Jan 252015
It's been a month since Christmas.  Reflecting on our holiday memories.

It’s been a month since Christmas. Reflecting on our holiday memories.

Long time no post! Lots has been going on this month and we are nearly at the end of January! On this one month past Christmas, I wanted to take a moment to wrap up the holiday season.

Our holiday season was enormously busy as well. We had a wonderful time celebrating throughout the month but it was nice to be done with all of it. When I look at the big picture of holiday chores, it came down to eight major categories of tasks.

1. Putting Up Decorations

We put up more decorations this year than probably ever in years past. I shared with you my new front door decorations which I love. The other treat I did not share was the adorable mantel design my daughters created all on their own. I awoke from a pregnancy-induced nap to find my daughters had hung up all the stockings and created a fun toyscape. They even put up a tiny stocking for their sibling to be, which was incredibly sweet.

My daughters' impressive mantel design.

My daughters’ impressive mantel design.

We had a lot of fun with lights this year. During the dark days of December, having a variety of lights on throughout the house really cheered things up. Next to the mantel, we tried a DIY idea I had seen last year to wrap lights on upturned tomato cages to make modern “trees.” It took a little bit of work to wrap all the lights but they added a bright, modern touch to our mantel. My children came up with the idea to color some foam blocks we had with permanent markers to make “presents” for the trees.

Our tomato cage "trees" with foam block "presents."

Our tomato cage “trees” with foam block “presents.”

We added a few new handmade decorations to our tree as well.

The knitted "elf clothesline garland" by Rhonda Brewer that has been on my "to knit" list forever.

The knitted “elf clothesline garland” by Rhonda Brewer that has been on my “to knit” list forever.

Painted horse ornaments my girls made with their cousin at a Christmas-themed horse-riding event.

Painted horse ornaments my girls made with their cousin at a Christmas-themed horse-riding event.

2. Shopping/Making Gifts

This year, in addition to purchasing gifts for our children, we exchanged homemade gifts with family members. I was excited to try this for the first time but didn’t quite appreciate how much work it would end up being! My gifts included some homemade treats, knitted sheep and some portrait ornaments from my children.

A baking extravaganza!  Homemade macaroons, challah bread, cranberry orange and lemon blueberry bread.

A baking extravaganza! Homemade macaroons, challah bread, cranberry orange and lemon blueberry bread.

A flock of knitted sheep ornaments.

A flock of knitted sheep ornaments.

Portraits of family members done by my children.  They dressed up nicely in inexpensive $1 ornament frames.  I loved these!

Portraits of family members done by my children. They dressed up nicely in inexpensive $1 ornament frames. I loved these!

I had a lot to learn about sending baked goods through the mail. The first lesson was that you need to mail quickly after baking to prevent your hard work from becoming stale. We rushed to mail them one day after finishing the baking. We were in a huge rush to pack and label everything and it came out a bit rough. We tossed goodies quickly into sandwich bags and packed with shredded newspaper. If we ever did this again, I would have on hand one of each size of the U.S. postal service standard mailing boxes to estimate postage and packing requirements. (These can be picked up free at the post office.) Also, picking up a supply of colored tissue paper for nicer packing material and/or tins that exactly fit in the boxes would have been a nicer touch.

My daughter was so inspired by my knitting that she asked me to get her started on her own project. She picked it up immediately and began taking her knitting with her in the car when we had errands to run.

A new knitter!

A new knitter!

In other handmade activities, we signed my daughter up for sewing lessons at the incomparable G Street Fabrics during December. She ended up being the only child in the class and received private lessons, making an adorable drawstring bag and an assortment of pillows.

Sewing class

Sewing class

3. Family Photo Session

Since we have very young children who seem to grow by the day, we always end up delaying taking our holiday card photo until right near the holidays. It is always a full day, exhausting production getting everyone’s hair and clothes ready and taking enough pictures to capture one worthy of using for the card and individual portraits of the children. This year, I had an extra challenge trying to look attractive in my advancing pregnant state. Fortunately, I found some great YouTube videos about using contour makeup that seemed to help. I also learned the hard way that our waving iron was malfunctioning as it got too hot and burned off a lock of my hair right near the front! I tossed it out and added “new waving iron” to my Christmas list.

My pregnant holiday card look.

