I swear I'm not trying to be all mature or earthy, but this year I'm going to focus on the "give" instead of the "take" in this holiday equation. Brokey McBrokington here is just freaking out trying to figure out how to come up with gifts for the 15 or 20 people on my list without going deeper into credit-card debt. If I'm lucky, I can kill two eggnog-covered birds with one big pine-scented stone: Not only do I have no cash, I've got a big case of packrat fever, so I've resolved to make gifts using (mostly) stuff I've already got. My gift: transforming my crap into their crap, perhaps bringing me one step closer to my goal of stylish minimalism. (Or seeing my floor again.)
I've tried going home-style before, and I've discovered two things:
1. Homemade stuff can be a hard sell. These days, giving cookies is practically a hostile action: It's like you've lobbed a huge butter-and-starch bomb at your loved ones, who will silently resent you in the aftermath of their sugar high. As for bath products, I think my grandmother is the only person on earth who's actually happy to get them. And those cutesy "good for one backrub" certificates unless you're 12, just don't do it.
2. Homemade gifts are deceptively expensive, so choose your project carefully. "Aha," I thought in 2002, "I'll just make a couple of batches of yummy cookies and mail them to everyone." A hundred bucks' worth of pecans, toffee chips, baking parchment, etc. later, I faced a crisis when I realized it was going to cost another hundred bucks in postage to mail the little suckers overnight so they wouldn't spoil. When I figure in the time I spent sweating in the kitchen, I should have just bought everyone a book.
In 2003, sadder but wiser, I thought: "I'll make soap!" I won't go into it, except to say that you should never, ever believe Martha Stewart when she says a project is "simple" or "inexpensive." Ever. Ever.
But holiday guilt and empty pockets have convinced me to try again. I've trawled the web for some crafty-type projects that are easy to make (no sewing and no sawing), easy to mail (i.e. light) and most importantly, cheap. And I'm going to GIVE this knowledge to you, so TAKE it.
Ingredients: shrinky dinks, key ring or silk cord
Tools: inkjet printer, cookie sheet, oven
Cost: $8.50 for six 8-by-10 sheets of inkjet-printer-ready plastic; 50 cents per yard for silk cord; 15 cents for key rings; plus the guilt of ripping off a very talented artist.
Remember Shrinky Dinks? They ruled! Though, sadly, the days of the Scooby-Doo themed set are bygone, the shrinky plastic sheets can be bought at Shrinkydinks.com. I've always admired (and wished I could afford) Jeanine Payer's work she's a jeweler who inscribes bits of poetry (Lao Tzu, Whitman, Proust) on silver or gold (see her website, www.jeaninepayer.com). Clever me will make my own versions in plastic: necklaces for girls (buy colored silk cord at Sam Flax), key chains (available at hardware stores) for the boys.
Choose a suitable quotation, type it into a graphics program and print out on the plastic. Be forewarned, pieces larger than 3 inches by 5 inches tend to get ripply when they bake. Stay small. Punch holes in the plastic to attach to key ring or necklace, then bake. Wipe that grin off your face, you toxic plastic fume-huffing freak.
Ingredients: A big picture (an image blown up on a color copier or maybe a collage cut out from magazines) on cardstock, a sheet of heavier cardboard the same size, some smaller pictures or notes, a few empty matchboxes, tiny treats.
Tools: X-acto knife, glue, tape, pencil.
Cost: depends on your packrat status. I could make this whole project with stuff around the house, except the cardstock.
Advent calendars are something I discovered late in life, as apparently they have some sort of religious application. The store-bought ones usually have a picture of Jesus, Mary or Santa, or some conflation thereof, neatly combining God with greed for presents and chocolate. (Works for me, except the God part.) They count down the days of December with little numbered windows, one for each day, behind some of which there are pictures and some of which there are treats. Neat idea, and I'm sure once upon a time it had some sort of religious logic. Whatever. Your mission is to co-opt and subvert consider a Pornvent calendar, or some equally American theme: drinking, shopping, sports.
Using the X-acto knife, cut doors in the cover image and number them 1 to 25. Trace around three sides of something square, like a small box or wood block, to make it easier. Hold the cover image over the cardboard and mark the location of the boxes by lightly drawing X's through the open doors with a pencil. Set the cover sheet aside and glue the small pictures, photos, messages, etc. over the X's. For "treat" windows, cut a hole the same size as the door through the cardboard and attach the "drawer" from an empty matchbox behind the hole with tape. Apply two pieces of tape in a cross shape for stability. Place treat in matchbox and close door over it. (Traditional treats include chocolate, coins and Bible verses, but you can do better. Cheapo costume jewelry, cocktail monkeys, Japanese candy, tiny wind-up toys and false mustaches all fit well.) When the hidden side is complete, glue the cover image with the cut-out doors on top.
Ingredients: T-shirt, apron or baby onesie; photo transfer kit; digital image file
Tools: computer and printer, iron
Cost: basic American Apparel T-shirt, $15; Avery photo transfer kits, $10-$15 for six 8.5-by-11-inch sheets.
Not particularly creative in concept but the sky's the limit in execution: T-shirts. Once upon a time a friend of mine made me a T-shirt emblazoned with a strip of my favorite comic using photo transfer paper. But the transfer was stiff and the shirt was a huge white Hanes Beefy-T, so I never wore it. Now it's a dust rag. Boo-hoo.
Photo transfer paper and T-shirts have both come a long way. Avery makes two good transfer kits: transparent carrier #3271 for light fabrics or opaque carrier #3279 for dark fabrics, both available at office supply stores. The two kits use different procedures, so follow the directions.
And thanks to American Apparel, there's no reason not to find a suitable blank T-shirt, made sweatshop-free in the United States, no less 58 different styles in 35 different colors, and skirts, pants, jackets and underwear to boot. My mother and my grandmother will get aprons with family recipes and/or photos printed on them; my two pregnant friends can expect baby onesies. (I found a website specializing in packing and shipping labels www.aslabeled.com and I like the pictorial labels for "Keep Dry" and "Do Not Stack." Good baby advice, I think.) Remember that art will show up in mirror image, so if there's type in your design, reverse it before you print.
So there you have it: stuff a step above the mix CD or tin of cookies the average broke gift-giver resorts to, yet with all the charm of the glitter-covered macaroni necklace or plaster-of-Paris handprint you got away with in grade school. Martha will be so firstname.lastname@example.org