I'm a lefty. Among other things, that means I'm not too deft with a standard pair of scissors. In grammar school, I was never the one picked to help the teacher cut stuff out for the bulletin board. And while Mom taught me a lot of things, she soon gave up trying to impart her mastery of gift-wrapping. She just couldn't translate her genius to fit my left-handedness. As a result, I give an awful lot of gift bags at Christmas. This year, I decided to face my fears and present personal, elegantly wrapped presents to at least a few lucky loved ones. And, I reasoned, just as a successful meal depends first and foremost on good ingredients, a perfect wrap job needs exactly the right materials. After figuring out who was getting what, I set out in search of primo paper and ribbons.I grinned as I strolled into India Ink Papers in Little Italy (619-233-4203). Stacy, one of the owners, showed me the gift papers, starting with oversized wallpaper-style prints in either red or black on a white background ($4 for a 24x18-inch sheet). The colors were so bright they barely stayed on the paper. "These are hand-screened," said Stacy. "It's like a fine paint on the paper, so the color is really vivid. You can feel the raised ink." From there, my eye darted to a pea-green cotton paper covered with rose-pink calligraphy detailing the goodies given during the 12 days of Christmas ($4.50 for a 21x28-inch sheet). I could have gotten it in steel blue with gold lettering, but I'm a sucker for pea-green.

"Here is crepe paper [$9.50 for a 20x96-inch sheet, lime, hot pink, or magenta] imported from Germany," said Stacy, warming up to her task. "It's right from our youth. It's fun to wrap with, even if it doesn't tape well -- you need glue. But with the right item, you can just tie ribbons at the ends of the gift, and it'll stay. Over here is bingo paper [$1 for a 24x24.5-inch sheet]. It's just newsprint with multiple bingo cards printed on it."

The ribbons were even more varied than the papers, with prices ranging from $.50-$3 a yard. "We've got lots of ready-to-buy styles: silk with wire, plaid, cut velvet, pom-poms or butterflies on wires, double-sided satin, candy stripe in a bunch of different color combos." (Also available for custom order: hand-dyed silk ribbons for $1.65-$6 a yard.) Fun Fringe ($5 for 25 feet), a multicolored paper ribbon, made for a change of pace, as did the clip-on glitter buckle on a band of black or bright red velvet ribbon ($7.50). "You could put it around one large gift or a stack of smaller gifts," suggested Stacy. Another employee, Heidi, pointed out a collection of paper boxes in the form of oval river rocks ($7-$11, depending on size). "The little one could pose as a lump of coal in someone's stocking, but have a piece of jewelry inside." I was charmed -- naughty and nice at the same time.

Several of the gifts at India Ink had been wrapped by visual merchandiser Alice Sharp (the5sharps@cox.net). I was impressed enough to give her a call. "For me, the gift inside indicates what I use on the outside," she explained. "If I was giving someone a game, I might use the bingo paper and some old Scrabble tiles to make the person's name on the present. I collect a lot of things -- vintage things, new things, things like yarn and laces. Old buckles from belts are great -- just pin them on the ribbon. I've glued on zippers before -- say, on a gift of clothing. One thing I was going to do was open a zipper, stitch it onto the paper in the open position, then add an insert of another color of paper in the open part."

I started running down my own list. A pipe lighter? "Start with a smoke theme. I have matchbook wrapping paper. Or you could go to a cigar place and get a cigar box. They have stacks of them, wooden ones or bright paper ones. If it's a good-looking box, you can just add a ribbon." A book? "It would be fun to enlarge one of the pages on a Xerox machine -- say, the table of contents -- and wrap it in that." A fishing rod? "The simplest thing would be to get an enormous tube from The Container Store and a rubber stamp of a fish, then kind of decoupage it." Girls' dress-up clothes? "Do them in a hat box." Kids' skate shoes? "They could be wrapped in a sports poster. And I once bought a bag of old shoelaces; it would be fun to use them as ribbon. Tie all kinds and colors of laces together, or tie them in layers."

Sharp left me with a general design suggestion and a practical tip. "Sometimes, I use a really wide ribbon on a really small box, so that I'm almost covering the box. Or I'll use a narrow ribbon on a really big box. And double-stick tape is a good tip. You're trying to get a clean edge on the box."

Besides India Ink, I paid a visit to the Paperie in the Gaslamp (619-234-5457). Creative designer Patima squired me through the shop's astonishing array of wood block press papers ($4-$4.75 for a 24x36-inch sheet), marble papers ($4.50 for 25x37- or 24x36-inch sheets), handmade papers with leaves and flowers pressed into them ($3.50 for 22x30-inch sheets or $4.50 for 23x35-inch sheets), and on and on. Patima loved the plant-a-note paper ($6.50 for a 13x19-inch sheet). "There are wildflower seeds in the paper. After someone is done with it, they can plant it and get a little set of wildflowers." But I fell for the embroidered paper with metallic chain-link stitching ($12 for a 19x27-inch sheet). Perfect for my husband Patrick.

Not everything was so luxury-priced. "These lace papers from Japan [$2.75 for a 31x22-inch sheet] are amazing for wrapping. The laces have a certain translucence and texture; you can go get a plain roll of red or green paper, then use the lace as an overlay. It adds flair to the wrapping without breaking the bank. And you can use the laces to replace tissue paper around the gift itself. They're soft and silky instead of crunchy, and have a nice, welcoming feel." The Paperie also carried numerous ribbons, $.50-$3.85 a yard. "I like to overlay organdy ribbons with satin," suggested Patima. "If you don't want to spend too much, just wrap the ribbon around one way."

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