How folding clothes gained a cult-like following

·9-min read
Social media is awash with people showing ever-more inventive ways to fold clothes
Social media is awash with people showing ever-more inventive ways to fold clothes

I once bought the same top twice, such was the never-ending clutter in my wardrobe. This was a decade ago. A purge followed and, while the outcome was far from neat, I felt tolerably smug. That is, until last week when Louisa, my cleaner, admitted that my messy wardrobe, with its open-plan shelves of jumbled-up sweaters, mismatched socks and piles of last quarter’s VAT receipts, provided a sort of exposure therapy for her obsessive-compulsive disorder.

But I am swimming against the tide. No longer is the act of folding the stuff of draconian military training or the pleasure (and chore) of Benetton shop staff. In 2022, it is an art form – and, for the most talented among folders, even a path to fame and riches. Blame it on those months of lockdown, or the 24/7 panopticon of social media, which has subjected our homes to hitherto unseen levels of scrutiny, but whether you do it or just watch it, folding has developed a cult following.

YouTube is awash with videos of people demonstrating ever more innovative ways to fold everything from underwear to motorbike covers. One video titled ‘How to fold a fitted sheet’ has accrued more than 22 million views, while ‘shelfies’ of neatly folded, colour-co-ordinated clothes come courtesy of a rich subculture on Instagram, from the 1.4 million followers of organiser @EffectiveSpaces to the 4,000 followers of Californian eight-year-old @thefoldingkid, herself the daughter of a folding influencer. The Telegraph’s own Lisa Armstrong is among the obsessives, having demonstrated on her Instagram the plastic folding contraption that helps keep her shelves satisfyingly sharp. (‘It’s a joy,’ she says. ‘Very therapeutic.’)

Sophie Liard aka The Folding Lady - Martina Lang
Sophie Liard aka The Folding Lady - Martina Lang

Add to them Sophie Liard from Surrey, a 36-year-old former retail worker turned folding influencer extraordinaire. Liard began posting videos on TikTok in 2020, in a good-natured competition with a friend to see who could score more views. Her first post, showing how to get wax out of a wax-melt burner, didn’t rate highly, but when she began posting the folding methods she had gleaned during her 15-year career on the floor of Guildford’s House of Fraser, her rise to TikTok fame was ‘super-quick’. Within a year, she had a million followers, thanks to viral lockdown hits such as a video where she folds a napkin into the shape of a Christmas tree – which has been watched more than five million times.

A year ago, she quit her day job, and this month she releases a book named after her social-media handle, The Folding Lady – her publisher presumably betting that if even a tiny fraction of her followers buy it, it will be a bestseller. Just as you would expect, it’s largely a manual of diagrams showing how to make neat rectangles out of everything from knickers to hoodies. For the true folding obsessive, there are technical deep dives into the pros and cons of ‘key folds’, such as ‘thirds folding’ (folding into thirds: suits rectangular items) and the ‘ranger roll’ (where you create a turn-up at one end, which folds back tidily over the rolled-up garment). But while Liard feels passionately that folding can change your life, she is also realistic.

‘I think the first thing you need to remember is that I don’t come from a place of being a professional organiser. I’m not prescriptive with my methods,’ Liard tells me on Zoom from her home in Guildford. The kitchen she is sitting in is tidy, but family paraphernalia (she has sons aged four and 13) is visible in the background. Refreshingly, she is also quite real about mess – and believes that, actually, we should be grateful for it. ‘It can be the sign of a good play time, the result of a good meal, the aftermath of an amazing family party or the result of the perfect day off.’

This certainly chimes with my own experience. I could not be less of a Kondo Konvert, but as a child, I dusted my bedroom daily and wouldn’t let a playdate sit on the bed lest they crease the duvet (I know, I know). It was, with hindsight, a reaction to my mother’s love of hoarding, but three kids and a full-time job later, I’ve trained my head to equate mess with a fun, rich life. Given the choice between interesting, fulfilling work and tidy cupboards… As a freelance journalist, I have even ‘learnt’ to see mess as a sign of a financially good month.

It was Marie Kondo’s 2014 book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying, that took folding mainstream, introducing the world to the joys of neatly rectangular T-shirts filed vertically in drawers. But if Kondo was about minimalism, the Nashville-based duo on Netflix’s global hit Get Organized with the Home Edit, now in its second series, have made organising glamorous and colourful – refolding and rearranging the possessions of Reese Witherspoon and Khloé Kardashian into their trademark rainbow. Theirs was a business that took off thanks to Instagram – and it’s here that you’ll find the growing ranks debating the finer points of colour-coded bookshelves and corralling their clothes into row upon row of Perspex boxes and drawer dividers.

