There's thought behind it, sure, but also twenty hours of knitting.
October 19, 2008 1:52 PM   Subscribe

What are the most memorable, awesome or useful handmade gifts you've received or given? I'm in search of some inspiration, as well as cautionary tales.

My extended family has been very polite in enduring handmade gifts from me year after year, but I think only a few people have really enjoyed what I've made them, and the pleasure in giving gets a bit lost that way. The success rate is better with friends but inspiration would still be handy.

I'd love a wide variety of suggestions so I won't say too much, but here's a few details:

- I can cook, sew, take decent photographs sometimes, bind books, knit, make prints, draw, etc, so anything goes.

- Previous gifts have included screenprints, cold-process soap, shortbread, cookies, handmade journals, and a roaring success in a portrait of my grandparents. Current plans include blank cards with suitable photographic prints on the front, some knitted hats for a few people who will definitely wear them, one well-targeted mix cd.

- Particular areas of difficulty are: teenage boys (not bookish or alternative, damn!), professional glam women in their mid 20s to early 30s (ditto!).

Any stand-out gifts you've made or received?

(Warnings about the chasm between intention and reception would probably be good, too. And weirdly, I can't find any previouslies.)
posted by carbide to Grab Bag (38 answers total) 65 users marked this as a favorite
I made a clock out of an old CD (well, a couple). It was pretty easy -- clock movement, old CDs, a little bit of glue, assemble, done. That was one of the bigger hits of last year when I took it upon myself to make all my Christmas gifts last year

Candles have also gone over well, but if you don't have the supplies, it can be an investment.

Christmas ornaments and decorated picture frames (I use the cheap 4x6 ones from IKEA) also seemed to work out.

Consumables (food, soaps, etc.) always seem to be better -- things people can actually use rather than things that are just decorative. In that way, some things you may want to think of are bath goodies or hand-mixed spice blends or herbal teas.

(This year I'm doing sipping chocolate for everyone and packaging it in recycled tins.)

Mostly, I don't care if people like what I've made them or not. I was very upfront about why I was doing what I was doing (dislike of the consumer culture surrounding the holiday season) and my family was on board with that and understood it (they're of a pretty similar mindset). I saw it more as me giving them the gift of my time and energy -- it wasn't about the end result as much as it was about what went into making it.

I hope this helps. Good luck.
posted by darksong at 2:19 PM on October 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

I hand-drew an atlas full of individual maps charting where my best friend and I had traveled on trips bag and small, and what my everyday travels were while living on the other side of the world from him. I used a normal, wire-bound, heavyweight-paper sketchbook, added a lot of personal commentary and "remember the time we Xed in Y?" He called it one of the most amazing, personal gifts he'd ever received.
posted by mdonley at 2:26 PM on October 19, 2008 [7 favorites]

My fiancée once made me a knitted iPod nano case. I loved it !(but i got an iPod touch since). Anyway I find this idea simple and effective.
posted by Jaloux Saboteur at 2:27 PM on October 19, 2008

I suspect the emotional value is less in the workmanship and more in the thought and circumstance.

For instance, this guy's story.
posted by Class Goat at 2:28 PM on October 19, 2008

One of my friends makes a really spicy almond brittle for me every year. It's laced with cayenne pepper. That might be a good teenage boy kind of gift.
posted by advicepig at 2:28 PM on October 19, 2008

I've had luck knitting shawls as presents for glamorous friends. They're kind of a big investment of time, but people were pretty happy about them and wear them often and are also wonderful friends whom I adore, so I feel like it was worth it. Smaller things I've given away that people have liked are reusable linen grocery bag type things (here is a (pdf) pattern for one that is pretty and entertaining to make) and plain-ish linen towels (usually with nice soap of some kind stuck in the package too) -- linen is awesome because people can put it through the washer and dryer, and it gets softer and better-looking with time and abuse. The biggest homemade gift-giving mistake I make over and over again is giving people things with elaborate washing instructions, because they get wrecked or put away for fear of being wrecked.

Do the teenage boys like toques/watchcaps/beanies?
posted by bewilderbeast at 2:34 PM on October 19, 2008

The best hand made gifts we've given others were food. In particular: home made jam/marmalade/chutney (each person got three small jars rather than one large one) or a tin of hand-made Christmas cookies (complete with a range of fancy decorations). I can imagine baking of some kind going down well for a teenage boy and the chutneys were very popular with our age group (late twenties, early thirties). We've since had to give out recipes for all these things. Jars of jam are kind of heavy to post but one or two small jars isn't too bad, probably not helpful for posting internationally though.

