Getting crafty

When the times call for handmade, and you say 'not by me'

By Erin McKean
December 7, 2008
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WE ALL GET it: we're in a recession. This holiday season, ostentatious and lavish gifts are out, and cozy, heartfelt, handcrafted gifts are in.

Which is all very well . . . but unless you've already been doing handicrafts for years, you may not be in a position to retool immediately for the new DIY holiday economy. The dirty little secret of handicrafts is that, although the raw materials can be inexpensive, the tools and gadgets that make crafting easier - or, in some cases, even possible - can be pricey. Pliers for jewelry-making, hot glue guns, screenprinting frames, and sewing machines can run you into some serious cash before a single adorable fuzzy stuffed monkey, personalized journal, or beaded bracelet emerges from your new home workshop.

And even a quick capital investment in the tools of the trade won't help you if you happen to be among the many who are, sadly, craft-impaired.

Thankfully, as with so many other modern problems, you can find some help on the Internet. This Christmas, why don't you outsource your crafting?

It may sound cynical, or even oxymoronic, to have the "hand" involved in your "handcrafted gift" be somebody else's. But it's the thought that counts - and the thought was still yours, right? In addition, you'll be supporting small creative businesses, which is heartwarming any time of the year.

Many websites allow you to make personalized items quickly and easily: Upload a digital image and you can get anything from T-shirts to stickers to posters to mugs and messenger bags imprinted quickly. A single sticker costs as little as $3. T-shirts cost $14-25, and posters are $20 and up. and CafePress are two of the best-known; (based in Australia) has high-quality shirts and a very simple interface, but you'll pay international shipping charges. If all you want is a simple T-shirt, and you have a printer, Avery iron-on T-shirt transfer paper is an easy solution - and it now comes in a version that works on (much cooler) black T-shirts. If you're stumped for artistic inspiration, Dover Publications offers dozens of CDs of clip art images, for everything from art nouveau to African folk art ($15-20).

If you want to say "I care enough to have someone else do it by hand," it's hard to beat, a huge online marketplace teeming with crafters who will often personalize items as well. Etsy seller MiChiMa will make you custom stuffed felt letters, perfect for spelling out a niece or nephew's name or just to give a friend a favorite word - at a dollar a letter, even "antidisestablishmentarianism" is cheaper than a ticket to the Sox. If felt's not your thing, Etsy seller wiremajigs will do custom wire writing for you for 60 cents a letter. Yippihippi will make you a giant sparkly monogram resin pendant in any letter you choose ($18) and Button Divas will make you 10 customized pocket mirrors, keychains, or bottle openers, for $17.50: perfect for sharing an in-joke with a group.

You can still get the personal touch without personalization: Lots of sellers on Etsy make unique, offbeat items that will make somebody special feel special - and your budget feel ample. Handmade fleece whale hats (from fabricninja, only $30) or jangly, modern bracelets made of anodized aluminum rings (in any combination of six colors, from ivyteakettle, $20.50) are inexpensive pleasers. Comic-book wallets ($5) from DumbKidDesigns make great stocking stuffers, as do siskastudio's $7.50 mini-notebooks printed with images of vintage bicycles. For something more elegant, you can try feralgirl's hand-stitched leather business-card wallets for $22. Simplyneckties offers silver ties printed with hipster-friendly images such as unicorns, Bob Dylan, DEVO, and Bono for $11.95 and up; FrenchPress sells a fantastic 7x17 poster of multiple letter E's, of hand-set wood type printed on a Vandercook printing press, for $10.

And if you can't find something you like on Etsy, the site even has an "alchemy" service that lets you post a request for a particular item you want but can't find (one recent poster wanted a "ninja-related present for husband"), and a "recent custom creations" link for examples of items recently commissioned, like the hand-stamped deer coasters that were ordered as a present for someone's father-in-law.

You could also outsource your gift-making to the recipients themselves, by giving make-your-own kits as gifts: That way you're not just giving a thing, you're giving an experience, too. Etsy seller MadeByCara had a make-your-own Hanging Pirate ornament kit for $9, and seller "myimaginaryboyfriend" offers a make-your-own two-robot ornament kit for $15. For $29, you can buy a kit from AnnieHowes that has all the materials you need to make five Scrabble-tile pendants. A girl of any age would be happy to get KissNaturals DIY lip-balm kit, which makes 10 pots of lip balm ($19.95). And at you can buy an LED Light Art kit for $14.95, which can be assembled with only a few simple tools.

You can also outsource your homemade gifts nearer to home: Could you offer to run holiday errands for a friend in return for a few extra batches of her Christmas cookies? Pay a local teen to wrap your presents? Buy CDs from a friend's band, or a collection from a college radio station? Warning: The holidays are usually a bad time to ask your crafty friends to make extra presents for you to give (if they don't offer first) since they are probably over-extended with their own gift-making.

So even without the right tools, or the right chops, you can have all the rough edges and puckered seams of a handmade holiday, for about the same cost - and in a fraction of the time. Your nearest and dearest won't have seen your present dozens of times already in catalogs or stores; it's also highly unlikely that, whatever you give them, they already have one - or were even aware that one existed. You'll be creating that best of all present-unwrapping reactions: The sudden intake of breath and the "How did you ever find this?"

Erin McKean is a lexicographer ( and craft blogger (

Handmade-esque gifts (from top): make-your-own Scrabble pendant ($29), robot ornament kits ($15), and comic book wallet ($5). Handmade-esque gifts (from top): make-your-own Scrabble pendant ($29), robot ornament kits ($15), and comic book wallet ($5).
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