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Why I’m not getting gifts this Christmas

A few days ago, Mr Namasi and I sent this message to our sons:

Dad and I don’t want you to buy gifts for us, please. It will be our great pleasure to have you home for Christmas and to be able to feed and spoil you for that time time. That will be enough for us. We’re not even buying each other gifts this year, choosing instead to do some nice things together.

They have enough expenses. Now that our sons have left the nest, seeing them is beyond any of the gifts their limited budgets could stretch to. One of our sons became a student this academic year, at the age of 25. The other recently had a car accident in which his little car was totalled. That’s one part of it.

Another part is the stuff. We moved twice in a year. The first time, we shed possessions as part of the normal moving process. Then we promptly became the repository of masses of furniture as first one and then the other son moved in with us temporarily, bringing all their furniture, and then moved out into furnished places, leaving their possessions behind. The second time we moved house, we downsized significantly and shed yet more stuff. We still have more than we have space for, even after a fairly successful yard sale in the summer, and an ongoing relationship with Facebook Marketplace, local ‘for sale’ sites, Freecycle and the like.

We have reached the stage in our lives when it’s hard to choose gifts for us. Particularly if you’re on a tight budget. I mean, I’d love to attend one of Emma Mitchell’s (aka Silver Pebble) workshops, but they come with a price tag beyond the reach of pretty much everyone buying gifts for me. So the fallback tends to be gimmick gifts which raise a laugh when they are opened, and add to the general merriment of the occasion. What’s lovely about these is that they show how well a person knows you. What’s less lovely is that they tend to end up in landfill once you get past the guilt of throwing away something given to you as a gift.

Yet another part is the wrapping. Around this time of year, we begin to see articles about the environmental impact of Christmas wrapping. We are reminded to do the scrunch test, to see whether wrapping paper is recyclable.

But that doesn’t really help with the packaging the gifts come in: the boxes and plastic and tissue paper and and and.

So many aspects of Christmas can be… is unseemly the word I’m looking for? The shops become a deeply stressful place to be. The foods that no-one enjoys are served up because it’s traditional. People spend money they can ill afford on gifts for people they scarcely know. Vast quantities of alcohol are consumed to alleviate the stress of the whole business. Masses of packaging is included in the next few kerbside garbage collections.

And it needn’t be like that. Why not leave out the food no-one likes, and replace it with something you do like? Make it part of your family’s unique Christmas tapestry. Support independent shops or local makers, artisans and crafters when choosing your gifts. Explore alternative ways of wrapping gifts that don’t have a massive environmental impact.

Consider intangible gifts: indoor skydiving, a spa treatment, a tank driving experience, membership of English Heritage/National Trust.

So many posts have been written on this subject, I feel as I would just be reinventing the wheel to go on. So I’ll steer you towards this post which contains several workable suggestions.

And I’ll end with this little reminder:

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DIY body lotion

Since I have the ingredients to hand at the moment, I’m exploring a variety of first aid and personal care products. I have already had a go at:

  • deodorant, which I’m wearing as we speak, and which is proving at least as effective as any commercial products I’ve used in the past. Of course, only extended use will reveal whether my skin copes with it.
  • pine resin salve, which I have several occasions to use since making it. I’m pretty happy with its effectiveness as a salve, and my skin has shown no negative reactions. But then, I’m not allergic to pine sap!

Yesterday, I tried making some body lotion. I have found it increasingly difficult to source body lotions. Because of my long-term use of corticosteroids for a chronic condition, my skin is parchment thin in places, which has bearing on the sort of body lotions I choose. For the most part, I find that the cheaper ones are pretty useless. Some of the more expensive options are richer – perhaps they are less diluted during the production process?

Finding effective lotions that are also cruelty-free makes for an even greater challenge. Whole food shops, particularly those that are independently owned, will often have a variety of cruelty-free personal care products (see my post script for a short note about how to identify cruelty-free products), and of course, there is always Lush and The Body Shop.