I personally don't like receiving toiletries (particularly soap) or candles. I'm allergic to most scents and soaps and have to be very particular in what I buy for myself in those areas. I've also been given handmade jelwery which just sits in a drawer somewhere, you need to be very sure of a person's taste before you start giving those kinds of things. The earrings in particular are a wash because I'm allergic to nickle and any small amount of contamination will cause pain.

I love the idea of a hand-made spice blend. I don't always have a lot of time to cook so anything I can throw on some meat and make the meal fancy with no effort sounds awesome.
posted by shelleycat at 2:55 PM on October 19, 2008

I regularly get handmade gifts from someone who's close to me. I hate it. They're dustcatchers with absolutely no practical purpose. If they weren't handmade, I would throw them away; since they are handmade I feel like I have to keep them. They're just clutter.

My advice is this: have the items be things that are either actually useful, or that go away on their own (e.g. candy or other edible treats).

(Yes, I am heartless. Bah, humbug.)
posted by The corpse in the library at 3:04 PM on October 19, 2008 [2 favorites]

What are the most memorable, awesome or useful handmade gifts you've received or given?

Some of my favourites were always given to the same guy:

In high school, I gave him a mobile made out of a clothes hanger and a dozen potatoes covered in White-Out. The potatoes sprouted tendrils that reached down to him while he slept.

When we were undergrads, I gave him a manequin head with a plastic finger sticking out of its left temple, perched atop a pyramid of ice-filled peanut butter jars.

When we were in grad school, I gave him a bottle of whiskey duct-taped to the belly of a black leather dog.
posted by Beardman at 3:04 PM on October 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

*For couples, I like to make what I call a "drive-through picnic set" with the idea that no-one ever uses those lovely, elaborate picnic baskets, but couples still like the idea of a romantic picnic. I make a sturdy tote from something that can take the abuse of being stowed in the car. For inside I make a 3'x6' blanket with ties so it can be rolled up (like a sleeping blanket), then I make a roll-up cutlery/napkin/folding cup holder and stock it with plastic cutlery/wet wipes, then I make a little bag to hold a roll of small trash bags. The idea is that you keep this in the car, and when you drive through for burgers or pick up take out, you're always ready to picnic. Just pull over someplace nice, roll out your blanket for two, clean-up afterwards. You can customize the look a lot of different ways and reports back are that it gets used. It's a nice wedding gift, too.
*For women and girls who like nice/fancy/pretty things, I've found that it's best to go with simple design in a luxury material. This can be easy--two long lengths of a beautiful linen and a designer cotton turned and topstiched make an awesome scarf. Or harder--a long scarf knitted in a single stitch (like moss stitch--understated and pretty) in a super-soft, neutral-colored merino, alpaca, cashmere-blend.
*A few friends have gotten little "eco-sets" from me--a couple of grocery totes made from funny t-shirts (lots of tutorials online, very easy) along with a big set of everyday cloth napkins (my version is fun cotton print on one side and terry reused from old towels on the other, turned and topstitched). These are getting used because they don't seem "nicey-nice"--it's fun. Nothing matches, it's upcyled materials.
*Along the same lines as above--there are a few tutorials on making kids'/babies' pants from old t-shirts. I've asked friends with kids for their still-loved but not wearing T's and made these.
*Quilts/blankets are always appreciated and used, I've found. Blankets and throws are fast and simple to put together. Quilts can be simple, or very amazing (obviously). I like to look at Denise Schmydt's stuff for inspiration.
*I only had to gift a teenage boy once in near memory (thank goodness). I knit him a black wool stocking cap and put a $20 in it. It went over very well (perhaps I paid him to like the hat)?
posted by rumposinc at 3:19 PM on October 19, 2008 [13 favorites]

This record bowl turned up in another AskMe thread recently. Maybe it's useful? Double-plus useful when filled with.. stuff... that one may expect in a normal gift basket.
posted by whatzit at 3:23 PM on October 19, 2008

When it comes to gifts of any kind, you need to really match it to the recipient. Handmade things don't always get by on the "oh, this is handmade!" charm -- a person may respect that you put in a lot of time making them a hat, but if they don't wear hats, they still won't wear yours, or feel vaguely uncomfortable that "oh, crap, now I'm going to have to figure out how to wear this now and then".

