My Favorite Simple, Affordable Handmade Gifts

I was a little shocked to get a piece of mail the other day from a local loan company, offering to “help me through the holiday season.”

It’s that time – the craft stores are stocking up on holiday decor, the air is getting chilly enough for boots, coats, and scarves, and everyone is thinking about holiday shopping. There’s nothing wrong with taking advantage of an opportunity to do something nice for someone, or having a season when we all spend a little more time thinking about “magic” and brightening someone’s day.

But it’s just crazy to me that our culture puts so much pressure in us to get the perfect gift for every person in our lives, that some people feel the need to take out loans to afford it. Of course, in a military town like this one, there are often travel expenses to think about in order to spend time with loved ones. But as far as gifts, maybe there’s a way to be kind and thoughtful without going broke.

And this, if you ask me, is where the handmade revolution comes in. Now I know some people have actual jobs and don’t spend their days trolling Pinterest for new craft ideas. But more and more of us are realizing that homemade items can be affordable, high-quality, and even fun to make! And, let’s face it, Christmas shopping takes up its own chunk of time anyway. Especially for us procrastinators 😉

So I thought I’d compile a list of some of the best homemade gift ideas I’ve found. I know I’m not the first to do this, but these are some of my favorites. Personally I like somewhat practical ideas – long-lasting edibles, bath & body items, housewares – so you know your special gifts won’t be gathering dust on a shelf.

I also think, when it comes to food or body care, if you’re going to go to the trouble, you might as well make it from scratch and know exactly what’s in it. So I have done my best to find some simple, affordable gift ideas that your family and friends will truly appreciate! I’ll keep this updated with my thoughts and photos as I try more of them!

Lemon Sugar Scrub
Tried this and a seas salt version and love them! Easy, all natural, and makes your skin feel super soft! Also great for getting clay off the hands.

20131119-215632.jpg

All Natural DIY Hand Lotion
Give this along with the scrub for very pampered hands!

Easy Dark Chocolate Truffles
So delicious but so expensive in stores! This homemade version is unbelievably simple!

20131124-014501.jpg

Hot Cocoa Mix
The perfect cold weather treat.

Recipes in a Jar
Send one of these and your loved one can make anything from soup to baked goods, from scratch, as easily as using a boxed mix.

Crockpot Apple Butter
Delicious and makes your home smell amazing while you make it.

Homemade Spice Blends
Here’s one the guys can enjoy too – spice rubs for all different kinds of meats. The spices themselves can be pretty pricey but sometimes you can find them at the discount grocery stores, cheap and in bigger containers.

DIY Tile Coasters
These are cute, cheap (tiles are about $0.16 apiece at Home Depot!)and can easily be matched to home color schemes, or maybe even personalized.

20131119-230330.jpg

Monogrammed Keychains
These are both personal and useful. Polymer clay is one of my favorite mediums! If you have never worked with it, it’s not too hard to learn.

Knitted Dish Sponge
If you’re a knitter or would like to learn, this is a quick and easy project. This one is made with sisal; I made a few with some Sugar n’ Cream yarn (love that stuff!).

20131119-215538.jpg

Clay Ornaments
Maybe not so “practical,” but fun, especially for kids. Can be made with polymer clay or a more affordable homemade dough (if I find a good recipe I’ll post it), then decorated with stamps, textures, or paint.

20131119-230204.jpg

Have any suggestions of your own? Please share in the comments, and enjoy the holiday season!

How to Improve Your Etsy Shop – and a Giveaway!

For all you budding crafters and entrepreneurs out there (and shoppers, this may be for you too): today I am going to share a little bit about how to improve your Etsy shop and increase your sales. If you are new to Etsy, or new to really trying to promote your shop, this might help you like it has helped me. I am by no means an expert, but these are some of the ways I am making progress. I’ll post links to some helpful tips & tricks, but first, here are some general ideas for how to apply them.

Etsy holds a wealth of information from admins and seasoned sellers as to how to boost your business, as do sites like Pinterest and, of course, Google. But when I first discovered this fact, it didn’t do me much good. I would read an article full of advice and either do what I could right then and there, or try to remember it all for later. Then I started making to do-lists on notepaper and eventually on my iPhone notepad, which I would check every once in a while. Nothing really kept me working on it long enough to see any change. But recently I discovered the magic that is my husband’s giant whiteboard. I am sure some other things would work too, but the whiteboard has done wonders for my productivity. He has a few of them, so I borrowed an easel-style one that I could prop up in my art room. Excuse the creative mess!