I explored a few different recipes, trying to find something that could be made with fairly readily available ingredients. This is what I settled on (see note below about where I got my ingredients):

6 ingredients
  • 125ml jojoba oil (you can substitute any other liquid oil, such as almond, avocado, olive…)
  • 60ml coconut oil
  • 60ml beeswax
  • 30ml shea butter
  • (optional) few drops of essential oils – I chose bergamot, because it’s my favourite, and added a few drops of peppermint just for fun

Place all the oils, apart from the essential oils, into a bain marie/double boiler and heat gently until they have all melted, stirring occasionally to combine them. Remove from heat and add the essential oils. you won’t need more than about 15 drops, but this bit is entirely up to you. And for goodness’ sake, don’t use an oil you’re allergic to, or that you can’t stand the smell of! Pour into a tin or a jar (if you’re using a glass jar, you might want to warm it up first, to prevent cracking).

My initial reaction is that the lotion leaves quite a greasy residue on the skin at first, so I might tweak the recipe a bit. One thing I definitely would add is 30ml (or perhaps even more of vitamin E oil), but I didn’t have any to hand at the time.

Where did I get my ingredients?

  • Jojoba oil – local whole foods shop
  • coconut oil – CostCo, but almost any supermarket will have this
  • beeswax – this lot came from LiveMoor, but I’m exploring options with a local beekeeper
  • shea butter – CostCo
  • essential oils – local whole foods shop or Essential Oils Online

PS: a quick note about identifying cruelty-free products.

When China opened up to imported products, many companies couldn’t resist the lure of an additional one billion potential new customers. The Chinese government stipulated that all products had to have undergone animal trials before being allowed to be sold within the country. A number of companies which had previously had a strongly stated cruelty-free position, changed their stance in order to access the new market. This includes some of the front-runners within the ‘no animal testing’ space.

I won’t bore you with the details of some hair-splitting, semantic pretzel conversations I have had with representatives of some of those companies. What I will say is this: if it matters to you whether the products you use are cruelty-free, please don’t just assume that the products you buy fit that bill, even if they did in the past. There are smart phone apps that you can download to help you check on the spot whether a product is cruelty-free.

The one I have is called Cruelty-cutter. I scan the bar code of the product with my phone’s camera, and the app searches the database for information about the product. If the product is not on the database, I can submit details of the product for it to be researched and added.

For a bit of perspective: I spent an hour in my nearest Boots, checking the shampoos for sale there with the Cruelty-cutter app. I found not one single shampoo that was certified cruelty free. To be fair, a significant percentage of the products weren’t on the database, so their animal testing status was unknown. Everything was either ‘not cruelty free’ or ‘status unknown’. I gave up and went to Lush, which was a bit more out of my way but where I was spoilt for choice.

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DIY deodorant

Finding deodorant can be tricky if you don’t want to use aerosols, or aluminium, or products tested on animals or any of the other myriad issues that we’re slowly learning are detrimental to us and/or the planet. I’m not going to pretend that suitable products don’t exist. They absolutely do. But I thought I’d experiment with making my own deodorant at home.

Of course, Pinterest is always your friend in these cases, and I explored a few recipes, and found some that use relatively everyday ingredients. The result is a cream you rub in. It’s easily absorbed and doesn’t leave a greasy residue, but I’m not sure what it would be like to use it on hairy armpits.

Ingredients

You will need:

  • 65ml (5 tablespoons) arrowroot or cornflour/maizena
  • 45ml (3 tablespoons) bicarbonate of soda (affectionately known as bicarb) – or baking soda if you’re American (it’s the same thing)
  • 90ml shea butter
  • 50 drops of tea tree oil (or other essential oil of your choice)

Let’s just unpack a bit about those ingredients. As you can see from the picture, I bought my arrow root and bicarb at Waitrose. This is just because I happened to be there. You can get these products pretty much anywhere – probably even your little corner shop. And, of course, you will use these in your cooking and baking, so you’re not making a special purchase, only for the leftovers to languish in your pantry cupboard until underverse come (you get a geeky handclap if you can name the source of that reference).