So I would say that unless you know for certain that the recipient is going to really, honestly use the thing you made for them, skip it. The exceptions to this are parents and babies -- a parent will usually accept any handmade thing you make simply because you made it, and babies are cute and tiny and that cute-and-tiny thing translates to everything about them.

Another point: teenagers are just notoriously difficult to give gifts to anyway, unless you know the really, really well. During the years my younger cousins were teens, I just got them gift cards to Tower Records and called it a day.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 3:24 PM on October 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

Knitted things:
-throw blankets, for adults who live in cold climes
-hats (Marsan watchcap is a fave of mine for men; snowboarding hat)
-fingerless gloves (two-fingerless; you can extrapolate how to make the other fingers, a bit smaller)
-felted purse for the glam 20-something (one b/w example)
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:31 PM on October 19, 2008

If they weren't handmade, I would throw them away; since they are handmade I feel like I have to keep them. They're just clutter.

I feel this way about all handmade ornamentation thingies. If you can't use the handmade thing for something, it's just more crap that I have to move next time I relocate. Although, I should note, I throw most of it out regardless.

If you've got to make it yourself, make food.
posted by Netzapper at 3:32 PM on October 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

Nthing food, or family photos. One year we got the only decent picture of my father-in-law, who had recently died, restored, and then gave framed copies to everyone. That was a big hit. Teens would probably like stuff like caramel popcorn, rice krispies treats, or anything they can share with their friends.
posted by gudrun at 4:11 PM on October 19, 2008 [2 favorites]

Teenage boys like to eat. So do most people actually. Make peanut brittle or peppermint bark or something else that won't go stale right away because people tend to have plenty of food around during the holidays.
If they're the right kind of teenage boys, they may appreciate a nice screenprinted t-shirt or hoodie or a ski cap or scarf. The professional women might or might not also appreciate scarves.
Definitely food for people you aren't sure about though.
posted by martinX's bellbottoms at 4:19 PM on October 19, 2008

Oh, just remembered, one year my grandmother collected favorite recipes from everyone in our family and printed them out with pictures of everyone and laminated them and made them into a cookbook. It went over really well and my mom still has and uses hers. You could modify this idea for your family/circle of friends if cooking isn't your bag. (everyone's favorite game, story, photograph, etc)
posted by martinX's bellbottoms at 4:23 PM on October 19, 2008 [3 favorites]

Some years ago, I gave my friend Kim a home-made Tyvek credit card protector. This is the little envelope that keeps the magnetic strip on a credit card from becoming abraded, though you can use it for other types of plastic cards of the same dimension. Here is the one I make for my own AAA card.

You will notice that the Tyvek on my protector is black, as I obtained a roll of it from a library supply company. I understand that it's used to repair books. The easiest way to obtain Tyvek is from an old 8 & 1/2" by 11" mailing envelope, although those are slightly flimsy.

Fold the Tyvek into an envelope that holds the card snugly, and use Tyvek adhesive tape to seal the back side.

Cut a little notch in the open end so your fingers can grasp the card to pull it out of the protector.

Interestingly, the new "gel" ball point pens are able to permanently mark the smooth surface of the card protector.
posted by Tube at 4:23 PM on October 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

I've given

colorful patchworked recycled-sweater felted wool potholders and pillows

beaded wine charms (6 different colored clusters of bead grapes, with a little leaf bead, on a seed beaded spiral of wire)

A big octopus of a chandelier made of junction boxes, electrical conduit and globe bulbs

Bourbon braised applesauce in jars

This lamp

Headbands, barrettes and belts.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 4:30 PM on October 19, 2008

Let's see-this is a great, and timely question, as it's getting to that holiday-crafting time.

*Photo gifts go over really well with parents and grandparents and other folks really into family. I love the shutterfly calendars-I've made them myself in years past, but man, it's a pain in the ass to color copy and collate, and shutterfly is simpler and cheaper if you get a good coupon code. Framed photos of someone important to the recipient (or of a place important to the recipient) are also hits, but sounds like you've done that.

