Editor’s Note: This article was first published as “Seven Last-Minute, Do-It-Yourself Gifts for Under $20” in 2011 and is now resurrected and republished as part of the Ghost-Lists of Christmas Past Series.
If the pepper-sprayed shoppers at Walmart on Black Friday are any indication, Americans are desperate for a good deal (and lacking in basic social skills). There are some good buys at the big box stores and I’m not against shopping at them, but this year even they are too pricey for our single-income household. Not only are times tough for my family, but for the country too. It is distressing to be unable to find items made here — or even Canada for that matter — or any other country that doesn’t hate us. Even toys that say “Made in America” turn out to be merely assembled here after the parts come from China. Retailers are catching onto the public disapproval and are changing the labels to use sneaky wording like “Made in PRC,” otherwise known as the People’s Republic of China, for the unsuspecting.
Inevitably, when you buy the plastic stuff made in “PRC” a few weeks later you’ll nearly disable your foot on a piece of it on the living room rug in the dead of night while trying to get to the bathroom. Or, even worse, that thing your precious cherub wanted so badly sits collecting dust and ends up in a give-a-way bag. Don’t pour money down the drain to China this year. Instead, support local businesses while working on your creative skills with these homemade gifts that your family will cherish. If you have any cooks in the family, this first gift is made just for them!
7. 100% cotton dishcloths
A nice set of dishcloths by Williams-Sonoma could run you anywhere from $25 to $40. A terrific gift for any cook in your family, there is no better counter-cleaner than a 100% American-grown cotton dishrag. I have several in my drawer that I’ve made right next to the store-bought kind and I don’t know why I keep the other ones when I never use them. I would rather wash my homemade cotton cloths every day than use the acrylic ones that get pilly and don’t absorb half what the cotton will. It will surprise you that I buy my cotton at Dollar Tree because 99% of their inventory is from China (including toothpaste…scary) but they carry Lily Cotton which is American-grown and made in Canada! Better yet, it’s the good stuff that would cost double at Hobby Lobby. “Sugar-n-Cream” cotton comes in all different beautiful colors and each roll for $1 yields 3 dishcloths. Stock up when you see them because they don’t last long. Also keep an eye out at the thrift store for cotton. It doesn’t take much to make a dishcloth so a half a roll will work! And thrift store prices are close to a quarter for cotton. Crocheting, even if you’ve never done it, is so easy you can learn in under an hour on YouTube and the pattern for these beautiful and useful cloths is as basic as it gets. I love crocheting because it always gives me an excuse to sit in front of the television without guilt because I’m not “just vegging out” I’m working!
Chain 20 and turn (more or less depending on how wide you want your cloth). Skip first chain and double crochet into each chain until the end, chain 2 turn and repeat until you get your cloth to the size you want. Make it bigger, it’s a towel or smaller and it’s a cloth. If you’re more advanced you can add shell stitches around the cloth for embellishment or any number of other decorative stitches with contrasting colors to give it a little more flair.
6. Handmade nativity playset
This is one of the cutest gifts that will be treasured forever and the only skill it requires is the ability to use a hot glue gun. Children love the Christmas Story and if you have one of those porcelain nativity sets that no one can touch, this is a child-friendly alternative that will also look adorable on display. If you’re really cheap — like me! — you can find everything you need to make these at a thrift store that carries crafting supplies. If you don’t have one of those, Hobby Lobby or any other crafting store will have the wooden peg dolls you need to make these adorable figures. And the great thing about these is you don’t really need peg dolls either. If you have old spools of thread you can use those for the bodies and round wooden beads for the heads. Keep an eye out for these things on sale throughout the year. An entire nativity scene should cost less than $10 (mine cost less than $4). For clothes, I use remnants found at the thrift store for pennies. For the sheep, I use cotton balls and sticks from the yard for legs. A Sharpie pen works great for drawing faces if you don’t want to get out the paints and a hot glue gun puts it all together! My set does not have a stable or a cradle, but that’s something that can be made with Popsicle sticks. Overall, this project lends to any direction your creative flow goes. It can be as simple or elaborate as you wish.