Tea tree oil probably won’t be available from your local supermarket. I bought mine from my nearest health/whole foods shop. You might find it from a pharmacy, too. You don’t have to use tea tree oil – pretty much any essential oil will do, if you’re only after a fragrance for your deodorant. But I opted to use tea tree oil, because, well, not to put to fine a point on it, I SWEAT. I was always inclined to knock the ‘horses sweat, men perspire and ladies glow’ thing into a cocked hat, and now I have a pretty physical job and am post menopausal. I sweat like a bloody horse, okay? Sorry if that’s TMI, but it’s relevant. If you don’t see the connection, tea tree oil is antibacterial, antimicrobial, antiseptic, antiviral, insecticidal, and fungicidal. I also rather like the smell.

Shea butter is probably the least readily available product on this list. You can buy it online, of course, but you might feel that some of large online buying sites (koff koff, Amazon) have a bit of an ethical/moral question mark over them, and prefer to buy elsewhere. Oddly enough, I found mine at CostCo, of all places. It’s organic, fair trade approved, and comes in a twinpack (2x150ml). The tubs are metal, which is both reusable and recyclable.

I have no pictures of the process, this time, but it’s pretty straightforward. Yield is approximately 200ml.

  • Either chop the shea butter up into small pieces, or melt it gently in the microwave or a bain marie/double boiler, then place into a bowl. Use a bigger bowl than you think you will need. If you have a choice, go with deep and narrow, rather than wide and shallow.
  • Add the two powdered ingredients and blend – you can decide whether you want to do this with a fork or a handmixer. This may take a while. Be patient. You’ll get there.
  • Add the essential oil. Blend again.
  • Transfer into a container that seals, like a glass jar or a tin with a screw top lid. Make sure to scrape out the very last bit to get full value for your money and effort.

You can apply it with your fingers or a make-up sponge. Rub it in until it is completely absorbed. It goes further than you would expect.

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Pine resin salve

Pine resin salve

It’s been far too long since I did any making of the sort that I could share here. Which is not to say I’ve been idle. Far from it. I have been tending the largest garden I’ve ever had in my life, and loving it. This is not, of course, any guarantee that the garden will thrive. I am not known for green fingers!

But today I did a bit of making I thought I’d share with you.

I made some pine resin salve, using just three ingredients: pine resin (you’ll be astonished to learn), jojoba oil, and beeswax.

Three ingredients
I sliced my finger

Before we go any further, I should probably explain what pine resin salve does, so that you can make an informed decision as to whether it’s worth making some. Oddly enough, I had just made this batch, when I needed to use some of it on myself. I was busy with another make, when I sliced my finger on a very sharp metal edge. See the photo taken just this very minute, which was quite tricky with a ‘proper’ (non smart phone) camera and my left hand!

Pine resin is naturally antiseptic and anti-inflammatory. So the salve can be used to treat minor grazes and cuts. As well as preventing infection and reducing inflammation, the stickiness of the pine resin also helps keep a wound closed. Some people swear by it as a treatment for eczema.

Caveat: some people are allergic to pine resin. In case it needs to be said: such people should not use this salve.

The proportions are:

  • 60ml pine resin
  • 125ml jojoba oil
  • 30g beeswax
Pine resin

Pine resin doesn’t tend to arrive in conveniently usable form. It tends to be large crystals.

You can use it like this if you like, but it’s harder to measure out by volume that way, and it takes aaaaaaaages to melt.

Much more usable

So I recommend that you crush it first. Pour a quantity out onto a sheet of baking parchment or waxed paper or newspaper or something. If you have waxed cloth wraps, these could serve, too. Fold the paper/cloth over the resin crystals and then whack them repeatedly with a rolling pin or a hammer or other blunt instrument.

The result is a far more usable product.

Bees wax

 

You can buy beeswax in pellet form, but it’s more expensive. So I buy the sticks and grate it myself. I have a dedicated wax grater for this purpose, so I don’t have to go through the faff of cleaning it before using it for food again. It’s not that I’m particularly extravagant. It’s just that our old hand grater broke, and when I replaced it, I kept the old one for crafts. I also have a dedicated fork for stirring wax-based concoctions. This is one that must have been left behind by a barbecue guest at some point, and remained unclaimed.

