We used to laugh about the painstaking process my dear grandmother would undertake every holiday when we were growing up. She'd cleverly slip her gifts out of their packages, preserving without a scratch the wrappings, which she'd save for future use.

Today, with the raised level of environmental and economic consciousness, no one is joking about Gran's quirky recycling methods.

"Now that we have crossed over into the caring '90s, just as much regard is being put into the wrapping as in the selection of a gift," says Amber Michelle, associate editor of Gifts & Decorative Accessories magazine. "We're thinking twice about throwing together a pricey non-biodegradable sheet of novelty paper and mundane polypropylene bow."

You don't have to be artistic to create an impressive package; it just takes a careful summoning of ingenuity. The project can be as simple as tying a single fresh flower onto a box, or as involved as creating your own marbled paper. Any personalized presentation will set your gift apart. The key is to choose recyclable or biodegradable materials.

"Combining elegance with an environmental ethic by wrapping in a simple recyclable brown kraft paper and then tying it together with a brilliant reusable ribbon, is one of the choicest, most modern ways to make a packaging statement," says Margaret Russell, design and decorating editor of Elle Decor magazine.

Says Susan Dosier, editor for Southern Living magazine, "Skip ,, the crowds at the gift-wrap counter. In the time you would wait for a package to be custom-wrapped, you can spray-paint brown paper, tie a raffia bow, and have your first gift completely finished."

The natural look doesn't have to be dull, says Judy Marinelli, gift wrap artist and author of "Open It, Open It -- The Art of Giftwrapping."

"Tie on extra goodies that enhance the natural look, such as twigs, leaves, pine cones, dried fruits and flowers, sheaves of wheat, cinnamon sticks. . . . A brown, kraft-paper-wrapped box with corrugated packaging found in hardware or office-supply stores, topped with natural raffia or sea grass, dried herbs or Spanish moss, is also a stylish contender."

Old magazines, calendars, newspapers, fabric remnants, wallpaper scraps, sheet music and coloring books can be recycled as clever custom wrap. The Store Ltd. in Cross Keys wraps some packages with brightly colored ribbon and pages from graphic black-and-white calendars left over from last year.

There's no limit to the creative options; here are suggestions from other savvy gift-wrappers:

* "Don't wrap it -- bag it!" says Janet Ocampo, buyer for the Ben Franklin crafts stores. "Gift bags have a longer life than traditional wrapping paper; they won't tear when opened, and are therefore reusable."

Gift bag suppliers have joined the green revolution.

"Gift bags are not only easy and environmentally sound, but can be educational as well," says Lindy Bowman of Lindy & Co. in Linthicum, a packaging company. His new "Living Legends" series, printed on recycled kraft paper, tells the origins of Santa Claus and the Christmas tree. An accompanying package of evergreen seeds encourages buyers to plant a tree. His products are sold in greeting-card stores.

* Cover a gift for a world traveler in a foreign newspaper or map; use a compass instead of a bow.

* One wrapping paper you'll never want to toss is made of hTC money. You can purchase uncut sheets of $1 bills from the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in Washington. This is valid currency; your gift recipient may separate the bills and spend them.

The sheets can be purchased at the Bureau's lobby gift shop at 15th Street and Independence Avenue, 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., Mondays to Fridays; and by mail-order, allowing up to eight weeks for delivery. Prices for mail-order include shipping and handling: For a sheet of four, send check or money order for $10.25; for 16, send $26; for 32, send $45. Send to Mail Order Sales Department, Room 602-11A, 14th and C Sts. S.W., Washington, D.C. 20228; or write to the same address to request an order form. Sheets of $2 bills are available also.

* For the seamstress in the family, wrap a gift in a sewing pattern; trim with notions, tie it with measuring tape and use a decorative pin cushion instead of a bow.

* Tie an electrical package with an extension cord.

* Colorful shoelaces or cut-up drinking straws can top a child's gift wrapped in newspaper comics.

* Glue black-and-white snapshots to brown kraft paper and top with some old negative strips.

* Cut images from last year's greeting cards for gift tags.

* Bake edible gift tags: Make a hole at the top of cookies before baking. Decorate the cookies with names. Use ribbon to tie cookies to gifts.

* Cover a box with paper doilies, magazine cutouts, leftover wallpaper borders, buttons, bows or candy.

* Attach a festive charm to a 1-inch-wide velvet ribbon; use this to wrap a gift. The recipient can wear the ribbon as a choker.

* If the gift is a hat or handbag, pin onto the box coordinating velvet or fabric flowers.

L * Accessorize a fabric-wrapped package with pearls and lace.

* Try reusable wire-edged ribbons that can be bent and shaped.

* Use a pillowcase to wrap a teen-idol calendar.

* Heavy paper and most fabrics and trims won't stay in place with the average glue or tape. For a professional-looking package, get a hot glue gun. You'll be instantly hooked when you see how easy it is to fuse materials and trims with a squeeze of the trigger. They are available at crafts and art-supply stores.


Under Wraps

(Pages 38-44 and Page 54): All ribbon by Offray Ribbon Co., available at select fabric and gift shops.

(Page 44): Money bow by Judy Marinelli.

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