Key to Liard’s success, she believes, is that she found an under-exploited niche on TikTok. ‘Everyone was at home having to reconnect with their spaces, and until then there was mostly just dancing on TikTok, not so much home stuff.’

It’s not difficult to see why its captive audience got hooked, particularly at that moment when life felt ever more apocalyptic. Even if you never need to do it yourself, there is something mesmerising about watching a voluminous tutu be turned into a tidy square. So was folding a way to grapple with our increasingly chaotic world, to lord over unruly fitted-sheet corners and pretend mismatched socks never happened? Can everything be tamed into the calm of a uniform rectangular shape? Will rearranging our knicker drawers really make us happier? And is it worth the faff?

When pressed for her methods, Liard tells me the main thing about how she likes to fold is that it caters for the space that you have. ‘I make it clear all the time that there’s no centimetre ruler I measure with, it will all depend entirely on your space,’ meaning how much shelf versus hanging versus drawer space you have, and their specific dimensions. She has never bothered with the plastic folding templates so beloved of others (BoxLegend’s versions have thousands of reviews on Amazon). The question of hanging versus folding crops up often, but for everyday pieces, she says it’s probably easier to hang everything up (even, controversially, jumpers).

But fear not, her book is full of tips. Starting on a flat surface, for instance, will make folding more even, resulting in a stack of clothes that’s less likely to topple over. She folds towels into ‘thirds and thirds again’. Fold clothes lightly, she warns, not like you’re creasing paper. She offers three different folds for socks and a fourth for tights, and has a peculiar method of storing jeans in a half-height hanging space that, she says, lets you squeeze more in; one belt loop over the hanger’s hook, the rest concertinaed over the horizontal bar.

Still, she warns us off the idea that once you’ve learnt to fold your clothes, your life will change forever. ‘I think there is this skewed perspective that you see something online, you rush off and do it, and it will stay that way for ever. That is absolutely not how it works. You have to keep plugging away, so you need to find systems that work for you, your routine, your family.’

Liard insists that her book is less a folding manual and more a reminder of how to live more holistically. Her version of ‘spark joy’ – Kondo’s famous directive to keep only the things that make you feel happy – is the pursuit of what she describes as ‘after value’. That is, every action must achieve a sort of calm or happiness that may not be so immediately obvious at the outset. ‘I may not always want to go to the gym, but the “after value” is fitness and strength. We live in a society of instant gratification and you need to realise you won’t necessarily see the after value before the action. And remember, your home is not your neighbour’s home. What gives you after value is going to be very different.’ Liard’s own after values include ‘friendlier’ time spent with her teenage son and less rowing about how his football kit is stored. Clearer spaces, she feels, also allow her to live a more mindful life.

For Annabel Hodin, personal stylist and organiser, ‘it’s not the folding that is necessarily good for you, it’s the not-rushing’. Hodin finds Kondo’s method of folding ‘almost hypnotic’. She believes instilling a sense of order is key, rather than allowing a social-media-perpetuated concept of perfectionism to take over – something she puts down to ‘this idea of being rescued and the fantasy of creating perfect control in your life’.

As to the charge that Liard might be whipping women back in time with all this talk of folding, she is adamant that the whole family needs to get on board. ‘Everyone works these days, it’s very much a level playing field. My husband and I earn the same amount, no one is afforded more free time and no one person is solely responsible for the house. Children also need to learn to respect their space and adults need to stop prescribing what their bedrooms should be.’ That’s certainly one way of lessening the mental load.

There is no point, Liard stresses, in hankering after something that will be too tiring and impractical to maintain. In fact, her reason for taking her folding ‘full-time’ and quitting her job a year ago was the difficult pregnancy she endured with her younger son, Arthur. ‘I was so down and desperate to be happy that I said to myself, “When this pregnancy is over, I’m at a stage of my life when I want to incite change.”’ She is heartened that she has helped others to transform, if not their lives, at least their homes.

‘The older I get, the more I’ve gone back to the basics,’ she reflects. ‘I’ve wondered recently if true mindfulness means starting with your home. Because you can’t meditate or do yoga until you have sorted out your s­--t at home. Try it. You’ve only got one life.’

The Folding Lady: Tools & Tricks To Make the Most of Your Space & Find After Value in Your Home (Yellow Kite, £14.99) is out on Thursday. To order from Telegraph Books for £14.99, call 0844 871 1515 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk

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