If the thought of a handmade gift takes you back to that horrible sweater from grandma, get ready for an attitude adjustment.
This holiday season, there may be lots of handmade gifts under the tree. Crafting experts say a growing number of Americans will make gifts for their friends and family, whether because of environmental concerns, mounting credit woes, fear of toys coated with lead-based paint or simply a distaste for mass production.
The appeal of making gifts by hand is catching on even among people with little crafting experience, says Leah Kramer, founder of the online “crafting community” Craftster. In the four years since her site was launched, Craftster has registered more than 100,000 members and more than 500,000 readers each month, Kramer says. Many are first-timers seeking simple, modern, do-it-yourself gift ideas.
If avoiding crowded stores for the holidays sounds appealing, there’s much you can do — even if you don’t know a knitting needle from a glue gun. Here’s some expert advice to get you started:
Do reconnaissance, but don’t get caught up in endless research. Scores of crafting books are available, and many Web sites offer detailed steps for creating everything from iPod cozies to bracelets made out of toothbrushes. If you’re inexperienced, you can “find your techniques and the things that you like” online, says Kristen Rask, author of “Plush You: Lovable Misfit Toys to Sew and Stuff.” Just keep your search relatively brief — newbies can lose hours combing through the mountain of advice and tutorials.
Limit spending to avoid stress over mistakes. “Keeping it inexpensive keeps the pressure off, so that you don’t end up thinking, 'Oh God, I spent $200,’ ” says Amy Karol, author of “Bend-the-Rules Sewing: The Essential Guide to a Whole New Way to Sew.”
Make something consumable. Handmade doesn’t have to mean a trinket that sits on a shelf.
Try buying a dozen mason jars, then layering the nonperishable ingredients for cookies inside each one. Personalize the jars with a label or other decoration, then attach a card with the recipe printed on it. You can also fill glass jars with homemade body scrub: “It’s just sugar and honey and essential oils,” says Karol. “You can find recipes online.”
These projects are simultaneously decadent and inexpensive. An added bonus: “There’s no X-factor, nothing you can get wrong,” Karol says. “You’re not burning the cookies because you’re not baking them. All you’re doing is assembling.”
Add a healthy dose of kitsch. Knitting a set of traditional pot holders if you’re new to knitting probably isn’t the wisest move. But knitting a replica of Che Guevara or Madonna (the profane one, not the sacred) could work — your skill with the needles probably won’t be the recipient’s main focus.
Adding irreverence also makes the process more fun, says Carol Meldrum, author of “Knitted Icons: 25 Celebrity Doll Patterns,” which includes patterns for a 1960s-era Cher and Jackie O, along with Madonna and Che. Creating the projects for her book “really took me back to being a kid playing around with fabric and yarn making outfits for my dolls,” says Meldrum.
Create an assembly line. “People think it takes longer to make something. But if you think about the lines and the parking” at malls during the holidays, it may be quicker to make gifts yourself, says Karol. “Decide on one thing, go to the craft store and get enough supplies to do that. ... There’s a lot of gifts you could just tackle in an evening.”
Got friends with babies and access to a sewing machine? Karol suggests making baby bibs. “You can do a dozen bibs in an evening,” she says. “Put on some music and just get done with them.”
Don’t get discouraged. Even experienced crafters worry whether recipients will like their gifts. “I see plush toys constantly and I think, 'This has been done before,’ or 'I can’t do this as well as somebody else,’ ” says Rask. “But the fact that you made this thing is going to impress people. ... It doesn’t have to be perfect.”
When in doubt, do your gift-making early to leave time for Plan B if your project is a disaster. “Give yourself a break and remember — handmade is awesome, but you also want to be happy,” says Karol. “If you can’t make all the gifts you give this season, buy handmade.”
Hoping to make gifts by hand, but stuck with two left thumbs? Here’s an easy craft from Leah Kramer, founder of Craftster.org and author of “The Craftster Guide to Nifty, Thrifty and Kitschy Crafts.”
-- petroleum jelly
-- a large block of transparent or opaque melt-and-pour unscented soap (available at most craft stores)
-- soap molds or chocolate molds (also available at craft stores) in whatever shapes you want
-- a microwave, glass measuring cup, disposable chopstick and a knife
-- fragrances, colorings or decorations
1. Coat the molds with a very thin layer of petroleum jelly.
2. Place block of soap on a cutting board and carefully cut into ice-cube-sized chunks. Place them in measuring cup.
3. Place measuring cup in microwave and heat on high for 30 seconds. This melts the soap into liquid. Stir with chopstick, making sure it’s fully melted. If necessary, continue heating for 15-second intervals until fully melted. (Melting time will vary depending on the wattage of your microwave. Consult melting instructions on soap package.)
4. Carefully remove bowl from microwave, and use chopstick to stir in any combination of ingredients, customizing batches of soap for each person on your gift list. Fragrances, colorings and herbs are all possibilities. Once you become more familiar with soap making, try adding exfoliants like ground coffee, oatmeal or ground apricot pits. Just be sure anything you add is safe and/or cosmetic-grade. For example, you can buy “cosmetic grade” or “skin safe” glitter for adding to your soap. But adding traditional craft glitter to soap is not safe. The Web site teachsoap.com offers information on safe possibilities.
5. Stir the melted soap with the chopstick to cool it slightly, until you notice a very thin skin forming on the top. Then pour it into the molds until it reaches the top of the cavity. (Pouring in very hot soap could warp the molds.)
If you’re using transparent soap and wish to embed something in it, pour half the melted soap into the mold, then add the item or items — flowers, tiny plastic toys, etc. Then fill the remaining space in the mold with more melted soap.
6. Allow the soap to harden completely, which takes about one hour at room temperature. Then pop the soap out of the mold.