 

Kit:

I am reliably informed that the main piece of kit you need to use for this is called a bain-marie in the UK. I know it as a double boiler, and when I went shopping for one in Swindon, was appalled that I tell people who worked in specialist cookware shops was a double boiler was. To me, a bain marie is a whole different thing used for keeping food warm when catering. Hey ho. If you don’t have one – whatever you call it – you can use a bowl over a saucepan, or a smaller saucepan over a larger one. If you’re feeling extravagant, you can buy the top pan bit separately… as long as you call it by a name that the shop assistant recognises! Do not, under any circumstances apply direct heat to the sap – it’s highly flammable!

You will also need containers for the finished product. You’ll need something that won’t melt, like glass, ceramic or metal. To give you an idea of yield: using this recipe, I filled 15 small (lipsalve sized) tins – roughly 10g of salve in each.

Melt the resin in the oil

Fill the bottom pan of your double boiler/bain marie with enough water to come about halfway up the sides of the upper pan, and bring it to a boil. Pour the oil into the upper pan and place it on top of the lower pan. Add your pine resin and stir occasionally until it has melted. This might take a while, and it will go through a stage of sticking in a gloopy mass to your fork (or whatever you’re using to stir).  If your resin had bits of bark in it, you might want to strain it through a piece of muslin once it has melted.

Once the resin has melted, add the wax. If you want a softer salve, you can choose to reduce the amount of wax by as much as half. Stir until the wax melts. This should happen very quickly.

Then you’re ready to pour your salve into containers. If you’re using glass jars, I suggest you preheat them first, to avoid cracking the glass. Leave to cool, and hey presto.

On the other hand, maybe you don’t fancy going through all that faff, but you’d still like some pine resin salve. As luck would have it, I just happen to have tins of it for sale at £2.50 each. Let me know!

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The whole ‘lifestyle business’ thing

This post is my gentle request for a little more respect for lifestyle businesses. Because of the inherent flexibility that goes with such a business, I’ve noticed that people seem to forget that it is still a business: commitments and deadlines must still be met, bills must still be paid, quality standards must still be achieved.

You may be unfamiliar with the term ‘lifestyle business’. Wikipedia defines it as follows:

A business set up and run by its founders primarily with the aim of sustaining a particular level of income and no more; or to provide a foundation from which to enjoy a particular lifestyle.

On the other hand, perhaps you are familiar with the term. Perhaps you even have a lifestyle business yourself. In that case, although you probably stand to learn nothing new from this post, I’d love to hear your take on things in the comments.

A lifestyle business tends to be so much an integral part of the… well, lifestyle of the business owner, that it is impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins. It is well suited to crafters, artisans, artists, smallholders and the permaculture community. And, it is as I type these words that I realise how consistent this approach is with everything I stood for in my previous career in the field of Learning and Development ( I was all about the embedded learning/performance support approach).

People with lifestyle businesses will tend to define success somewhat differently from the many publications to be found in the self-help section. I have frequently observed that many of the programmes designed to help people become ‘successful’ seem to equate success with wealth. I guess, if your goal is to amass wealth, and you manage to do that, you have succeeded. But what if your goal is to be happy? Fulfilled? Contented? If you achieve wealth, does it follow that you are successful?

Mr Namasi will attest to the fact that I am not very good at doing nothing. When we’re travelling somewhere, if he’s driving, I’m keeping up to date with my various social media feeds, completing a killer sudoku or three, or even doing some or other handcraft in the passenger seat. The same goes for train journeys. And I am incapable of watching television with idle hands. I can complete a knitting/crochet/beading/cross-stitch project during the course of a couple of movies. Most of the pieces I make in this fashion find their way onto my Facebook page, my Folksy shop, and/or this site. Some people may view these items as the by-product of otherwise dead time. As such, there can be the expectation that they should be dirt cheap.