Items you need:
- Peg dolls or spools with beads for heads (decide how many you want for Mary, Joseph, baby, shepherds, wise men, animals and an angel)
- Hot glue gun and glue sticks
- Fabric scraps for clothing
- Yarn or string, sequins, beads, foil for embellishments
- Sparkly pipe cleaners for angel wings and halo
- Cotton balls and twigs for sheep
For all people, cut rectangular strips of fabric for clothes. Glue around peg doll or spool. (If using spools, glue heads on first.) For Mary’s headdress, glue a rectangular strip of fabric long-ways around her head and tri-fold (like a present) in the back with glue. Joseph is the same except he has a tie around the waist with yarn. Draw on face. Shepherds are pretty much the same, for wise men just use fancier fabric and make a crown out of tin foil. You can decorate them with sequins or make little gifts to glue to them. For the sheep, use small spools or small wooden barrels (which you can find in the same aisle as the peg dolls at the craft store), glue a head to it and cover the spool or barrel in cotton balls. Glue sticks on for legs and draw a face on the head. You can use felt for ears if you wish or leave them off. It’s not rocket science. For the angels wings, take one pipe cleaner, fold in half and twist ends together forming a circle. Then fold the circle in half and twist making a shape like a butterfly or wings. Then take another pipe cleaner and cut in half. Form a circle at the top for a halo and attach the bottom to the wings. Then glue onto the angel’s back so the halo sits above its head. The beauty of having this little wooden set is that it is completely indestructible. If anything comes apart or falls off you just get the glue gun out and fix it! The kids will love to play out the story with their little figures. It’s a fun idea to wrap it in a shoebox with hay inside and you can use the shoebox as a stable standing up on its side right there under the Christmas tree.
5. Boutique Baby Quilt
Every mother has boxes of baby clothes in storage. If your baby days are over — or even if they’re not — this craft only uses 15 baby outfits and some remnant fabric for a boutique keepsake quilt your child, grandparent or teen will cherish. Children love to hear about when they were babies and they love to look at their old clothes especially if they recognize them from photographs. The best part about these gifts is they’re great for boys or girls. All kids love to snuggle under a comfy blanket for movie time or bed time.
And each blanket can be custom-made for each child’s personality. To buy a quilt like this custom would surely cost over $100. Made with remnant material and old baby clothes, it can cost under $20 and under $10 if you’re especially frugal. One of the reasons I love thrift stores is because everything there may have been made in China but when sold the second time the only profit made is by American small businesses and charities. My favorite thrift donates to the elementary school I attended. Others give proceeds to send Bibles to poor countries or to help families in crisis.
These are worthwhile causes to support and, even if you can’t write a big check, you can support them and find good deals at the same time. Making this type of blanket isn’t hard, and maybe that’s because I’m doing it wrong. Real quilters will probably gasp at my willy-nillyness but I’m a believer in doing what works for me and that means crooked seams and short-cuts. All you need is a sewing machine, your scissors, some stick pins, baby clothes, fabric for contrast and fabric for the back of the blanket. I used 15 outfits and 15 contrasting squares of printed fabric I found on clearance in the remnant bin. For the backing, you just cut it slightly bigger than your quilt because you’ll use a rolled hem to finish it.
If any of these terms are foreign to you simply search them on YouTube and some kind soul will show you how to do it for free! Fleece is popular for the back of the blanket but can be expensive if you don’t get it on sale. But equally comfy and less expensive is flannel which can often be found for under $3 a yard. Or, if you’re really cheap (like me) you can buy a pretty printed sheet at the thrift store for $1 and use that! I usually buy fleece when it goes on sale no matter what time of year because I know I’ll use it eventually.
The first step is to choose the outfits and make a pattern and begin cutting.
After cutting 15 squares from outfits and 15 filler squares (and disposing of all the tear-soaked tissues that will inevitably pile up as you cut up all those precious onesies and layettes and ponder the big questions like, “have I had my last baby?”) lay them out in a pattern that is pleasing to you. A word of advice; do NOT call your husband at this moment while he’s in a meeting and tell him you need another baby.
Then you pin the squares to form rows together, careful to pin each square right sides together in the correct way to form a row of your blanket. The easiest way to know if you’ve done it properly is to pin it together and then open it back up. If it looks right, you did it correctly. Sew seams where you pinned the squares until you have your rows all put together. Then it’s time to sew the rows together to form the blanket in the same way by pinning right sides together and sewing. After the front of the blanket is done, lay it on top of the wrong side of the backing and roll the backing over the edge twice to create a rolled hem, pin and sew.
Believe it or not, this is a project you can make in 6 hours so it’s not too late to get it done in time for Christmas!