*For the glam professional women, I'd probably go for an infused vodka (hey...the teenage boys would probably love that, too, but the parents might not go for it!). It's easy and cheap and fabulous-pick some hip flavor like limoncello (lemon, sugar, vodka), maybe earl grey tea, or rosemary, or wasabi (we made fabulous bloody marys this year camping with bloody mary mix-you could make this, too-spicy dilly beans (homemade) and wasabi vodka).

*I don't like knickknacks, but I do love decorating for the holidays, esp Halloween and Christmas. So items that are specific to those holidays always go over well for me when I get them-they feel festive but don't sit around collecting dust all year-like a quilted Christmas tablerunner or christmas ornaments.

*I suppose you could do something specific to a sports team if any of your recipients are a fan-always seems silly to me, but then I'm not that much of a fan of any sport that I want the team's crap in my house. Still, lots of people are, and need color-coordinated items to wear to game days.

*I think fabulous homemade candies always are a safe bet, unless someone is seriously dieting. This is easy and people love it (read the reviews and modify if you'd like-I only do two layers of chocolate), and these caramels look good.
posted by purenitrous at 4:49 PM on October 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

I made these gingerbread cookies last christmas, packaged them in cute penguins and holiday bags from Oriental Trading Co., and then gave them away to neighbors and friends and as part of a larger gift to family. Folks were very appreciative. I also generally enjoy receiving edible presents as gifts.
posted by onlyconnect at 5:47 PM on October 19, 2008

These felted clogs have really gone over well with two recipients. If you know their shoe size you can guess the clog size pretty well from a conversion chart. Here is a finished pair that I made. It takes a lot of yarn, (you knit double strand) but you can often get 100% wool yarn on sale at Michael's/Hobby Lobby, and it doesn't have to be super soft since you are going to felt it anyways. Considering making a few pair again this Christmas!

I also take a lot of pictures and made several Moo Card collages last Christmas. I made a flowers one for my mom, one from a summer trip for my sister, and several canoeing-themed ones for my canoe buddies. Here's a finished one. Idea and tutorial at JPG Magazine.
posted by sararah at 7:17 PM on October 19, 2008

Oh, and the clogs knit up pretty quick because you use size 13 needles. Each pair took me a weekend of fairly consistent knitting.
posted by sararah at 7:18 PM on October 19, 2008

i knit a hat with a fair isle skull motif for my 12 year old brother that he loved, the original was black and olive green, but i later had to replace it with a black and red one as it got too worn out. my advice for knit presents is to keep the colors very conservative, the designs pretty simple, and to use chunky yarn. with bulky yarn, even if the recipient doesn't like it, at least your own time investment was minimal.
posted by genmonster at 7:38 PM on October 19, 2008

I make cookies...100s of cookies. I save tins to put them in and people I give them to return the tins for refills next Christmas.
posted by bjgeiger at 8:38 PM on October 19, 2008

I have some handmade coasters like these that I bought from a seller on etsy. They are super practical and seem like they would be easy to make.

Hand screen printed or decorated canvas grocery bags would be cool too.

You could do little bags out of fancy fabrics...something to put inside a purse to store tampons or cosmetic type items.

One of my husband's friends made him a velcro cuff thingy to wrap around his right ankle when he is biking to keep his pant leg from getting caught in the chain of his bike. It's a rectangle made of heavy fabric and velcro. He uses it pretty much every day.
posted by pluckysparrow at 9:15 PM on October 19, 2008 [2 favorites]

Seconding the family recipe book. My brother and sisters and I love my mom's Filipino cooking, but anything we tried to recreate ourselves never quite tasted as good as my mom's own dishes. She never quite measured any ingredients and when you asked her how she made something, she'd shrug and say, "A little bit of this, a dash of that, a sprinkle of this thing...."

So my sister made a point of watching her cook meals, wrote down the ingredients and methods, then sent them on to me. I created a family cookbook adding funny stories of memories of us growing up incorporated into each recipe, along with artwork. They were printed up nicely and handed out to everyone at Christmas. When she saw how much work went into it, she was so touched. To this day, she drags out her copy to show off to her friends. We try to update it every year.
posted by HeyAllie at 10:19 PM on October 19, 2008

Last year my boyfriend and I made batches of bacon chocolate chip cookies for all my family members. Since we had to travel and there are so many of them, we chose something that we could make "on-the-spot" at my mom's house. We bought special presents for close family members, but gave the cookies as a general gift for others.
posted by bendy at 12:40 AM on October 20, 2008