20131112-201946.jpg

I’d rediscovered something on one of my Pinterest boards about improving your Etsy shop and, after reading through it, picked out 10 or so tips that sounded most helpful for my shop and listed them on the whiteboard, with a little checkbox for each one. Then the list was always in front of me when I was in my workspace, or “in my element,” and I found that I could work on one or two items whenever I had a few minutes, instead of getting overwhelmed or forgetting.

My Etsy shop has been running since 2009, but I’ve only gotten serious about working on it in the last few months. So I can’t say I have a ton of sales, but my views have been up, and definitely my sense of personal accomplishment. I am hoping the extra sales will come too. Here is another shot of my art room, because this corner looks nicer.

20131112-202721.jpg

Check out these great resources! I don’t mean to overwhelm you with information, but you can always start with one and keep the others bookmarked, pinned, whatever, for later!

Surefire Techniques to Make Your Listings Sizzle

3 Clever Marketing Strategies to Promote Your Business

2 Shop Stats Exercises to Increase Your Traffic

5 Ways to Work Smarter, Not Harder

If you are a more experienced seller reading this, feel free to add your advice in the comments. Or if you are an Etsy shopper, I would really appreciate some feedback. Check out my shop and let me know what you like, what you don’t like, and what you think makes me stand out. Be the first to share your review, and I will send you a free item (up to $10) of your choice!

My Etsy Shop

The Best Chocolate Chip Cookies Ever

The title might sound like a bit of an exaggeration, but my mom and I have been making these cookies for years, and they always seem to get the most compliments. I got a lot of practice perfecting the recipe during my husband’s two deployments. Can’t give him hugs and kisses? Then I will give him every wonderful thing that I can cram into a box, especially goodies baked with love. He never gets tired of my chocolate chip cookies, in fact he still tells people they’re the reason he married me!

20131111-174735.jpg

My mom taught me a lot of things, including most of what I know about cooking. The original recipe is from the back of the Tollhouse bag, but I attribute its greatness to one little modification she shared with me years ago. If you like thick, chunky cookies that are crunchy on the outside and gooey on the inside, and that don’t spread across the pan and make a mess, all you have to do is cut the amount of butter in half. There are some who would disagree, but I’m convinced this is the secret to success! You can always spice them up by adding oats, nuts, dried fruit, or other flavors of chips, or just follow the recipe as is, with half the butter. So without further ado, here is the recipe (see the original here). 

ORIGINAL NESTLE TOLLHOUSE CHOCOLATE CHIP COOKIES

Ingredients
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup butter or margarine (1/2 cup), softened
3/4 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup packed brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 large egg
1 (12 ounce) package NESTLE® TOLL HOUSE® Semi-Sweet Chocolate Morsels
1 cup chopped nuts

Directions
PREHEAT oven to 375 degrees F.
COMBINE flour, baking soda and salt in small bowl. Beat butter, granulated sugar, brown sugar and vanilla extract in large mixer bowl until creamy. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Gradually beat in flour mixture. Stir in morsels and nuts. Drop by rounded tablespoon onto ungreased baking sheets.
BAKE for 9 to 11 minutes or until golden brown. Cool on baking sheets for 2 minutes; remove to wire racks to cool completely.

Yields 5 dozen cookies (or, if you make them big like I do, about 2 1/2 dozen).

As I mentioned, I have a lot of experience with care packages, having also volunteered with Soldiers’ Angels. If you have any questions about mailing baked goods, or what else to mail, let me know and I would be happy to write a post on it! Enjoy the cookies!

DIY Princess Fiona Costume/Medieval Dress (and Shrek Outfit!)

Okay, so I’m a little late for Halloween, but I was pretty proud of this thrift store DIY, and it got a lot of compliments, so I wanted to share. You can file it away for next year, or if you’re like my family back home and enjoy renaissance faires, you might use it sooner. So I am going to show you how I made my dress and hopefully inspire a project of your own!

The first step, of course, was deciding who we wanted to be. Joe and I are fans of Disney/kids’ movies. He’s naturally a big guy and I like to wear pretty things (FYI, putting on a princess crown is pretty much an instant fix for a bad day). So with a little deliberation, we chose Shrek and Fiona. Then, after Googling our characters to check outfit details, we hit the thrift store to see what we could find, because it’s cheap and fun, and the craft store for the rest.