Lilac lacy shawl

People who buy handmade items generally respect that the time and effort that go into them must be factored in, and will usually far outweigh the cost of the materials used. But not everyone appreciates this. I once fielded a query from someone who wanted to know how I could justify charging £180 for a custom made hall stand. On another occasion, a potential client wanted me to restore some vintage toolboxes for £10 each. And one lady almost lost her eyebrows in her hairline when she saw the price tag on of one of my handmade lacy shawls (£45 – see picture).

To be honest, if I were even to pay myself minimum wage for the time spent on the pieces I make, my prices would be a lot higher. Many lifestyle businesses are charging far lower prices than they ought to, and still struggling to find buyers. Particularly those who haven’t been featured on TV, and don’t have the sort of reach and clout to be able to price our work realistically.

So, I’d like to make some suggestions about dealing with friends/family members/acquaintances with lifestyle businesses:

Quid pro quo, deals and understandings

People with lifestyle businesses are often in the fortunate position to be able to barter services:

  • I’ll give you the milk from my goat, if you’ll give me back half the resultant cheese.
  • I’ll let you display your items in this part of my shop, if you’ll mind the store x hours per week.
  • If you display some of my promotional material in your B&B, I’ll give you a commission on any resultant sales.

They may or may not put these barters through the ‘books’ – that’s a different conversation. But it’s best to ensure that both parties feel that there is parity between the quid and the quo.

Favours

If you are asking for a favour, and don’t plan to pay for it, it’s important to make sure that this is clear up front.

Do consider whether it is appropriate for you to be asking this favour, though. Is the work involved something that your friend normally charges for? If not, go ahead. If so, bear in mind that the time spent working on your favour could have been spent working on a project that generated an income. Be prepared for the possibility that your friend might turn you down. If you have asked for a favour, bear in mind that you might get bumped if a paying project comes in – everyone has bills to pay. If you want to make sure that your project is as much a priority for your friend as it is for you, the bottom line is that you need to make it worth their while. You have to buy their time.

And, no matter how close your friendship is, you’ll need to bear in mind that your friend may have existing commitments, which need to be met. Even if they wanted to drop everything and leap to your aid, it would be unprofessional of them to do so, and could harm their professional reputation. Be a good friend yourself and recognise that.

Mates’ rates

Chances are your friend is already offering you ‘mates’ rates’ when quoting you for a project. If you value your friend’s work, the best way to demonstrate that is to pay for it without quibbling over the price. If you’re able to get the same work done by someone else for a better rate, you’re naturally entitled to ask them if they’re able to match that rate (you can do this even if the business doesn’t belong to a friend). They might agree. They might not. They might have good reasons for not being able to match the other price.

If someone admires some work done by your friend, by all means, recommend your friend’s services. But don’t, for goodness’ sake, tell them what you paid. Your friend might have offered you mates’ rates, and might not be keen to offer that same price to anyone else.

Bear in mind that lifestyle businesses tend not to adhere to traditional business hours. So don’t expect work done over the weekend (or while watching TV) to be offered at a lower rate.

Share the love

If you’ve bought some gorgeous thing/had some wonderful work done by a friend with a lifestyle business, give them a shoutout: Facebook, Twitter, word of mouth. If you’re mentioning them online, link to their website or Folksy shop (or whatever it is). Keep a business card or two of theirs to hand in case you encounter someone who’s looking for the sort of thing that your friend is able to supply.

Value the gifts

If your lifestyle business owning friend gives you something they have made or done as a gift, bear in mind that they put time and effort into that piece. Whether or not they custom made it for you, they would have been able to charge someone else for it, but chose to give it to you instead. Please don’t look on it as being ‘less than’.

My son moonlights as a massage therapist. He will often give me a massage as a gift for my birthday or Christmas. Because I so seldom treat myself to a massage, and almost always need one, this is the perfect gift for me. I also recognise that he could use that time slot to give a massage to a paying customer. I don’t chat to him on a mother-son level while he is working. Because he is working, and it would be disrespectful to devalue that work by not relaxing properly and responding as I would if I were a paying client.

If you’re ever in any doubt about what would be appropriate, my best advice is: ASK!