My pregnant holiday card look.

We learned a few years ago that you can make your family portraits look 1000 times better just by taking them outside when the light is optimal. For us, this is always just after the sun sets but it is still light out. I learned this year that this is called the “golden hour” of photography and that professionals use this trick as well. There is even a calculator that will tell you approximately when the golden hour starts based on your geographic location.

4. Organizing Used Toy Giveaway

I posted about this in detail before so I won’t repeat it here. We learned that we can lessen the stress of this activity by working on it a little throughout the year. When purging toys, we can clean them up, wrap them up and group by age and gender.


5. Sending out Holiday Cards

I learned a great tip this year about designing our holiday photo card. Every year, we have the same problem where my tall husband throws off the aspect ratio of our photos. He is always the tallest person in the photo whether he is standing or sitting down. For some reason, when I try to scale the photos down to fit on the photo card, I have to choose between cutting off his head or cropping all of us at the knees. This year, I tried numerous card formats from different stores and just kept running into the same problem. There was no way to fit in our full photo.

I was about to give up when I learned that Wal-Mart offers the option to print a completely blank photo card. I was able to design and crop my own photos using photo editing software and upload them to be printed on a blank photo card. I could also add in my own text boxes after the upload so the text was crisp and clear. Another bonus, I didn’t have to remember what holiday card formats we had used in years past and worry that we were repeating one.

6. Celebrating Christmas

On Christmas Eve, my children were very enthusiastic about making cookies for Santa. We made chocolate chip molasses cookies, which were awesome. They put out cookies and a large handful of carrots “for the reindeer.”

Treats for Santa.

Treats for Santa.

Santa was very tired and not feeling quite up to par due to a recent cold virus. Santa fell asleep and woke up just in the nick of time the next morning! Santa had just barely finished putting out the presents and filling the stockings when a small voice appeared over my shoulder.

“Whatcha doing?”

“Oh, just playing with these presents that Santa brought!”

We had been so tired from activities 1-5 that we hadn’t had time to clean up the family room, which was quite a disaster. Realizing the immense leverage I had in this situation with eager children ready to open the stockings and presents, I insisted that everyone help clean up the house before we could open the presents. It really was quite a mess and it took a couple of hours to finish.

"Mean Mommy" made everyone clean before we could open presents.

“Mean Mommy” made everyone clean before we could open presents.

I was the least popular person in the house having everyone clean on Christmas morning but I couldn’t bear the thought of adding a ton of new toys to the existing mess. When it was finally time to open presents, the children were thrilled and had plenty of clean space to play with and enjoy them.

7. Planning/Cleaning up for New Year’s Party

This year we hosted a small New Year’s party for family and a few friends. It was a great incentive to get the house cleaned up from Christmas. Yes, even though we had just done a big cleaning effort on Christmas Day our house gets trashed extremely easily with all the activity going on. So, we cleaned up again and had a wonderful evening, even making it all the way to a midnight celebration!

My daughter stopping to hug my belly as I prep for our party buffet.

My daughter stopping to hug my belly as I prep for our party buffet.

Popping bubble wrap and spraying silly string at midnight.  A little girls' delight!

Popping bubble wrap and spraying silly string at midnight. A little girls’ delight!

8. Taking Down Decorations

After all the celebrations of the past few months, it was bittersweet taking down all the decorations. On the one hand, it was sad to say goodbye to the holiday season, but on the other hand, it was nice to be able to focus again on everyday life.

I told my children I would need their help to take down the tree.

“That’s too much work!” my 6 year old informed me.

She was such a brilliant helper putting up the decorations but the thought of trying to figure out how to pack them all back into where they came from was completely overwhelming to her. Quite honestly, it seemed overwhelming to me too! I found that taking it one step at a time helped and using the basic organizing technique of trying to focus on picking out categories of things. I labeled zippered storage bags which I packed with ornaments of the same type. I also separated my ornaments into two main bins. One bin held kid-friendly ornaments that could not be easily broken and the other the fragile ornaments.

It took nearly a full two days to pack up all the mantel and Christmas tree decorations. When we were done, this is what we were left with.

The Christmas tree ornaments and mantel decorations packed nicely into 3 bins.

The Christmas tree ornaments and mantel decorations packed nicely into 3 bins.

