Handmade Holiday Gift Guide

December 1, 2011

by Margaret Cabaniss

Last Christmas, my sisters and I had the great idea to give each other only handmade gifts that year. We wanted to cut down on some of the cost and stress of holiday gift-buying, hoping to avoid the annual harangue for gift ideas, the last-minute scramble to find something suitable, and in the end just plunking down a wad of cash and calling it a day. We wanted to give each other gifts that we would really treasure: items made with love and thoughtfulness, things that would remind us of one another every time we used them.

…well, it sort of worked out that way. In reality, there was still a scramble to find handmade gift ideas for certain sisters; in some cases, it actually became more stressful to think up or execute those gifts, and no less expensive than buying something that we knew the other sister wanted anyway. If one of the original goals of our grand plan was to cut down on pre-holiday stress and fuss, while slowing down to focus on what’s really important…well, we weren’t exactly hitting the mark.

In the end, we relaxed the rules a bit so that store-bought gifts were allowed, and we each ended up with a mix of great handmade items and a few books and things that we really wanted. Everybody wins!

I still love making and receiving handmade gifts, though — but thanks to last year’s experiment, I’m a little bit wiser about the best way to go about them while still keeping your sanity. Here’s what I learned:

Don’t get overambitious. There are officially only 24 days left until Christmas. That means 24 days for you to plan and execute whatever gift you have in mind — and presumably you’d like to spend some of that time eating and sleeping, too. Don’t attempt something that will require more time and energy than you can reasonably give it.

By the same token, be realistic about your skills: Don’t fall into the same trap I did last year and assume you can (for example) teach yourself how to knit and then execute an expertly crafted pair of hand warmers — all in a month, while making other gifts to boot — no matter how cute they are or how perfect they’d be for a particular sister. Ahem.

Think about the receiver. You may love country roses and knitted toilet paper covers, but accept that your intended recipient may not. Be mindful of their tastes, hobbies, and lifestyle before embarking on anything elaborate that, in the end, might not be used.

Make a plan and stick to it. In the early days of planning, I had so much fun looking around for great gift ideas that I had a hard time settling on just one. I would halfway commit to one plan, only to change midstream when I found another gift idea I thought I liked better…until that idea turned out to be too tricky to execute, so I’d look to option 3… Before I knew it, Christmas was right around the corner and I still had nothing to show for it.

Resist the “grass is greener” temptation here: Settle on an idea, do your homework right away to see what materials (and time!) are involved, and then commit. (And once you’re locked in, maybe stay away from Pinterest to keep from idea overload…)

Streamline. After trying to juggle too many different kinds of projects last year, I ultimately did two versions of the same gift for a couple of my sisters. It saved me time, because I could work on both gifts at once, as well as money, because I needed the same supplies for each — and in the end both sisters were thrilled with the result.

To keep from spreading yourself too thin, pick one or two project ideas and then go all Henry Ford on it: Bake a slew of one kind of cookie, knit a fleet of scarves, etc.

*     *     *

Now you’re ready for the fun part — actually picking out and making your gifts! If you’re looking for ideas, here are a few that won’t break the bank or keep you tied up all month. (All images are pulled from their respective sources, noted in parentheses.)


The holidays are all about eating and drinking just a little too much. Edible gifts also happen to satisfy my preference for presents that won’t sit around collecting dust. Set aside an afternoon to make up a big batch of whatever you’re preparing — get the kids involved, too — and you’ll have plenty on hand to give to relatives, neighbors, teachers, mail carriers, and that friend you forgot who inevitably shows up at your house with a gift for you. Don’t forget to show your good upbringing by presenting any of these as hostess gifts at holiday parties, too.

Nothing beats a loaf of gingerbread wrapped up in a tea towel for hominess. (Katie at the Kitchen Door)

There are any number of holiday cookies you could whip up here; I love this rosemary shortbread for being unexpected, easy to make, and wildly delicious. Plus it looks adorable in little parchment packages. (Alexandra’s Kitchen)

Spiced nuts, bourbon balls, peppermint bark…this is the season for homemade candy. Deb’s coffee toffee recipe is a go-to treat for me — and it’s another dead easy recipe that can be cranked out in large quantities. (Smitten Kitchen)

Infused Vodka (Real Simple)

Vanilla Extract (Simply Recipes)

Preserves (SlowMama)


Even if you think your crafting skills (or time) are limited, you can still turn out great gifts with just a little investment. Below, ideas for bath, home, beginner sewing, and kids:

Wheatgrass Soap (Martha Stewart)

Bath Scrub (SlowMama)

Lip Balm (Mountain Rose Herbs)

Monogrammed Mugs (Design Mom)

Pinecone Fire Starters (Design*Sponge)

Map Coasters (Kelly Wilkinson)

Tea Towel Apron (The Art of Doing Stuff)

Easy Cloth Napkins (Eighteenth Century Agrarian Business)

Recycled Sweater Pillow (Centsational Girl). I’m suddenly seeing these cable-knit pillows everywhere right now…this is a clever (and thrifty!) little hack.

