Friday, December 15, 2006

A Pre-Holiday Book Review

This hasn’t been the best week. T has asthma, and with the change in Indiana weather from balmy to blustery, he had a pretty bad episode last weekend that involved 3 a.m. calls to his pulmonologist, heavy-duty steroids, and a near trip to the ER. His asthma’s now under control, but he got sent home yesterday with stomach flu, and is as I type missing his toddler holiday party at school. Poor little fella.

Anyhoo, before his health took a downturn, I went to a book signing last Friday night for one of our authors. While at the bookstore, I picked up a bunch of Christmas gifts. I’ve recently been eyeing a new knitting book for me called Knitting for Peace, but have been too cheap to fork over the $20 for it. But with the floodgate of expenditure that is the month of December, the price (especially with my 30% off coupon) seemed a pittance, so I got it.

I rarely say this with any conviction, but I think this book is going to change my life. It’s full of profiles of charities that accept hand-knitted items: whether to clothe people in war-torn countries, to give some comfort and warmth to soldiers stationed far from their families, or to provide some covering for newborns born domestically into such poverty that they otherwise would leave the hospital wearing only a diaper.

I’ve been knitting since my grandma taught me and my brother when I was six. I’m now much, much older than six, so it’s been a lot of years. I’ve been obsessively knitting (hiding yarn expenditures from my husband, waking up at 4 a.m. and sneaking to the living room to finish a couple rows before going back to bed, trolling knitting blogs) for 10 or 15 years. As you can imagine, my friends and family members probably have all the knitted sweaters, hats, wrist warmers, afghans, bookmarks, and iPod cozies they need. What a better place to put the incessant need to stitch than to create items for people who truly, truly need them – either physically or psychologically?

Because I can’t craft for every organization, I’ve chosen Project Linus as my charity of choice. This lovely organization donates new handmade blankets -- knit, crocheted, quilted, no-sew from fleece -- to give to kids in need. The need could be that they’re three years old and undergoing surgery to remove cancer, and they’ll be able to go into and come out of surgery with a cuddly lovey to give them some comfort. Or it could be that they’re a 16-year-old who lived through a nightmare day at Columbine High School, and they go to a group counseling session that includes a stack of blankets in the room, and wrapping in a blanket gives the teens comfort and confidence to start articulating and working through their experiences.

Every year about this time I make vows that I’ll do something somewhat superficial: Lose 15 pounds, start balancing the checkbook every month without fail, put my clothes away in the closet and not dump them on the chair by the bed. This year, I’m planning to look outside myself and bring something good to people who need something good. If a blanket I knit can help a six-year-old I never meet be more brave going into chemotherapy, who cares if my checkbook never balances?

Monday, December 11, 2006

The Lowest Circle of Hell Should Be Reserved For...

Whoever came up with modern toy packaging. The kind with the form-fitted plastic and series of dozens of twisties to hold a toy in mid-action while sitting on the shelf. M was feeling impatient waiting for this whole Christmas thing so yesterday used money from his piggy bank to buy a small plastic Zerg and small plastic Buzz Lightyear (with wings). It took a long time to wrestle these toys from their plastic prisons. Not to mention the waste involved.

I surveyed the toys I'd bought the boys, and I think I subconsciously chose ones that wouldn't involve the 30 minutes of nail-ripping, small-twisty choking hazard that was last year to free M's Fire-Fighting Woody (with accessories) and T's Barnyard Jubilee.

Am I the only person who dreads toy time for this reason??

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Some Slowish Handmade Gifts

I love the holiday season. Like many other knitters/crafters/ODers on Martha Stewart Living, I have often tried to overdo the whole homemade aspect... knitting round the clock because I "needed" to finish a sweater for a family member, turning our kitchen into an explosion of eight kinds of flour as I made multi-grain pancake mix for friends, dripping paint on the carpet in a late-night attempt to stamp craft paper with Christmas tree stencils.

This year two things are converging: I've been incredibly busy at work and at home and finally realizing that wassailing and paper cones of candy to give as party favors isn't really my speed, and my immediate family has decided to really scale back our gift-giving this year and get creative and homemade. So I've been casting about for some good, fairly quick ideas -- things friends have made, things I've previously made, things I'm planning to make this year. (Warning to Morrow family members: Read this at your own peril. Some of these ideas might show up under the tree this year, and I'd hate for this to be like the Christmas of '81 when Becky found all of our presents and spilled the beans to me and Brent.)

Here's the top ten non-food handmade gifts I've found and/or made in the past. I'll post the top ten food gifts another night this week. If you have other ideas, add them to the comments. Also, if my instructions aren't so clear below, just e-mail me or ask me in the post for clearer instructions.

Fleece blankets. I'm a bit of a Johnny-come-lately to the fleece blanket party, but I hit it hard last year. This is where you take two pieces of fleece (about 1-1/4 yards of each for a baby/kid size, 2 to 2-1/2 yards for an adult size), pre-wash them, lay them together, and cut 3- to 4-inch notches down each side. (You'll remove a 3- to 4-inch square piece for each corner.) Then tie together each of the strips you cut. We live in a drafty Cape Cod, and now have these all over the house. The boys love them and we have to travel with them. I understand these aren't heirlooms, but they're warm and fluffy and happy. You can get fleece in any conceivable pattern, which is cute for kids, but I've stuck with solids for adult gifts, as I personally feel that is just because someone loves Nascar doesn't mean he'll want a blanket with Nascar logos all over it. But that's me. A clearer set of instructions, if you've never seen these blankets, is here. I especially like this site because this woman appears to be giving a class on how to make these blankets -- something that takes about 10 seconds to explain how to do. Go figure.