4. Travel felt board
I got this idea from this clever blogger at Maya*Made.This is a super easy craft that only requires straight stitching and patience when it comes to the cutting of the felt figures. I remember loving felt as a kid and my mother made us boards to teach us our letters and numbers. I wanted something similar for my girls but, if purchased, a felt board can run between $15 and $20. I hit the thrift store again and found an entire basket of felt! Jackpot. Flannel will work also, fyi. The directions are on the link above, but here are photos of the one I made for under $3 with fabric scraps and cardboard.
3. Knitted ear-warmer headband
I have been knitting for years but never advanced past the basic knit and pearl stitches, so when I tell you that this is an easy project, believe it. I had to learn a few new techniques for increasing and decreasing but as usual, the internet came through for me with instructional videos. I was in Shipshewana, Indiana recently on a girls’ weekend and while browsing the beautiful Amish shops I kept seeing these gorgeous ear-warmer headbands with handmade flowers. They were stunning and practical. I bought one for $13 to replicate and to serve as a reminder to attempt it. Alright, I also wanted it to wear around town with my steaming latte. How often does a mom of two get a weekend away with girlfriends? (About once every 6 years and that deserves a $13 splurge.) I scoured the internet for free patterns and found a winner. There is also a terrific knitting tutorial site I used to help me through the pattern. Yarn can be purchased for very little at thrift stores but it’s a toss-up what you’ll find there and sometimes it’s not enough to finish a project. However, it’s worth looking. If you don’t find yarn you love at the second-hand shops, go ahead and buy it new. This project only takes about 2/3 of a skein of yarn, if that. A new ball of yarn is about $6 and that’s not a bad price for a gift. I made them for all my nieces this year. The size of the pattern is good for adults and children. All you have to do for children is move the button closer to make it tighter. (And never buy buttons new! Thrift stores sell giant jars of them for $2 or less! Grab one of those and save a bundle.)
Knitting is a very relaxing pastime once you get the hang of it and what better gift than one you put your time and energy into? It may sound corny, but I also find that when knitting something for someone you love it’s a great time to think about them and pray for them, something that often gets overlooked in my busy schedule. Prayer time is hard to find, but knitting is a natural companion to meditation and prayer.
2. Quiet books
I will never forget the quiet book my mother made me. It had a tree with apples that snapped onto it and a page with a zipper and one with shoelaces. Hours were spent playing with it. I set out to make one this year and while mine isn’t as advanced as my mother’s — because I’ve run out of time — it’s still cute and I know the recipient will love it. Quiet books are made out of felt or other fabric you choose. All you need is your imagination and you can make anything you wish. Here is a link to a serious overachiever who made this project and more power to her. This is serious cuteness. Here is the one I made (in a lot less time than that poor woman invested). I used felt pieces of the same size, created my scene and sewed it on with zig zag stitches, then stitched the pages right sides together and turned inside out. When all the pages are done you stitch them together right down the middle, add your pieces and a button to finish! I made this one like a felt board in a book. No snaps, no zippers…much easier and quicker. It has been tested by my 2-year-old and she loves it. She especially loves the dinosaurs.
1. Sweater Boots
This project was spawned out of my envy. I often covet things I can’t afford. I try not to, but there are times I’ll see something and swoon and then see the price tag and cry. This happened with the very-popular sweater boots. They just look so comfy and stylish and that just doesn’t happen very often. Some of these boots are close to $200. No thanks, I’d rather eat.
On a whim I googled “make your own sweater boots” and was shocked to discover someone had actually done it and claimed I could do it too for about $6. Shut up. Armed with thrift store slip-on keds, an old sweater, a glue gun and a racing heart I made mine in an afternoon. And admittedly, these will need some repair after some use, but for $6 I’ll just make more if they fail. I’ve made mine my house-shoes (anyone with wood floors knows you can’t go shoeless for long without serious pain) and I couldn’t be happier. Then my family saw them and demanded their own. Since I happen to know their shoe-sizes, I was able to make all the girls in my family their own sweater boots. I spent $15 to make 5 pairs. (Not only do I shop at thrift stores but I go on their sale days!) One important detail that isn’t included on the instructions is do not use shoes that are not fabric. If they are leather or pleather or any kind of slick material the hot glue won’t stick. But any fabric shoe will hold much longer. I have considered using a combination of hot glue and fabric glue but have not tried it yet. To make sweater boots, go here and follow the instructions. Here are photos of mine:
Christmas doesn’t have to be a time of incurring debt and hectic trips to the mall. Instead, make your Christmas a time of learning, creativity and handmade offerings of love.