A daunting task is easy to tame with a little fortitude and a plan.

By Michele Meyer
Jeff McNamara

Plunge In

If you're as worried about guests seeing your clean laundry as you are the dirty, it's probably time to reorganize your linen closet. It's easy to accumulate a large collection of worn-out and mismatched linens that crowd shelves in towering heaps, so jammed together that when you tug at one towel or reach for that mauve twin sheet, everything comes tumbling down.

But you don't have to resign yourself to balancing a swaying pile of laundry with one arm while stemming an avalanche with the other. Whipping a linen closet into shape is easy and a good way to feel you have at least one thing under control.

Sort and Organize

Sort all your towels and sheets to determine which are worth keeping and which should go to charity, your cleaning-supply closet (as rags), or your kid's toy chest (for making tents and Halloween costumes).

Try to limit yourself to three sets of sheets per bed and as few as three sets of bath sheets or towels, hand towels, and washcloths per person (more if you change towels daily, fewer if the men in your household have never picked up a washcloth). This gives you one set in use, one in the hamper, and one in the closet ready for action. You'll need only one or two sets for guests (one on the bed and one in the hamper or closet).

Resist the temptation to hoard extra sets for emergencies. "Anytime you get a new set, retire an old one," says Stephanie Winston, author of Getting Out From Under: Redefining Your Priorities in an Overwhelming World ($13, Perseus, amazon.com).

Make a Plan

Now it's time to make sense of everything you've decided to keep.

First, divide linens into groups: bedding for each bedroom; towels for each bathroom; tablecloths and runners, dinner and cocktail napkins. Then separate summer from winter items, and daily linens from those for special occasions. The everyday and the current season should be stored at eye level, and the special-occasion and out-of-season linens farther from reach, at the top or bottom of the closet.

Placement isn't the only issue. For order, you can group linens in one of three ways: by bedroom and bathroom, by size, or by type.

"Sorting and searching will be even easier if you assign one color to each room," says Winston. "That way, when you look at a towel or sheet, you immediately know whose it is." Another good idea is to slip folded sheets into the matching pillowcases.

Always put the newly laundered on top of a stack, and remove the set to be used next from the bottom. In this way, sets become equally worn.

Allocate bulkier, less used items to the top shelf. They can be stored in the zippered bags in which they were purchased to keep them free of dust. Or pack them in old pillowcases. Before you store things away, label the cases with a permanent marker so you'll know what's inside.

The backs of shelves are ideal for guest-room linens, out-of-season beach towels, and other items you use less frequently.

Map the Closet

If you're short of space, think compact. "Buy duvet covers, which can be folded small, rather than a variety of decorative comforters," says Judy Zackin, design director at Wamsutta Bedding.

If you have the space, you can devote a shelf to table linens, using a pullout tray for place mats or tablecloths (folded with tissue, to avoid wrinkles) in pretty boxes with lids and labels. And don't forget the closet door: It's a great place to hang robes or shallow baskets for soaps and toilet paper.

Label Everything

Once everything is in order, label the shelves to help you keep the closet that way. Use adhesive labels or tape a slip of paper to the shelf front to indicate “Master Bath,” “King Fitted,” or “Summer Blankets.”

"The main thing is, you don't want to cram your shelves too tightly," says Judy Zackin, design director at Wamsutta Bedding. "You want to be able to get your hand in and lift stacks―without skinning your knuckles."

Give Everything Some Air

Tidy piles aren't enough: You should enjoy the soft fragrance of fresh laundry when you open your linen closet. To accomplish this:

  • Give linens their space. "Air flow is important to the safe storage of most textiles," says Jonathan Scheer, president of J. Scheer & Co., a New York textile-preservation firm. "If they're stuffed into the back of a closet, the fibers retain more moisture, which attracts mold and mildew, which can be permanently damaging. You should take them out and air them every three months."
  • "You can chase away mustiness with an open container of baking soda, activated charcoal, or calcium carbonate," says Cheryl Mendelson, author of Home Comforts: The Art & Science of Keeping House ($20, Scribner, amazon.com).
  • To enhance the aroma of your linens, place in the back of the closet sachet bags of pine, cedar, vanilla, or fresh lavender wrapped in cheesecloth and tied with a ribbon. You can also hang a fabric-softener strip on the door or use scented drawer liners, which are sold by the Container Store ($15 for four 18-by-24-inch sheets, containerstore.com) and other places.

All in all, that's not much effort, and it's worth it to know you'll always find the right towel, in an environment fit for company.

Maximize Household Space

In an ideal world, you would have a spacious linen closet on each floor of your house, if not in every bathroom.

A dream closet has adjustable shelves, wooden or wire. This allows you to arrange the shelves to a height of about 10 inches for sheets and table linens (room for short stacks, not teetering towers) and 12 to 16 inches for towels. Leave 18 inches or more from the top shelf to the ceiling for bulky items, such as blankets.

Even if your shelves are immobile at the standard 12 to 15 inches apart, all is not lost. You can customize that space with shelf dividers, baskets, plastic bins, and plastic-covered-wire shelving, all of which can be found at Ikea, ClosetMaid, the Container Store, and other organizing specialists. You can also adapt the closet by removing the bottom shelves and installing a counter three feet from the floor and placing beneath it rolling drawer units, pullout shelves, or laundry baskets.

Or you can rip out the entire closet and start again. A fully reequipped linen closet of the average four-foot-wide by eight-foot-high measurements can cost from $50 to $400, depending on how elaborate the shelves, drawers, and other storage units are. But even starting from scratch might not be enough if your cupboard is too small. So be creative and expand your storage by adding shelves to an armoire for extra sheets and towels, or using a foot-locker, a window seat, or a chest for bulkier blankets and pillows.

Another strategy is to keep things in the rooms where they're used: table linens in a dining-room sideboard, everyday napkins in a kitchen drawer, guest-room towels and sheets in the guest room.

The key is to use your closet―however tiny―for daily linens while moving the less needed items elsewhere. Whatever you do, aim at a system that works best for the person who's doing the laundry. That's you, right?