I travel light; as light, that is, as a man can travel who will still carry his body around because of its sentimental value.

Christopher Fry

How To Pack It

Packing Clothes

Although perhaps somewhat more relevant to business than vacation travel, most of us do not want to spend our days looking like an untidy mess. Thus a natural concern is how to arrive at our destination(s) with our packed clothing in a fairly pristine state, with unwrinkled garments that have creases only where we want them.

Folds, Creases, & Wrinkles

Some of this will be determined by the clothing fabrics themselves: natural materials acquire and retain creases much more readily than synthetic ones. But the way in which clothing is packed also plays a considerable role in the outcome.

Creases result from applying pressure to folds. If you wrap a piece of paper around a cylinder, it will be easy to straighten again. If, instead, you make a fold in the paper, straightening it will be more difficult. If you apply pressure along the fold, the crease will be even more pronounced. Clothing is no different. And when clothes are packed in luggage, it's not practical to avoid applying pressure.

Wrinkles are essentially tiny folds that most often result from garments moving against each other and adjoining surfaces. And once again, pressure exacerbates the problem.

stack of folded shirtsThe common practice of individually folding items of clothing, then stacking them atop one another (as shown at right), is just about the worst thing you can do from a packing perspective, commonly resulting in both creases and wrinkles.

But What About … ?   (Packing Pipe Dreams)

Over the years, many (mostly ineffective) approaches have been promoted to reduce the problem of wrinkles and creases …

The oft-suggested trick of separating individual clothing items with the use of plastic dry-cleaning bags or tissue paper helps to reduce wrinkling (by reducing friction), but does nothing about the creases.

Another popular suggestion, that of rolling clothing, slightly reduces — though certainly does not eliminate — the number of folds (thus creases), but usually increases wrinkling. Typically, sample photos of such usage show T-shirts and other soft knit garments (that are easily packed in any case), because trying this with a dress shirt or linen jacket makes clear the absurdity of the approach. (It is also commonly claimed that this method saves space, ignoring the reality that cylindrical objects occupy more space than equivalent rectilinear ones, not less!)

And at least two companies sell "packing folder" systems, which include a folding board and a sort of wrapper/sleeve to envelop the pile of folded garments. These companies carefully avoid explaining exactly how this is supposed to reduce creases or wrinkles, which is understandable, as this approach is simply a more expensive way to do folding and stacking, taking up extra space and weight as well!

Fortunately, there is an alternative technique, one that is close to ideal …

Bundle Wrapping

photo ©www.corbis.comThe best solution to the problem of wrinkles and unwanted creases, though it involves some (very minor) inconvenience, is the use of the bundle wrapping technique (there is an older, related method called "interfolding", but it offers no additional advantages, and is less effective at avoiding creases). As the name suggests, bundle wrapping involves the careful wrapping of clothes around a central core object, thus avoiding the folds that result in creases. Furthermore, the tension created in the fabric by the wrapping process significantly reduces the chances of wrinkling. That's the story in a nutshell, but of course there are plenty of implementation details!

Prepare by selecting an object to form the core of the bundle: an organizer pouch is an ideal choice. The optimal size will depend somewhat upon your girth, the configuration of your bag, and the amount of clothing to be packed, but something around 11 × 16" (30 × 40cm) generally works well. The pouch is filled with soft items — like socks, swimsuit, undergarments, sheet bag, etc. — to form a sort of small, firm (not hard) "pillow" around which the clothing will be wrapped.

Clothing is wrapped in a particular order, so that larger, more tailored, and more wrinkle-prone garments will end up on the outside of the bundle, with less easily wrinkled pieces closer to the core. Here is a typical sequence (beginning, as you will begin your packing, with the outer layer):

1)jacket
2)longer skirts, dresses
3)long-sleeved shirts
4)short-sleeved shirts
5)trousers/slacks
6)sweater, knits
7)shorts

Button the fronts of shirts, and perhaps the jacket (unless it is particularly wide, in which case it is better to let the sides overlap more than is possible with the buttons done up).

The easiest place to form the bundle is on a large flat surface, such as a bed. In more cluttered locations — assuming that your bag features a zipper around three full sides, as recommended in my discussion of business bags — you can open your bag flat, and wrap the bundle right in the bag. Mostly, though, you'll find bundle wrapping more easily accomplished on a larger flat surface. (Even in this case, a bag that opens flat is preferred, as the bundle, when completed, can be placed directly into it without being disturbed.)

Begin …

by taking the item highest on the above list, laying it out flat on your working surface. If it's a (tailored) jacket, lay it face down, orienting the sleeves so as to lie the most naturally. Such jackets are the exception to the rule: all other garments are placed face up. Smooth everything out carefully, eliminating any wrinkles.