Then it was on to the front door. We purchased a new 3-foot storage box to hold everything. (Plastic boxes are a must for basement storage.)

Down came the front door decorations into this storage box.

Down came the front door decorations into this storage box.

It is a little strange to see all the amazement of Christmas packed up so small and compact. My children are already looking forward to the time 11 short months from now when we take it all out again. As for me, I hope to work up the energy by then.

Have any organizing lessons learned from this holiday season? Please share in the comments.

 Posted by on January 25, 2015 General Tagged with: , , , , , ,
Dec 282011

Another handmade gift this Christmas arose from another family request.  Several Christmases ago, I ordered custom screenprinted shirts with my eldest daughter’s artwork on them.  They turned out great and I received requests to do it again with my younger daughter’s artwork.  The only problem is that the screenprint order minimum is pretty high (at least 25 or so) and while we peppered our family and friends with shirts from the first go-round, I wasn’t sure if we wanted to do that again.

So, I needed another alternative to put my daughter’s artwork on a shirt in a high quality way but in a limited quantity.

I recently used my embroidery machine for one of our Halloween costumes so I wondered if I could embroider a custom design onto shirts.   It turns out that you can but you have to have special software for your machine that converts designs into instructions the machine can read.  I was in a hurry and didn’t have such software nor any time to find someone who did.

After a little Googling, I found two YouTube videos suggesting that you could “embroider” with just a regular sewing machine.  Some recommend that you use a “free hand” embroidery foot that allows you to flexibly manipulate the fabric and sew in multiple directions but some people don’t use even that!

Artist Julie Dunbar is the queen of freehand machine embroidery and while I was inspired by her YouTube video profile by Threadbangers, I just discovered that Martha Stewart also did a profile on her a while back and you can even download some of her cute design templates from Martha’s site.

While I loved the look of Julie Dunbar’s designs, it wasn’t exactly what I needed for my artwork project since my daughter did not draw in lines of uniform thickness.  Some were thick and some were thin.  So, what to do?  My inspiration came from this YouTube video of a woman embroidering cat appliques using just the zigzag stitch by varying the thickness of the stitch as she sewed.  You can tell she has had a lot of practice and her technique is pretty amazing.

So, I ended up using a cross between the Dunbar technique and the cat applique technique.

Warning:  If you are a perfectionist you will not like freehand embroidery.  There are a lot of imperfections to this method, which just add to the handmade quality.  If you are trying to reproduce the results of machine embroidery and everything has to be exact or match, this method is probably not going to satisfy you.

Before you start, preshrink the clothing you want to attach the design to (i.e. wash and dry it as you normally would, preferably in hot water).

First, trace your pattern with a waterproof marker onto water-soluble stabilizer.  I used the sulky SuperSolvy brand that I found at Hancock Fabrics (just coincidentally when they were having a 50% off sale on sewing notions).

Then attach the stabilizer to your fabric.  Julie Dunbar likes painters tape.  I just used sewing pins.

Play around with your sewing machine to find a stitch and stitch width that gives you the look you want.  It might be the zigzag stitch or a buttonhole stitch.  I am not sure what the name of the stitch is that I used.  It was number 20 from a list of unusual stitches.

If you want, you can try putting an embroidery hoop around the stabilizer and the fabric but sometimes this doesn’t work so well.  Julie Dunbar doesn’t use a hoop and I found it was generally easier not to as well.

Begin sewing your design.  It won’t always sew exactly perfectly in line.  You have to move the fabric through the machine at a steady, slow pace.  If you have the freehand foot, you can just back up and go forward again as you need to.  Sometimes you might slip off the design a bit so it won’t be 100% accurate but it will probably be about 90-95% accurate.

If you don’t use the hoop, you have to be conscious of keeping the fabric and stabilizer taut (but not too taut—again this is one of the imperfections of this method).

When you are done, your design will look something like this.

Julie Dunbar advises that you then pull the top threads to the backside of the work and tie a knot with the bobbin threads to keep the threads from unraveling.  I tried this and sometimes I was able to figure out how to do it and sometimes I didn’t have time or it didn’t work so I just clipped the threads short.

