That’s a Curly One

I love to wrap. I love wrapping paper. I love to wrap things with wrapping paper. So I am very annoyed when the wrapping paper will not sit flat. When it curls away from my scissors, twists away from tape, tucks itself into a roll and shoots off the table.

Why does it do that?

To know the habits of the curly beast, we must understand it. What forces possess normally mild mannered wrapping paper and drive it into a coiled frenzy when we need it to cooperate with us?

Paper manufacture is a fascinating story in its own right, but for our purposes we need to understand that the process liberates cellulose from ground plant cells. Cellulose is a long molecule made of repeating subsections linked together, sometimes many thousands of links long.  By laying these stringy molecules randomly over each other and compressing them together we can create a material that is surprisingly strong.

Understanding that a sheet of papers is actually just a flat sheet of strings explains a lot about it. Ever noticed that it’s hard to tear paper in a straight line? That’s because when you try the ripping it you are actually trying to pull those strings apart. But the strings were laid down randomly, meaning in one section they may line up with the direction you want to tear, and a millimetre later they may not. This causes your tear line to wander all over the place as it constantly seeks the ever changing easiest path through the paper.

When you fold paper, you are actually breaking the strings that ran across the fold. The harder you press the fold, the more you break. Only the chains running parallel to the fold are left afterwards. If you tear along the fold, the force now has a single weak line to follow, and so you get a much straighter rip.

The strings also explain a lot of paper curling behaviour.

It’s no surprise rolled paper likes to stay coiled up. On a microscopic level this is because the act of rolling the paper has physically moved the strings around. The ones running in the direction of the roll are now pushed harder against their neighbours, and when you lay out the roll they will resist going back to their starting positions. The old trick of rolling the paper back the other way works because you are stretching out those strings that were bunched up by the original roll.

Thats a curly one

Water acting on the strings also causes curling. If papers with heavy printing or laminated layers get wet, the strings will absorb water and swell. The printed layer typically wont absorb water. This means the stings of the paper attached to the print are locked in place, but all the strings that got wet want to move apart from each other. this uneven swelling causes the paper to curl to relieve the pressure.

If curled paper is ruining you wraps, you can try these tricks to try and keep it flat.

  1. Store your paper in a dry environment. Air conditioning is great for sucking moisture out of the air, and keeping paper in aircon is great for keeping it flat.
  2. Don’t wrap in the rain. High humidity can act on paper very quickly, so if possible don’t wrap when it’s wet out.
  3. Give give it some time. Paper that retains it curl from being rolled can be controlled by simply laying. Cut what you need from the roll the night before, pin it flat and leave it. The strings will slowly slip from their rolled position back to their flat orientation.
  4. You can’t beat heat. If your paper is stubborn, iron it flat. The heat of the iron will force out moisture and the pressure will push the strings back into their flat position. Be careful to use a low heat and no steam!!! Most papers are not particularly temperature sensitive, but the printing on some wrapping paper can be affected if you turn the iron up to 11.

And if all else fails, keep your eyes open for some nifty little gadgets that can ease the rolling paper pain points like Little Elf.

Bryan Perla worked for two years on the design of this product, perfecting the blade angle, the safety features, and its simplicity. Here is how it works step by step.

  1. Slide Little ELF over the wrapping paper. The device is flexible so it can be used on any size roll of paper.
  2. Pull a sheet of paper through the larger slot in the device.
  3. Once the sheet of paper is the desired length, slide Little ELF to the end of the roll allowing the paper to drop into the slot where the blade is embedded.
  4. Now gently push Little ELF forward to cleanly cut the paper.
  5. Once the slice is complete, simply bring Little ELF back to the center of the wrapping paper. It doubles as an organizer! Your paper will not roll away or become unorganized.

This product is fresh off the inventor’s table, so I will be watching closely to see what happens to the Little Elf. Could it live up to its promise and make cutting rolled up  paper a breeze? Well that’s a curly one.