At this point, consider the dimensions of your core object, which will eventually be placed atop the pile of clothing. One edge of each garment will align with (or extend slightly beyond) an edge of the core. As you add additional garments, their directions will alternate, and the shape of the core object will dictate their locations (this should be much more clear in the diagram referenced below). Don't obsess over this, however: you'll be able to adjust the core position relative to the garments during the wrapping process, but it's easier if you get the clothing positions approximately correct to start with.

Continue …

with the remaining garments. Orient shirts — and shorter items in general — vertically, alternating in direction (to maintain a uniform bundle shape), aligning their collar edges with (or extending slightly beyond) the top and bottom edges of the soon-to-be-added core. Orient slacks and longer skirts — and longer items in general — horizontally, again alternating in direction, aligning their waist edges with (or extending slightly beyond) the left and right edges of the core. It can sometimes make sense to fold wider skirts lengthwise before wrapping. With all garments, strive for a smooth placement, avoiding wrinkles to the extent possible.

When all items are down, place the core on top, forming the centre of the bundle. It's now time to begin the wrapping portion of the process (so definitely think "wrapping", not "folding").

Work your way back down the clothing stack, wrapping each piece completely around the slowly growing bundle before moving on to the next item (don't interleave garments with one another). You can adjust the position of the existing bundle if necessary to correctly align it with the appropriate edge of the following garment. For long-sleeved items, wrap one side of the garment around the bundle as far as it will go (part of the sleeve — which is wrapped straight across — will typically end up going around and underneath the bundle); repeat with the other side. Then bring up the bottom of the garment, again wrapping it as far around the bundle as it will go.

Jackets remain the exception to the rule (because of the tailoring in the shoulders); their sleeves are wrapped somewhat diagonally (following the natural inclination of the fabric), forming an X-shape across the bundle.

Wrap each item firmly (the intent being that the wrap is sufficiently taut to prevent wrinkles from appearing, but not so taut that the cloth is stretched out of shape).

Finish …

by placing the resulting bundle — either side up — into your bag (if it's not already there), and anchoring it securely — but not too tightly — with the bag's tie-down straps. If the bundle is allowed to shift around during travel, much of your work will have been in vain. Should your bag not have tie-down straps, consider adding them; it's an easy do-it-yourself project. Two straps should be sufficient, as the bundle naturally bulges a bit in the middle.

Click here for bundle wrapping diagram.Clicking on the image to the right will display a diagram of the basic bundle wrapping process (albeit with many important details omitted for clarity — you can't master the method from this diagram alone). Thanks to Devon Baker and the Red Oxx folks for sprucing up my original drawing!

When you arrive at your destination, open out the bundle to let the clothes "relax"; hang the items where possible (doing so in a bathroom with some steam generated by running a hot shower should get rid of any wrinkles that did manage to occur. If it doesn't, find garments of a more forgiving fabric).

I occasionally read claims that this is the downside of bundle wrapping: the need (or at least, desire) to unwrap your bundle whenever arriving at a new location. I personally believe that unpacking/hanging one's clean clothes upon arrival is always a good idea, whatever the packing method. If you do find this a significant inconvenience, your problem is more likely to be with overpacking than bundle wrapping. Typically, the task takes but seconds, as few items are involved. Further, a little practice makes one quite proficient, and even the full (re)wrapping process should take less than a minute.

Naturally, it is inadvisable to pack anything that you may need during the day in the core pouch!

Another advantage of this approach is that it reduces the overall volume of your packed clothing to a somewhat smaller size than simply by "folding and stacking", or resorting to the use of vacuum-bagging products (see below).

If you'd like an alternative description of the bundle wrapping technique, with different illustrations, consult Judith Gilford's book, which also recommends this method (though she calls it "bundle folding", a label I find somewhat misleading, as the entire point of the technique is to eliminate folding). Her wrapping sequence differs very slightly from mine, placing slacks more to the outside; I've always found slacks less prone to wrinkling than shirts.

Vacuum-Packed Clothing?

As Seen On TVSeveral products on the market promise to reduce your packing problems by "vacuum-bagging" your clothes. The claim is that by placing your clothing in a heavy plastic bag, from which you then remove the air, you will reduce the occupied space, and thus make packing easier (some of these marketers apparently attended a different high school physics class than I). If you take a moment to consider it, you'll realize that these products actually increase your packing bulk, rather than diminish it, and add to the weight as well! Not to mention that they make it more difficult to avoid wrinkles and creases. At least one version even uses a vacuum cleaner to exhaust the bag, not an item you're likely to find in your hotel room.

Some people use these bags simply for storing dirty laundry, as they do a good job of isolating soiled clothing. If this is of interest, I would recommend use of an aLOKSAK bag, which is considerably less expensive, comes in many more sizes, and — I would be willing to bet, given its NASDS certification — has a much better air seal!

I for one have never been troubled by too much air in my luggage. The promotional photo of the "regular" vs. "compressed" bulky sweater looks impressive, but I achieve the equivalent result simply by closing my bag.