I was looking for either a green shirt and skirt or a full dress, and ended up finding a sleeveless dress and a long sleeve shirt to wear under it. Then I bought gold ribbon and fabric paint for the decorations. The dress had some bows and a high neckline, so the first step was removing the bows and cutting the neck square (had to cut the shirt neck too to match). Don’t mind my cat, he likes to “help.”

20131106-003343.jpg

After that, I tried it on and pinned the ribbon at the neck and waist. I don’t currently have a machine so the hand-sewing was a little tedious and probably doesn’t look great up close, but it does the job. You can also use fabric glue but, after testing on a scrap, I decided I didn’t like the look.

20131106-003756.jpg

Once the ribbon was in place, it was time to grab the fabric paint and design the bodice. I rolled up a towel and placed it under the bust to keep the shape (so the folds wouldn’t get in the way). Following a picture of Fiona’s dress, I drew the flowers and then filled in the vines in between, one small area at a time, until the bodice was covered, then let it dry.

20131106-003916.jpg

Besides a few more adjustments to make it fit, the dress was done! I used This Fabulous Little Tutorial I found on Pinterest for the tiara, and I dyed my hair red with Clairol Natural Instincts. It lasts 28 shampoos, a bit of a commitment for a costume, but I have never dyed my naturally brown hair until now, and I’d been wanting to try it.

20131106-004058.jpg

My husband’s Shrek costume consisted of a white thermal and plaid pants (women’s pants, also from the thrift store. “Now I know why girls wear tight pants. They accentuate your butt.”) I ended up buying some fabric last-minute and making a short vest, traced from a vest he had lying around. Also made the ears out of craft foam, and he wore green body paint, a pillow for a belly, a belt, and boots.

20131106-004306.jpg

So here we are in our finished costumes! We won best couple costume at our friends’ big Halloween party (for the second year in a row! Last year we were Mr. & Mrs. Incredible). I hope you enjoyed the tutorial! Thrift store shopping can be very hit-or-miss, so of course each project is going to look different, but I hope this gave you some ideas! We would love to see photos of what you come up with!

20131106-005128.jpg

Thanks for reading!

“Would you mind holding my broom?”

Flash back to 2009. I’m working at a diner back home in California and my boyfriend is deployed. My daily distraction, besides customers and cleaning, is a daydream playing over and over in my head, where he comes home somehow to surprise me, and I drop what I’m doing and run into his arms. I remember a scene from a favorite Disney movie, where Cinderella dares to suggest that she, too, could go to the ball and dance with the prince. Her stepsisters mock, “I’d be honored your highness. Would you mind holding my broom?” Perhaps I would ask someone to hold my broom when my Prince Charming came waltzing through the door. I laugh at my little inside joke with myself, and it makes the waiting more bearable.

Flash forward to now. We’ve been married just under three years. Looks like all the waiting paid off (or maybe it was all the cookies I sent). He’s still in the military and I am working to turn my passion for art into a job. Maybe not a career, but if I could generate enough income to cover my supplies, that would be nice. I’ve also realized my husband Joe is more of a Superman than a Prince Charming. If he’s not working late, you’ll probably find him pounding metal at the gym or being a good friend. I love him to death, but keeping up – or getting him to slow down – has always been a bit of a challenge.

As a military wife and an aspiring artist, I can sometimes relate to Cinderella, often feeling torn between a house full of duties and a head full of dreams. I want to paint a masterpiece or design some new jewelry or finish that knitting project, but the sink is full of dishes and my husband is hungry and our cat is bored. Or I just want to spend a little quality time together but he’s off, you know, saving the world or something.

Falling in love felt a lot like a fairy tale, complete with the “dragons” of danger and disapproval, and the magic of knowing your life has changed forever (and, of course, a ball or two that we never did get to attend). Now there’s a little more sweeping and a little less being swept off my feet. But that is loving someone in real life. That’s not to say the romance disappears forever, in fact I think it’s very important to make time for it, but there is also a need for patience, commitment, and responsibility. It’s all about finding joy in the day to day.

Maybe you can relate to Cinderella as well. Maybe you’re like me, trying to pursue an unrealistic passion in an unforgiving world. Or maybe you’re working hard at a real job. Or maybe you’re a mom (did someone say, “Wonderwoman?”). Wherever life finds us, I think we all have days when we could use a break, a little inspiration, someone to “hold our broom” while we take a moment to do something we love, figure things out, or simply catch a breath. So join me here as I share my adventures in marriage, military life, and creativity, and a few of the things that have helped me make it easier and more fun!