I then cut away the excess stabilizer from the design (may not be necessary).  I found that while you can run the finished design under a faucet to rinse off the stabilizer, the stabilizer tends to get a bit gummy when wet so it worked out better to just wash the shirts again in the washing machine with soap.  After washing, here was the result:

Here are some of the other finished designs:

I used cotton knit fabric so my finished designs show a little puckering from the nature of the fabric but again, this is all part of the art of the shirts.  Each one is a unique original.  From regular viewing distance, no one will notice all those imperfections.

The perfect gift presentation for these shirts was to roll them up and wrap them in our eco-friendly accumulated stockpile of lesser art works that I showed you last year.

I like how they came out, imperfections and all!

What do you think of this technique?  What would you use it for?  Please share in the comments.

 Posted by on December 28, 2011 General Tagged with: , , , ,
Dec 112009

If the idea of crafts does not excite you for handmade holiday presents, another option is food. Food is in many ways a great gift. It is delicious but also consumable so the giver doesn’t have to worry about storing it, dusting it, displaying it, etc. Food is the source of many fond holiday memories for many people. It is also one of the chief ways we hand down traditions from generation to generation and remember our ethnic and cultural heritage.

If you are a great cook, this is your moment to shine! You can adopt a signature food that you give every holiday season. Some of the staple food gifts in our families have been:

  • Virginia fudge (made in Utah! with brown sugar and marshmallows)
  • Greek cookies: Koulourakia, Melomakarona, and Baklava
  • White chocolate dipped pretzels (an interesting mixture of salty and sweet)
  • Garapiñados (candied almonds)
  • English toffee
  • Mint jelly

One of the most interesting food gift traditions to me is fruitcake. In my lifetime, I have met many people who make or give fruitcake but I have yet to meet a person who actually enjoys eating it! I don’t particularly care for it myself. I think some people make it out of a sense of obligation to traditions past. Fruitcake might have been a popular dessert at some point in time but in today’s world with so many options for sweet things to eat (especially chocolate), fruitcake seems more akin to something like wheat germ or spinach, that is good for you but not especially craveable, than a treat. (If you are a fruitcake lover, please fill me in on what I am missing in the comments.)

You can give food in many ways. My favorite way to receive food is in the ready-to-eat variety (a plate of cookies, a jar of salsa, etc.). You can also give pre-made baking mixes with a recipe attached. For a zillion, “mix in a jar” ideas, including cookies, flavored coffees, hot chocolate, soups and spice mixes, check out this link.   Another idea is to give a nice holiday card with one of your favorite recipes printed on the back (bonus points if you include a picture of the food or yourself or family members eating the food).

The downside of food gifts, of course, is when you have people with special diets or allergies on your list. Many people struggling with their weight detest receiving sweets. There are also those who are just picky and won’t eat anything that they don’t already know and like. For folks on a diet (and really anyone these days!), a smaller sized portion of your goodies would be thoughtful–enough to get a taste but not enough to over-indulge. For the picky folks, the recipe route might be the way to go, unless if you are willing to make a special food that is exactly to their liking.

If you are not a cook, you can of course purchase food as well. One of the most thoughtful presents I received when I just delivered my first child was a fruit and sweets box from Harry & David. It was great to serve to folks dropping in to visit or for us to snack on when I was too tired to cook. We have also received and enjoyed grapefruit juice from Pittman & Davis and Priester’s pecan pies. If you are going to purchase food, make sure you purchase something of excellent quality and something that the person is likely to eat.  Beware of cultural sensitivities in this area too.  Sausage or alcohol might be unacceptable to some people.  Less is more when it comes to food. A really nice small box of Godiva chocolates is more of a treat than an enormous but cheap assortment box. Local restaurants may also offer food gifts that could introduce the recipient to a new restaurant as well. The Metrocurean blog offers some great local food gift suggestions for those in the Washington, DC area.

This evening at sundown is the start of Hanukkah. Happy Hanukkah to those who celebrate! I looked up what foods are popular during Hanukkah. According to judaism.about.com, fried foods and dairy foods are the staple foods during Hanukkah. Soofganiot (fried donuts) and fried potato latkas are favorites. On the dairy side, cheesecake, cheese blintzes, cheese kreplach (like a tortellini) and even cheese pizza are popular. You also must check out this story on NPR about the Hanukkah song Mormon Senator Orrin Hatch wrote in collaboration with writer Jeffrey Goldberg….it’s actually kind of catchy!

