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Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2007 05:26 pm

Do it yourself

Sometimes the best gifts can’t be bought

Illustration by Hector Casanova/MCT
Untitled Document It’s bedazzling, lopsided, and made with love. But what exactly is it? No matter. As soon as a child utters that magical phrase “I made it myself,” it is accepted and displayed on the fridge.
Although handmade gifts are cherished when they are from children, there can be a bit of a stigma attached to them when they’re made by adults. Michael Scott, the chronically inappropriate boss on the television’s The Office, portrayed by Steve Carell, sums up this prejudice well: “Presents are the best way to show someone how much you care,” Scott said during last season’s Christmas episode. “It is like this tangible thing that you can point to and say, ‘Hey man, I love you this many dollars’ worth.’ ”
So when The Office does a secret-Santa exchange, Scott is disgusted by the knitted gift he receives. “I only care about you an oven mitt’s worth,” he mused over its meaning. “I gave Ryan an iPod!”
Erin Schroeder, a student at the University of Illinois at Springfield, says that receiving a handmade gift can lead to a moment of awkwardness, but she is a bit more diplomatic than Michael Scott.
“You get a weird-looking sculpture thing,” Schroeder says, and all you can say is “Oh man, thanks!”
Still, Schroeder says, there is a sweetness in the strangeness of such gifts. She describes the “gonks” her mother made as a teenager. The gonks were stuffed creatures that had the flexibility of a Gumby doll. Some were round, others spindly. They were made from fabric from the 1960s and ’70s, and every gonk had its own personality. “They were like primitive creatures from the cartoon world,” Schroeder says. Some people never grow out of that childhood desire to create. Stephen Parfitt took his mother’s jewelry apart at the age of 7 out of curiosity. He made friendship pins during his grade-school recesses. Now, at 33, he teaches “Metal Madness,” a metal-jewelry class at La Bead Oh! in Springfield. “Just about every holiday I make my wife a different piece of jewelry — plus real gifts, store-bought,” Parfitt says. Parfitt also makes pen-and-ink drawings as gifts. A few years ago, a friend had problems with coyotes harassing his cattle. Parfitt made him a comical drawing of a cow with a coyote head. “You can personalize,” Parfitt said of his handmade gifts. “Where else can you find specific things like that?”
Kathy Anane, owner of La Bead Oh!, learned how to knit when she was 8. Throughout her childhood, her parents encouraged her to make things. Anane, in turn, instilled the joy of creating in her own children. Anane wears a bracelet her teenage daughter made last Christmas. It is constructed of copper and glass beads that her daughter created with a blowtorch. The individuality of the bracelet is what makes it so special to Anane. “You’re giving yourself not something that came over the boat from China,” Anane says. Although she never got into jewelry-making, Rosemary Swofford has given many handmade items over the years. She makes candles, soaps, and flavored vinegars from the herbs in her garden. This year she is assembling baskets with mortar and pestles, miniature nutmeg grinders and dried herbs, which she puts into Ziploc bags. “They look like drug bags,” she jokes. Making these gifts is also a time for Swofford to connect with her daughter. They will include lunch and a movie in the deal. “Sharing food, projects, and time — that is what Christmas is,” she says.
Swofford is so accustomed to making her gifts that she never buys them at the mall and discourages her friends from buying her expensive gifts. “I don’t want to spend the money or make others feel obligated to go in debt,” she says. Still, making gifts takes more effort than buying them, Swofford says, and when pressed for time, she admits, she will just give money as a gift. The notion that handmade gifts are cheap to make is sometimes inaccurate, anyway. For instance, a blanket that Schroeder knitted for a gift last Christmas took $60 worth of yarn. At the artisan-made supplier Anthropologie and the craft buying-and-selling community at Etsy.com, gifts are pretty but pricey. A small stitchwork throw that looks like something your grandmother made costs $198 in the Anthropologie catalog. At Etsy.com, colorful, folk-style jumpers for small girls, made by member “Humblebea,” start at $25. Whether it is created or commissioned, a handmade item makes a great gift, says Humblebea, and she encourages others to take up a craft.
“I would say to beginners, just start small and do something you enjoy doing,” she says. “If you choose a project that you don’t enjoy it will show in your work.”
Besides the pleasure it brings to the giver and the receiver, a handmade gift signifies the real meaning behind the season, Schroeder says. “The whole reason of Christmas is because God was our gift to us and we give gifts to remind us of that,” Schroeder says. “Giving something you made is giving a gift of yourself, just like Jesus gave the gift of himself.”
And even you can’t tell whether it’s a paperweight or a doorstop or a sculpture, it really doesn’t matter, Schroeder says. “You can’t really give a bad gift if you are really trying.”

Greta Myers is a senior at the University of Illinois at Springfield. Her favorite handmade gifts have includes a watercolor from her sister, a photo collage from a friend, and miniquilts from her 95-year-old grandmother.
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