Thursday, September 16, 2010

Handmade Christmas? Start planning NOW!

Ah, September: back-to-school, the return of the cold air, the changing colours and falling leaves, and the horrible realisation that there's just a little over 3 months before Christmastime is upon us!

Perhaps worst of all is the impending onslaught of Christmastime consumerism. The television commercials, the internet ads, the flyers that bombard our mailboxes and suggest that what your mother really wants is a hideous pendant with a microscopic diamond glued in it, or an electrically powered foot bath, or an expensive new digital time-wasting device. Then there's the advertisements for the kiddies that convince them that what they badly need is a dangerous dose of bisphenol-A and toxic fumes from a chunk of plastic that has a pretty package and its own catchy theme song. Sigh. A long leap from a wayside manger in Bethlehem, isn't it?
Recycled gift wrap (florist's paper), twine, and a new tea towel used as wrapping.

I get the spirit of Christmas, I really do! I think gift-giving is a lovely gesture and that sharing goodwill to all people (strangers, the poor, and even your in-laws) really is in the right vein. It's just that after nearly 30 years of plastic junk and mind-meltingly insidious commercialism, I'm starting to long for the old-fashioned Christmases of yesteryear.

So this Christmas, like last, I am doing my very best to not buy plastic junk for my loved ones. I have a blog post waiting in the wings that suggests some very cool alternative gifts, and I really can't wait to share these ideas with you! Stay tuned!

But because it is only September (and still technically summertime until the equinox), for now I'm going to focus on the handmade gifts that you really should start planning out this week (and certainly this month).

The Windowsill Herb Garden (or Potted Paperwhites)
For the culinary-genius, the fresh food freak and the wannabe green-thumb.

There are so many great options here for containers and contents! Buy your seeds and potting soil (sterilized) soon, and shop around for the right container(s). Your local Salvation Army or other thrift store sells orphaned teacups, a bizarre assortment of vintage kitsch coffee mugs, and even plant pots specifically designed for windowsill gardens.
One of my all-time favourite thrift store finds in which I sowed herb seeds

Find out the colour scheme in your gift recipient's kitchen and buy teacups (or even teapots!) in this colour range. Fill with your sterilized potting mix, sprinkle on the herb seeds (always read the sowing instructions on the seed package!), and mist regularly with water. A great place to sprout seedlings is on top of your energy-inefficient fridge (nice and warm!). Keep the seedlings out of direct sunlight - don't wilt them on your windowsill, but keep in filtered sunlight (on the otherside of your light-weight curtains).
Herb seedlings (just germinated)
Chinese take-away style boxes with oregano, thyme and basil seedlings

Another fun option is to grow the herbs in Chinese take-away style containers (Ming Wo had them for $0.49 each last year - Michael's Craft Stores have them too, and one is due to open this fall at Broadway and Cambie). You can purchase transparent cellophane wrap (not eco-friendly) from YokoYaya123 or the Daiso to transport and decoratively wrap your gift come Christmas, or track down some burlap for the sake of the environment.
Recommended herbs to grow: basil, thyme, oregano, chives or anything rated "easy to grow". West Coast Seeds has a friendly little "e" icon next to items that are mostly idiot-proof - start with these to make your life easier and stress-free!
Paperwhites (Narcissus) are easy to grow (force) from a bulb indoors. It is somewhat tricky to get the timing right for a Christmas bloom (ask for advice at the nursery or look online), but they make a beautiful, fragrant and traditional gift for a reasonable price. The bulbs can be reused next Christmas, too! Buy some white decorative rocks to cover the bare soil and wrap the whole pot and plant up in cellophane just before giving.
Paperwhite just starting out and homemade gift tags
Paperwhite early in growth cycle in vintage thrift-store tin

Various Home Decor Creations
For the person that you are sure will appreciate one-of-a-kind weirdo art

I've been wanting to share this little creation of mine for awhile - I think I'm the only one who loves it, so it lives on a shelf in my apartment. Regardless, it was one of those serendipitous finds; I was walking back home from the former David Hunter's garden centre at Arbutus and Broadway (Sniff! Why did you have to go?!) and behind the Roger's Video store along the fence was a pile of old, mostly broken Christmas lights. Every year there is a Christmas tree sale in that empty lot, and I figured the unscrupulous leasers had simply unscrewed the dead lights from their light string and left them on the grass. As a former dog-owner, I was rather cross that someone would leave broken glass next to the sidewalk! Despite my chagrin, I saw potential in the old bulbs and collected the unbroken ones in my reusable shopping bag (I think I chucked the busted ones back over the fence). After washing off the mud and leaf decay, I glued the bulbs together (later resorting to hot-glue after a few failed attempts). A sculpture only the artist could love, maybe, but I was pleased with the final result.
Hayley's burnt-out, discarded Christmas light sculpture

On an earlier posting, I shared my pattern for a crochet bud-vase cover for an empty Perrier bottle, another inexpensive, handmade and eco-friendly gift that you can make yourself.
See my Perrier bud-vase posting for this pattern

Plarn (plastic yarn made from recycled shopping bags) can make fantastic crocheted coasters as well. I don't have a pattern to share for these watermelon coasters, but they are an easy adaptation from a typical double-crochet circle pattern like this one at CrochetSpot. The colours are bright, they're rigid enough to be useful, and they are certainly one of a kind. They are also quick to make, even for a beginner. Give them a try, or put those practice Granny Squares to use by giving them away as a funky coaster set as well. Granny Squares stitched together also make easy placemats and pot holders, too. They're also a great way to use up odds and ends of yarn, or the smallish balls you find at thrift shops or in your grandma's sewing kit.
Watermelon slice plarn coasters. Painting on the seeds would have been an easier way!

