Fifteen years ago, Gal Rozov was so fed up with failing to meet his wife’s high standards for laundry folding that he decided a different approach was required. He was not adept at doing the dishes either, he reasoned, but he did know how to load and unload the dishwasher. What if he could deal with clothing the same way? Nine prototypes later, his FoldiMate – simply feed in T-shirts, towels, trousers and shirts before collecting them, folded, from a drawer – is nearly ready for market. That the FoldiMate is expected to retail for about $1,000 (about Dh3,670) and tens of thousands of people have registered interest says a lot about how neat folds are now prized. But why?
YouTube is awash with videos of people showcasing innovative ways to fold everything from socks to motorbike covers; a guide to 10 folding life hacks has almost a million views, and a simple demonstration of how to fold a fitted sheet has accrued more than 20m. In the past few years, the neatly folded closet drawer has become an Instagram staple, while Marie Kondo’s books on decluttering – in which folding is systematised to the extent that any item can be reshaped into ‘a smooth rectangle’ – have sold more than 11m copies in 40 countries. The video for her basic folding method has amassed 8.1m views on YouTube.
Folding is upheld as a way to grapple with a chaotic world and to triumph. Even the most wilful, irregular challenges – the fitted sheets of our lives – can be brought into the calm of a uniform shape. But can reformatting the wardrobe, or even just the sock drawer, really make life more ordered?
‘We project our identity on to other environments. Outer order does contribute to inner calm,’ says Gretchen Rubin, whose new book on this subject was published recently. Kate Ibbotson, a spokesperson for the Association of Professional Declutterers and Organisers, says she is proof of this idea because she embarked on a mammoth declutter that ended with her casting aside her job as a probation officer and taking up professional decluttering instead. Still, I worry that decluttering and cleaning and folding can sometimes be a way to dupe ourselves with a metaphor for order. But Rubin thinks that even if this is true, the association is powerful enough to make a difference.
‘[The idea that] getting control of your shirts gives you control may be an illusion, but it is an illusion that makes us more likely to turn outward and engage with the world. When we feel good about what we see, we feel better about ourselves,’ she says. Rubin eschews Kondo and ‘folds things the ordinary way ... Flip flip flip.’
An ordered closet can obviously help you find your clothes more easily, make space and save time. And, as Toyoko Kawai, a former tutor in kimono dressing and folding from Kyoto, points out in an email, it reduces creasing. But it can also ‘help your brain chemistry’, according to Linda Blair, a chartered psychologist with the British Psychological Society. ‘When you have an ability to predict where you are going to pick up underwear, where you’ll pick up your tights, the cortex – which is always planning, always predicting – can relax a bit. Your cortisol levels go down. You get processing space and you get psychological relief through the stress hormones going down.’
This sounds reasonable, but surely tidying could provide this benefit without the need for obsessive folding? There must be benefits and pleasures specific to the act of folding, which psychology cannot measure. In design, folding reaches well beyond laundry. The fold is the frontier at which Samsung’s and Huawei’s latest smartphones meet, while fashion designers such as Jacquemus and Calvin Klein have recently explored the technique with dresses and tops that fold into skirts, sleeves that switch back and rollnecks that roll.
Folding is a way to repurpose pre-existing materials to alter the form of things. And while performing acts of modest origami on my own clothes – for I have Kondoed my drawers in the name of research – has not made getting dressed any easier, as Rubin believes, I have found a quiet delight in seeing familiar (and slightly disappointing) clothes rendered unrecognisably pristine.
‘For many years, I’ve seen this growing and growing,’ says Paul Jackson, author of Folding Techniques for Designers, who teaches folding to students. ‘It’s an interest in manipulating, in touching, in re-forming. That’s what folding does. Most things that we do, we add things. This phone I’m holding is 500 pieces put together,’ he says. ‘If you are folding, you are not adding things,’ he says. ‘You are transforming.’
Rozov, whose FoldiMate can process 25 items in less than five minutes, thinks that folding ‘is a chore that the majority of people dislike’. Neither he nor Pieter Abeel, a roboticist at the University of California who spent three years building a robot to fold towels and socks, can recall encountering anyone who tried to persuade them that folding was pleasurable and should be left to humans. But listening to Jackson, who used to be such a passionate folder that he even did origami on his sandwich bags, I am not so sure.
‘When you are folding, there is no third party. It’s a direct physical contact between you and the paper, you and the fabric,’ he says. ‘I have found over the years that there is a lot of meaning in that for people. When I fold, I am in control.’
Debbee Barker agrees. Nearly 20 years ago she invented the FlipFold – a template tool that produces, with a few deft moves, folded garments. She never used to like folding, and neither did her kids; she got the idea for the FlipFold from a cardboard-and-tape version she made in her garage to encourage her girls to help with the chores. ‘In five seconds, you can get a good result. How many things can you take five seconds and get a good result?’ she says. When she opens her drawers, she finds peace.
‘This has always been big in Japan, to turn small everyday tasks into a skill or a small art form,’ says Fabio Gygi, a member of the Japan Research Centre at Soas who wrote his PhD on hoarding and decluttering in Japan. ‘On variety shows, people demonstrate how to get undressed in the quickest way possible, how to fold ... People devise standardised patterns of movement. It is considered a skill.’
The act of folding can be surprising – it is not always possible to prefigure the end result. ‘It’s the process,’ Jackson elaborates. ‘When your fingers are dancing with [origami] paper, there are some beautiful moments.’ He gives the example of the traditional Japanese crane: ‘You have this closed-up, tight, two-dimensional flat bird. Then you put your thumbs into the body and snap the wings open – it’s such a beautiful thing to do.’ I try not to imagine what the inside of Jackson’s closet looks like, but in any case, he intercepts the reverie to say he spends so much time professionally folding that, at the end of the day, he just slings all his clothes in the drawer.
When we fold clothes, the reverse of his Japanese crane takes place: challenging three-dimensional items are reworked into flat, boring packages. However creative the process, the result is minimalist.
Maybe, in an age of conscious consumerism, folding offers us a new relationship with our possessions. As Marcos Chin, an illustrator who used to give folding seminars at Gap in Toronto in the late 1990s, says: ‘We are living in a time when we are consuming so much. It can feel overwhelming.’ Ten years ago he was interviewed by the Wall Street Journal for an article on obsessive folders. He moved away from folding for a while, but has returned to it, having ‘let go of a lot of stuff. I think a lot of what you are seeing folds in to us,’ he says. ‘Acting locally within your own space can really affect the way you behave as you move through the world.’
Rubin has three empty shelves in her home; Chin has one in the closet. It makes Chin more mindful about adding to his possessions. To Rubin, hers suggest ‘room to grow, room to breathe ... They are the luxury of beautiful emptiness,’ she says, which makes an absence of possessions sound incredibly expensive.
Folding offers a means to both appreciate the goods we own, and to re-cast them as new. It is beneficial to the environment to buy less stuff, but folding makes it possible to transpose the feel of the shop floor to the bedroom, to provide the illusion of retail therapy. This might be a route out of acquisitiveness – but I can’t help thinking there is a consumerist impulse behind it, a funny sort of reverse consumerism, in which the real prize is to reclaim the space that purchases once occupied.
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