Bath salts. Here you just take Epsom salt and possibly a little baking soda (to soften the water), add some essential oils and, to make it pretty, a little food coloring. So you can add lavendar and vanilla and color the salts a soft purple, or mix rosemary and mint essential oils and color the resulting salts sage green. Pour the salts into a nice jar, and include a note to add about 5 Tbsp. to a bath. I've heard of people making lots of different colors and layering different colors in stripes, but I'm not that ambitious. While what I know of all things herbal could fill a thimble, I have heard that rosemary essential oils should never be used around pregnant women (as they can induce labor), and lavendar essential oils are irritating to people with asthma.

Fimo clay pins or magnets. My friend Betsy makes these, and they're cool. You just roll out a single color of Fimo clay (or marble together two different colors) to about 1/4-inch thickness, and cut it using decorative scissors or a little cookie cutter. Betsy's made little magnets in round shapes with textured paper pressed into the clay to give it a cool 3D effect. Then bake it according to the directions, and when it's cool, glue a pin finding or magnet to the back.

Bookmarks. If you're a beader, this is a great way to use up odd beads or showcase a couple special ones. And if your friends are readers, it makes a really great bookmark. I still have one stuck on page 120 of a biography of Lyndon Johnson I planned to finish reading while on maternity leave with T, who's now almost two. But I digress. I've seen these sold bookstores and other places as book "thongs." (Lovely.) Ignore the name and make them like this: cut a 24-inch length of waxed linen cord, knot one end, slide on three or so beads, knot where the beads end, and repeat on the other side. The beads hang out either end of the book when the bookmark is used. Because my description is so poor, here's a picture.

Keychains. Another beaded quick gift. Just take a key ring finding, fold a 12-inch length of 1mm leather cord in half and loop around the key ring. Now thread the two ends through about three chunky glass beads and tie the two cords together below the beads. Then a half-inch or so down each cord end, make another knot. You can also use the same concept with littler rings to make sets of knitting markers for knitting friends or zipper pulls for kids. Last year Michael's craft store had a tub of glass beads called "Mass O' Glass" for $3.99 that would make 20 or so of these keychains. If you're needing to make 20 or so. Mr. Mik who drives the Tumblebus M plays on every week says he loves his from last Christmas... As he told M in July, holding up his keychain, "I use it every day!"

Lotion. This came from the aunt of my friend Martha. If you've got a Dollar General near you, beat your way through the crappy DVDs and cases of ramen noodles and head to the beauty aisle. Snatch up four tubs of Vitamin E cream, a tub of petroleum jelly, and two bottles of baby lotion. These are all $1 each, so it'll be $7 worth of supplies. Take them home and dump everything into a big mixer -- like a stand-up Kitchen Aid. It'll all froth up and make this light, soft-smelling, powder-room-in-the-1950s lotion that isn't heavy but that has staying power for dry skin (courtesy of the petroleum jelly). Then pack the concoction back into the Vitamin E tubs and some extra cosmetic tubs. Package with a set of sponge rollers and a copy of True Confessions.

Napkin Rings. A great gift idea from a coworker of mine. Places like Michael's sell little bead assortments that come in little plastic boxes. Buy one of these and ignore the little seed beads in the package. Divide the other beads into four piles -- evenly distributing all the varieties among the four piles. Now cut a length of bracelet-sized memory wire long enough to wrap three times. Use needle-nosed pliers to turn a circle on one end of the wire (to hold on the beads), and then slide one of the sets of beads, in random order, onto the wire. Use needle-nosed pliers to turn on a circle on the other end of the wire. Make three more napkin rings. While I've used the kits at Michaels, you also obviously can just use an assortment of beads you have on hand, if you're a mad bead stasher. The whole idea behind these napkin rings is using unique, random combinations.

Knitted washclothes. Me and knitted dishclothes/washclothes go way back. For knitters struggling with, say, a Kaffe Fassett design, they provide some nice instant gratification (two episodes of Sex and the City and you're done!). They make a cute gift folded and tied with rafia to a great bar of rustic soap. There are a ton of patterns, but one of my favorites is a broken-rib pattern. You just need one skein of Sugar and Cream cotton and size 6 or 7 knitting needles. Cast on 45 stitches (or any odd-numbered set of stitches), and repeat this pattern until you just have enough yarn left to bind off: Row 1: K1, P1. Row 2: K across. That's it. For other washcloth or dishcloth inspiration, check out some other ideas, all of which I think I've knitted through over the years.

Felted purses or bags. Can you tell I'm a knitter? Anyhoo, I also love these, too. If you're a knitter and constant stasher, striped bags are a great way to use up odd balls of wool yarn. And many purses only require one skein of yarn, which is pretty fine. My favorite is the Sophie bag. I've made a bunch of these, and have started adding a button loop before felting; I think having a closure is nicer than leaving the bag open. Another option is threading a scarf through the finished bag, like here. I think this is adorable, although I've never made one like this.

Dyed yarn. Holly from Eisenhower Field Day gave me this idea over the weekend. This is a great gift for a knitter or crocheter... hand-dyed, one-of-a-kind yarn. While I understand there are hard-core dyers out there debating animal vs. vegetable dyes, Holly and I are both of the Kool-Aid speed. You'd be amazed how gorgeous Kool-Aid can color yarn. You just section off an unwound skein, dip sections in different flavors of Kool-Aid, and let them sit until the Kool-Aid mixture turns basically clear -- meaning all of the dye has been absorbed into the yarn. A much better description is here, a great inexpensive source for undyed yarn is here, and for those looking for a challenge, a great tutorial on dying self-striping sock yarn is here.

Happy gift-giving!