 

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Re-using that plastic: Doorstop

Yesterday, I posted about the various steps we can take to reduce our plastic. I promised that I’d provide some upcycling/reuse suggestions. This is the first: you can use plastic jars to make doorstops.

This is actually a commissioned project that I worked on this very morning, so it’s hot off the press.

You will need:

  • A fairly large empty plastic jar, preferably with lid
  • Something to weigh it down with
  • Some kind of covering for the jar
  • Glue or a needle and thread to hold everything together

That’s all a bit vague, isn’t it? Have a read through the rest of the process and you’ll get the idea.

The jar

When I was 10 years old, one of our ‘housecraft’ projects was to make a doorstop. This involved using 4 needles to knit a cover for a 500ml Coke bottle. By dint of (ahem) clever embroidery and the placement of pompoms, the covered Coke bottle was transformed into a (ahem again) ‘beautiful’ Poodle. The bottle was half filled with sand to weigh it down before its Poodle cover was stitched in place.

The thing is, a Coke bottle has a pretty small base, which doesn’t make for much stability. Also 250ml of sand doesn’t weigh a lot, and can’t hold a door in place in the face of a determined Eastern Cape easterly wind. I’m here to tell you that the wind will move the door anyway. The bottle will fall over, and the sand will leak through the knitting and your mother will not be impressed. This is not the desired outcome.

Instead, choose a large jar with a broad base. I chose this one. I didn’t even take the label off. It does have a lid, even though it’s not in the picture. We’ll come back to that.

 

The weight

We have already established that 250ml of sand isn’t going to do the trick. So what is? Well here is why I was so vague before. You could use sand – just more of it. You could use plaster of paris. You could use stones. You could use discarded weight plates from your neglected garage-gym. You could use gold bullion. Heck you could even use water, as long as you have a lid for your bottle. Water weighs 1kg per litre – that’s pretty respectable.

I used plaster of Paris purely because I had some available.

Once you’ve added weight to your jar, you can put the lid on. A couple of pointers here:

  • If you’re using water as your weight, I suggest you seal the lid in place with silicon or hot glue or plumber’s tape or some such
  • If you’re using plaster of Paris, wait until the plaster has set before putting the lid on – setting plaster is exothermic and needs room to breathe

The cover

Now, because this is a commission, I got a bit fancy here. You can do what you like. You could even leave it as it is, if you prefer. Or you could paint it.  Or decoupage it. Or cover it with wallpaper.  You could wrap it in a cast-off item of clothing, knotted at the top.

This is what I did.

  • First, I measured the circumference of the jar (at its widest point)
  • I cut a piece of calico wide enough that it would overlap slightly when wrapped around the jar, and long enough so that it would extend slightly beyond the top and the bottom of the jar. Because I used a piece of calico that had come off one of those pine-and-calico wardrobe thingies, the piece I cut was already hemmed on two sides. Win. If you want to hem yours, go ahead. If not, don’t.
  • I then, you’ll be astonished to learn, covered the jar with the calico. I used hot glue. You could sew yours, and slide the jar in.
  • I folded the top of the calico over the closed lid of the jar and glued it in place. I did the same at the base. You could catch it with a needle and thread, if you prefer.
  • Because I want my client to be able to pick the doorstop up easily, I decided to give it a secure handle. I used some of the tapes from the aforementioned pine-and-canvas wardrobe thingy for this. I cut two lengths that would be long enough to go under the base of the jar like stirrups, with enough left at the top to tie secure knots. I glued the straps across the bottom of the jar, laying them across each other like the strings around a parcel. Then I tied them all together at the top. Note: the are no joins at the bottom – that wouldn’t be secure. I’ll come back to those loose ends in a bit.
  • I cut a piece from a scarf I had picked up from a charity shop. It’s in blues and oranges, with a lovely pompom fringe, and I’ve been dying for an excuse to use it for a project. I cut it long enough so that I could fold it over the base as I had done with the calico, while leaving a cheerful pom-pom-y fringe at the top. The scarf was wide enough to go around the jar and then some, but I didn’t I cut the extra width away, because the more of an overlap there was, the more pompoms there’d be. Win.
  • I wrapped the scarf around the jar. When it overlapped, I just kept going. Then I glued the end in place.
  • I folded the excess over the base. This time I used a needle and thread to catch it all together. Then I cut a circle of calico, which I placed over all that untidiness. Just for a little touch of why-not-ness, I blanket stitched around the edge of the calico circle. I need to make a note about this base. Please see the * at the end of the post.
  • Now for the finishing touches. I gathered the top into a bunch, including the loose ends of the calico tapes, and tied some coloured tape tightly around it like a ponytail. I used the four loose ends of the calico to make two loops, which I stitched (glue might not hold the weight), so that the new owner can hook a finger or two through them to move the doorstop.