The Handmade Blanket
For the snuggle-up sorts and those needing a warm hug

I know, I know - this post is crochet-heavy again! But you don't have to crochet an afghan - you could knit a blanket or sew a quilt instead! I know of one person who collected vintage men's cotton shirts in various blue pinstripe patterns and created a beautiful, soft quilt from them. I can't quilt, and the whole process of blocking frightens me, but that recycled vintage fabric quilt was not only lovely to behold but soft and warm, too.
And if vintage fabric doesn't excite you, there is always new fabric available for cheap at Dressew, or Fabricana in Richmond (haven't been, but has received rave reviews from a good friend).
A blanket in the making - coloured yarn from the SPCA Thrift Shop

I'm making a blanket for a loved one this year (it's a surprise, so no names mentioned here!) in a pattern and colours that remind me of the recipient. I figure everyone could use another blanket, especially if their New Year's resolution involves turning down the heat in the house by a few degrees (or off overnight) to save on electricity or natural gas. Blankets are also a great thing to keep in your car (like old towels!) in case you have to spend the night somewhere or just want to keep dog hair off your backseats.

Home Baked Goodies
Everyone likes food - you can't go wrong here!

Bake them a pound cake in a reusable but inexpensive loaf pan (Ming Wo and Yokoyaya123/Daiso), or a variety of cookies in a recycled or hand-decorated tin or cookie jar (Ikea has wonderful glass cookie jars for very cheap - I use them to hold staples like rice, oatmeal and popcorn kernels on my countertop). For the cookie jars, a bright satin or patterned ribbon and a homemade tag is all you need to make it look worthy of a Martha Stewart "good things" nod. Homemade jams and preserves are worth their weight in gold - I have only had one attempt at canning which yielded runny mango chutney (no pectin in the recipe . . . hmmm). But if I wasn't so unskilled in this area, I would be canning things like crazy, including the bumper crop of cherry tomatoes I grew this year! Who doesn't love homemade jellies and condiments?! One of my mother's friends made delicious antipasto every year as a Christmas gift, which I quickly began to look forward to each December. I even have friends in the gulf islands that make "special" cookies and brownies for gifts which are well-received but perhaps not worth the legal risk.
Waffle-ridged loaf pans from Ming Wo; plain pans from YokoYaya123

Keep in mind the potential for food allergies (peanut, shellfish, lactose, gluten, and in my case (curses!) garlic, shallot and red onion) and include the ingredients on the backside of the tag/card. Wrap the food in a new tea towel (part of the gift) and a pretty piece of ribbon. Ming Wo has cheap tea towels and dish cloths in bins out front of the store, and check out Ikea's selection if you're out that way.

The Secret Family Recipe Book or Card Collection
Goes along well with the home baked gift, or mails well to those overseas

Handwritten recipes are becoming a thing of the distant past, and there is something so lovely about following a recipe written in ink on a well-abused card. Get out the pencil crayons or Gelly-roll Sakura pens (great things!) and decorate the sides, or send the cards through the ink-jet or laser printer and borrow some clip art if you're not the artistic type. Ask your mom and grandma for that favourite recipe (ask your dad and male relatives too, if they're any good!) and share it with your friends. Make sure you name the recipe after the chef (i.e. Zazu Pitt's Oatmeal Cookies - I don't know who Zazu Pitt is, but they submitted their cookie recipe to the Vancouver Sun in the eighties and I have forced my poor mother to make them about a million times over since then. Thanks Zazu and Mom!).
Write up your own family recipes or give a gift of a cookbook (find used copies online)

Another great gift is a used recipe book - people who give away used recipe books can't have found them useful and as a result are often in near-new condition. Grab any "Moosewood Collective" cookbook you see - they're terrific and from experience make great gifts. I also love my ReBar cookbook which Sarah N. bought for me nearly a decade ago - snatch up that cookbook if you see it on offer!

That's it for now! I was scheming up an idea of animal-shaped throw pillows from vintage fabric but haven't had the chance to try it yet - will post if I do.
An excellent resource for DIY sewn gift ideas is here at Sew Mama Sew (nice fabric shop!). Everytime I visit this site, I leave with a dozen new gift ideas.
In the meantime, here are some crocheted gifts I'm giving away this year - I hope they will inspire you to try your hand at homemade/homegrown gifts.
Ash's Manta Ray (I'll mail it soon! Promise!) from a pattern
Little Lobster (recipient is a secret!) from a pattern


  1. After visiting Sew Mama Sew's blog, I found a non-sew suggestion: a single serving pie-in-a-jar! So cute - here's the link:

  2. Oh I love that jar pie idea! It would be great for a picnic too!

    Thanks for planting the home-made Christmas idea in my head early.

  3. Hi, I love the manta ray, but couldn't find the pattern on Ravelry. Do you happen to still have a link to that pattern?

  4. Hi Kyle,

    Here's the direct link to Brigitte Read's page (Manta ray pattern):

    Hope that helps! :)