pm

    I just found myself here again, following the link from your post today. I realized that since reading your piece, I have been storing my rags (under the kitchen sink….also in the tiny apartment life) in a worn pillowcase for years, inspiring by this piece! So, thank you for tips big and small.

  • Reply kimmy kervel January 28, 2021 at 3:45 am

    This is mind blowing thanks for sharing this precious information with us, this help me a lot

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