Have a wonderful weekend!

 Posted by on December 11, 2009 General Tagged with: , , , , , ,
Dec 092009

Exploring the concept of Hundred Dollar Holiday, you might be wondering what types of gifts you can give that don’t cost a lot but will be valued by the recipient. Over the next couple of posts, we will come up with some suggestions that you can either use this year or think about for next year.

Handmade gifts are often one of the first suggestions for those on a budget. While many people (like myself) think handmade gifts are fantastic, there are those who groan at the concept. Not everyone likes them and not everyone has the time or talent to make great handmade gifts.

If you are not crafty, there is good news, there are hundreds of crafty people out there selling really cool stuff for not a lot of money. You don’t need to frequent craft shows to find them either. If you have not heard of the website Etsy, you should definitely pay it a visit. Etsy is dedicated to the sale of handmade and vintage items but also lists a variety of cool and offbeat stuff. Etsy sells everything from jewelry to craft items to handmade cards, fashion and unique screenprinted shirts. Some examples:

If you don’t have time to browse through the site yourself to find the coolest stuff, Etsy also provides “finders” to find gifts along certain themes. You can check out their finds at their website or sign up for their email updates. If you are looking for a unique, personal gift, Etsy is your spot.

If you are crafty, so much the better! The only caution here, though is to think carefully about what types of gifts will be appreciated by your recipient. Something might be fun to make but totally impractical. Also, you have to have a bit of a thick skin with your handwork. If people don’t like your creations, don’t be disheartened if the recipient tosses them out or gives them away. Don’t expect everyone to want to wear/use your creations or store them forever just because you made them. If you can’t take the rejection, you might go the Etsy route or find some other gift option.

When giving a gift of handwork, it is usually best to stick to something small and simple (ornaments, potholders, socks, magnets, etc.) unless the recipient has specifically requested a large project like a sweater, quilt or wooden chest. See, for example, this article on “The Sweater Curse,” describing the perils of knitting for boyfriends. Also, over time, you will learn who appreciates handwork and who does not.

So, what handmade gifts do I/would I appreciate receiving?

I have an ornament exchange to attend at the end of the month and am considering making a Japanese-inspired amigurumi ornament like one of the following:

I have a collection of handmade hotpads that I love (although I am at the limit on hotpads currently).

Scarves/ponchos – I like to make and receive these but there is a limit as to what ends up being worn. Last year, on a dollar-store challenge, I found some great novelty metallic yarn for a buck and knitted it on large needles into a lacy poncho-type drape for my sister. She wore it as part of her Halloween costume this year.

Mittens – I love the “Critter Collection” designs at Morehouse Farms, especially for children.

Leather belt – If this Martha Stewart project comes out as beautiful as the photos, this would be a fun addition to a stylish wardrobe.

My mother-in-law gave me some very cool custom embroidered jeans for my birthday.  I sent her a pair of jeans I liked and that fit well and she zazzed them up with an embroidery design on her embroidery machine.

Combining photos and family memories is a popular and thoughtful gift, too.  Some creative ideas in this area:

  • Memory books – upload photos or scanned artwork to create a custom book for grandparents, friends, coworkers, etc.
  • Photo cubes – Martha Stewart craft project transforming photos into unique bookend blocks.
  • Family tree – Martha Stewart to the rescue again with an artistic template to create a one-of-a-kind original family tree.

One year, I made custom screenprinted long-sleeved T-shirts at customink.com using a piece of my daughter’s abstract artwork. They were a big hit and have been well worn by the recipients.

Another year, my sister-in-law used glass etching to mark the bottom of glass casserole pans with each recipient’s name–for a beautiful and functional gift.

Our nanny made a lovely handmade book with custom story and illustrations for our daughter’s birthday one year, which is a treasure.

There are so many more examples.  My house is full of a lot of handmade objects. Once you get a reputation for someone who appreciates handmade objects, you are more likely to receive a lot of them.

Of course, there is a whole other genre of homemade gifts from the kitchen….another post to come on that in a few days.

What do you think of homemade gifts? Love them? Hate them? Have a favorite non-cooking homemade gift to share? Please post in the comments.

 Posted by on December 9, 2009 General Tagged with: , , ,