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Teach Your Children Well: The Art of Folding Laundry

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Take a look in your drawers. According to my mother, who is a spitfire 81 years old, you can tell a lot about a person by how things line up in their drawers and by the organization of their linen closet. My mom uses origami precision to keep things neat and has a folding technique that would intimidate any samurai. What's her trick?

"You have to use your hands like an iron," she said during a recent "How to Fold Laundry" lesson. We had the dining room table all to ourselves as we laid out a fresh load, still steaming from its tumble in the dryer. Before us was an esplanade of unfolded towels, sheets and pillowcases. For added challenge and extra credit? You guessed it.

"Are you ready for the fitted sheet challenge? They have a whole different set of folding principals," my mother said.

Folding fitted sheets has never been my forté. Their curvy elastic corners freak me out, actually. Even the suggestion of them creates a swell of hyperventilation and I feel like I need to immediately practice pranayama or some other deep breathing technique.

"Does one stuff three bed sheet corners into one corner, or can we just take the easy route, pretend it's a flat sheet and to hell with it?" I asked.

Ignoring my heresy, she continued without missing a beat. "Take the fitted sheet out of the dryer and shake it out. You'll need a table or a flat folding surface," my mother instructed with an almost supernatural astuteness. "Turn the sheet lengthwise so that the extra fabric going the width of the mattress is at the top.

"Then stick the left corners into one another and tighten it up. Do the same thing on the right. Pick it up so that the two corners are in both hands and fold them into one another, too" she continued. "Now take the edges and lay them down, then flatten out the sheet and square it off. The fitted end is to the right and the flat side is to your left."

For those into cartography, the four-corners folded into one wad is now in the upper right corner. (Back to my mom... )

"Now it's a rectangle. See?"

I think I needed stronger glasses.

"Bring the left end over to the right end, smooth it out and you've got another rectangle. Remember: use your hands like an iron," she repeated. "Fold over one more time and you've got a perfectly presentable fitted sheet. You can't even tell that it's not a flat sheet. Can you?"

While mom was in the maternal mode of passing on housekeeping legend, she couldn't resist laying down the mother lode with additional laundry tips.

"Absolutely always separate your laundry," she reprimanded. "It should be split into whites, darks, and heavy towels. And always keep the same weights of fabrics together so that they don't get creased knocking one another. If you throw it all in at once, the heavier fabrics will definitely wrinkle the lighter ones."

And according to the master, whites really define one's ability to do laundry. "They were ordained to be white and they should stay white."

"Another important point is don't overload your washer," she continued. "Use the light, quick wash cycle. It saves energy. You also want to hope your dryer can keep up the quick pace with which you're doing loads."

Quickness in "doing loads" never seems to be a problem in my house.

"What do I do with thick, pesky towels?" I asked, trying to get on her good side by sounding interested.

"The trick is to fold them immediately when they come out of the dryer so that they don't look crinkled. Fold them uniformly in half, then quarters, before lining them up in the linen closet," mom said. "Rounded edges facing out and sachets of lavender in between the piles. That way, when you go to use your sheets and towels, they always smell fresh."

That explains why my towels always look crumbled and smell like wet leaves. I leave them in the dryer for about a week and when I yank them out, they're all stuck together. And since I only purchase white towels monogrammed with black initials, I was getting completely confused about the separation thing my mother had explained earlier. Should I sort the towels into "whites" or "darks"? Will the black thread monogram run onto the white towel? If I throw in bleach to lighten the whites, will it also lighten the black monograms? It was all so confusing.

"Bleach is the elixir of white washing," my mother answered as she tried to nurture my quest for laundress excellence. "In fact, you can tell a good housekeeper by the whiteness of their sheets and towels."

At that precise moment, I wondered to myself, "What is the meaning of life?"

"Mom, does this stuff really matter?" I asked aloud.

"A neat linen closet just denotes that it doesn't have to be messy," she said. "I'm proud of my linen closets. They make me feel organized and like my life is in order."

We carried the folded fitted sheets and fluffy towels to her linen closet, which, turned out to provide a unique perspective on time.

"In a way, these towels tell my life story," my mom continued as she pointed out different color and patterned towels that reminded her of moving into her first apartment, decorating a new home, swaddling her babies after bath time.

"Towels can bespeak life's eras," she reminisced as she quietly showcased towels that have endured time and maintained their color and bounce. I could only wish the same for my bleach-blotched towels, which will surely be mangled and/or extinct by the time I reach 81.

After our special mother/daughter bonding time, I felt like I could conquer the world... or at least the next load of laundry. With my newly gained knowledge, I will forever embrace this important take-away message and my mom's washful mantra:

Do your laundry well. Fold even better.