I made a pair of Fetchings for my Secret Santa recipient last year, a very glam mid-twenties lady, she's still talking about them and how much she loves them. They're not a difficult knit at all, and I reckon took about as long as a hat would, but they look stunning. The gents' version Dashing is not all that manly (I ended up keeping the pair that I made), but equally lovely.
posted by featherboa at 4:35 AM on October 20, 2008 [2 favorites]

People have mentioned single photos in frames, but in my experience the full photo album goes down better still. They work because they take so much time that few people bother to make them up themselves. And they're a rare example of a gift that improves as time goes by.
posted by Acheman at 4:56 AM on October 20, 2008

How close are you to the teenager? I think it would be very cool to let them design a logo or something and have you screenprint it for them onto a t-shirt.
I did something similar when my niece was 6-7. She drew a lovely picture of a girl in a kimono, and I scanned it and ebroidered the picture on to a tote bag. She carried that bag around until it was in tatters. Now that she's almost 13, she gets to "design" whatever I'm going to knit her. I e-mail her pictures of the yarn I can use, and some patterns, and she picks out what colors she wants. This year she wants legwarmers (shudder). I wore those when I was her age- are they really coming back?
posted by dogmom at 6:59 AM on October 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

I used to send handmade gifts to a friend on the East Coast every Christmas. The first time was a little Chinese-knot keychain that looked like a man, and he remembers me by that alone, even asking for more later on. Another gift was a protection charm.
posted by curagea at 9:53 AM on October 20, 2008

Those bags filled with rice that you throw in the microwave for 2 - 3 minutes and then put on your neck or back or whatever is sore and needs heat. Use 100% cotton in whatever design fits the person you're making it for (frogs for the girl who likes frogs, Harley Davidson logos for the guy with a Harley, soccer balls, etc.). The one I got was about 6 X 20 with a couple of seams stitched through it to keep the rice from shifting too much. I also have one that is sort of crescent shaped to fit around my neck and shoulders. I use mine all the time and now I make them to give away, I usually use flannel and rice. Here are a couple links to instructions
You can also use old clothes if you want to recycle and really go cheap, just make sure the fabric is 100% cotton. Synthetics + microwave, not a good match.
posted by BoscosMom at 1:23 PM on October 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

Ooooh, curagea, The keychain and protection charm sound wonderful. Do you have links to instructions that you would be willing to share?
posted by BoscosMom at 1:30 PM on October 20, 2008

Response by poster: This is a total joy to read, thanks so much. I'm not marking a best answer because they're all good, but I am going to sift through a whole load of times, and have had some other, unmentioned good ideas just from considering the scope of suggestions.

the corpse in the library and others: I know the feeling, and I am ruthless about clutter, so it's important to me that I make something that can be used or consumed or enjoyed, not thrown in a drawer and glanced at guiltily. If you haven't heard the Meet the Pros episode of This American Life, the bit about David Rakoff going to the Martha Stewart Living craft dept has an intro you might enjoy.

mdonley: That's an amazing gift, and almost backwards-inspiring - I make maps all the time, but I must make a point of having adventures with friends worthy of a project like yours.

EmpressCallipygos: gift tokens might be the path of least resistance with the teenagers, alright. I'll feel better about doing it after having at least tried to find something better, but I probably would have preferred them to all but the most awesome, true-to-me gifts then too.

On the matching-gift-to-recipient thing that a few people mentioned, I am pretty conscientious about it (and like dogmom's personalised gift successes, I know how well it can be received), but really appreciate the emphasis.
posted by carbide at 3:30 PM on October 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

Used vinyl records also make great clocks -- the mechanism of most cheap clocks fits perfectly in the hole of the record. I've made clocks using records themselves, or just the cardboard album sleeve. You can paint on either to customize, or hang as-is.
posted by Robot Johnny at 5:32 AM on October 21, 2008

My sisters made an awesome Duvet Cover for me a few years ago -- the picture does not do it justice, at all. Using various scraps of material collected at second hand stores, they added references to most all of my various interests through that point in my life. Fantastic!

They also did curtains and cushions and stuff for my then new apartment one year.

Whatever you do, personalize it!
posted by Chuckles at 11:14 PM on October 31, 2008

If someone made these cinnamon rolls for me or my family I would love them until the end of time.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 1:13 PM on November 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

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