Freezer-Paper Stenciled Shirt (Freshly Picked)

Tote Bag (Purl Bee)

Flower Pins (Design*Sponge)


I have a hard time getting over the impersonal nature of gift cards, but sometimes the best gift you can give is the freedom for the receiver to pick out what they truly need or want. That doesn’t mean you can’t spice it up a little, though. Consider giving a Starbucks gift card tucked into a hand-sewn coffee sleeve; a Home Depot card with a homemade tool roll; a bookstore card with a tote bag or Kindle cover. Practical and personal.

Still want more ideas? Check out this great round-up of handmade items on Design*Sponge, plus Grace Bonney’s tips for creating a not-to-be-forgotten “gift experience.”

Do you have any handmade gifts in the works this year?

Header image: Armelle Jewelry. Download a printable version of the “made with love” tag at her site.

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1 Zoe Saint-Paul December 1, 2011 at 12:56 pm

I think you just made the “making a plan and sticking with it” part very hard!

Wow, infused vodka… cool. Love those map coasters, as well. Love all these ideas. Thanks for such an interesting and fun list!

Now here’s hoping my friends and family are reading this :-)


2 Sarah D December 1, 2011 at 4:43 pm

As I was reading your first couple of sentences I wanted to laugh. “Aha”, I thought, “This sounds like a Cabaniss Plan if I ever heard one.” No one can fault you gals for a lack of idealism! :-)

These days I follow the path of my mother, who used to sew, knit, embroider, etc., and who now finds the overall cost in stress, materials and labor just too high *unless* the desired object just can’t be found, or can’t be found for close to a reasonable price. If that turns out to be the case, she makes the thing herself. I’m not as crafty as she, though someday I hope to make some homemade herbal products from herbs of my own growing. I mostly stick to baking and cooking.


Margaret Cabaniss 3 Margaret Cabaniss December 1, 2011 at 9:29 pm

Ha! I always liked to laugh at my older sisters about Cabaniss Plans…until I realized I was implicated in that phenomenon as well. Oops.

I definitely understand where your mom is coming from. Just because you’re making the gift yourself doesn’t mean it’s free! — at the very least, it costs you your time, which can be especially dear when you have lots of little ones about. That’s why I always end up preferring those projects I can do with other people — baking, knitting, etc. — because I’m being productive and social at the same time. Win win.


4 Jen December 1, 2011 at 9:41 pm

Love these ideas! Think I am going with the gingerbread idea for the neighbors.


Ann Waterman 5 Ann December 1, 2011 at 11:07 pm

These are all great ideas, Margaret, and I know if you recommend them, they’ll be something my uncrafty self can accomplish.

I’ll be making some of that awesome rosemary shortbread you made for me. It blew me away. I’ve even ordered some baker’s string.

Also, don’t forget about those paper book wreaths you wrote about earlier. I made one for me SIL and she love it:



Margaret Cabaniss 6 Margaret Cabaniss December 2, 2011 at 10:52 am

Yes! Baker’s twine is good for everything. I’m sure it’ll be making more appearances here throughout the month…

And of course, the book wreath! In fact, I actually made mine last year as part of our “handmade Christmas” thing…but then the intended sister was planning on moving shortly after the holidays, and I didn’t want to give her something large and fragile to have to pack up only a month later. (Translation: I loved it so much I decided to keep it all for myself.)


7 Cecilia Madden December 2, 2011 at 11:59 am

These are fabulous ideas. I especially take to heart the caution against deciding to make something you don’t have the skills to make (yet). I fall into this trap sometimes. Thanks for your words of wisdom and useful ideas.


Margaret Cabaniss 8 Margaret Cabaniss December 4, 2011 at 10:37 pm

Thanks, Cecilia! Glad you found it helpful; it is wisdom learned the hard way, I promise you…


9 LL December 4, 2011 at 8:03 pm

Just made the shortbread . . . but not the rosemary version, since I don’t like rosemary. I did the vanilla bean version, and it was yummy!! My only slight issue was the texture. Despite the photo of what the dough should look like, I got nervous about heeding the warnings not to overprocess. So I wound up slightly underprocessed. Didn’t take away from the flavor at all, but I’ll get my texture better the next time! Thanks for sharing this one and all the other great ideas!


Margaret Cabaniss 10 Margaret Cabaniss December 4, 2011 at 10:44 pm

Good to know about the vanilla version! I’ll have to try that next. I hear you on the fear about over-processing, though; I made mine with my laptop handy, so I could compare the contents of my bowl with the pictures she had in the recipe. Fortunately it seems pretty forgiving!


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