And here is the completed doorstop, earning its keep. You can make yours as plain or as fancy as you like. You could give it ears and googly eyes and turn it into a creature of some kind. Let your imagination run riot. Have fun. 

* The base of the jar I chose is concave, which means that it remains stable in spite of the fact that I folded quite a lot of fabric over the bottom and glued it in place. If you’re using something with a flat base, you’d be better off not folding fabric under, but cutting it off level with the base, gluing it in place, and then adding some kind of trim around the bottom.

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The fall and rise of handmade

I have a theory. It’s just a theory, mind – I’ve not done the actual research, and it’s all still forming in my head, but here it is:

Long ago, everything was handmade. Everything. Clothes, cooking pots, food, carts, tools, lutes and lute strings…. everything. In such a time, a crafter would strive for elusive perfection – seeking to make an item as close to flawless as possible. So a cooking pot would be as close to perfectly round as the artisan could manage, with the metal showing minimal dents and flaws. A shoe would be well-fitted, with stitching as near to uniform neatness as could be achieved by the human hand. Those capable of achieving such  near-perfection would often work their mark into the goods they made, so that customers who appreciated quality would see that mark on a much admired piece and seek out the maker, to place an order of their own.

Then came mechanisation. The perfection that machines could achieve became sought after instead. Initially, these machine-made items were comparatively scarce and expensive… and therefore eminently desirable. If you admired someone else’s dinner service, you could (as long as you had the money) get an exact copy of that service yourself. Every plate would be exactly the same size, perfectly round and absolutely flawless. If your suit of clothing was machine sewn, every stitch would be of uniform length. The tension in your machine-knitted hose would be perfect and uniform. Oh, the admiring glances you could garner with your machine tooled whatever-it-was..!

But then machine made became ubiquitous. Clothes, cooking pots, food, cars, tools, guitars and guitar strings. Everything except baskets, apparently:

From The Basket Book by Lyn Silber, click the image for a link to the book.

Nowadays, the only way to be unique, is to have things that have been handmade. And those little imperfections that show that a thing is handmade – the slightest inconsistency of tension in that scarf, the hint of unevenness in the surface of a copper pot, the smallest deviations from uniformity – those have become sought after. They speak of the person who worked on the item. They speak of a connection between the raw materials, the hands of the crafter and the enjoyment of the owner. Machines don’t think of you when they churn out their endless streams of perfection. The crafter invests him/herself into each item. Selects the materials. Takes pleasure in the making. Takes delight in your appreciation. Feels gratitude for your purchase.

We are so busy, so pressed for time. We have also moved a lot of our relationships into virtual spaces. Email, Snapchat, WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn…. And even those can be somewhat manufactured, as we choose what to reveal and conceal about ourselves in those spaces. That sense of connection to people with skin on is what has become scarce now. That whole warts-and-all thing. And we want that in our possessions as well.

The Scandinavian word ‘hygge’ has been adopted to describe that sense of connection with the real, the pleasantly imperfect. Some definitions:

Though there are many ways to describe hygge, we see it simply as the Danish ritual of enjoying life’s simple pleasures. Friends. Family. Graciousness. Contentment. Good feelings. A warm glow. ~Skagen

…a concept, originating in Denmark, of creating cosy and convivial atmospheres that promote wellbeing ~Collins English Dictionary

In essence, hygge means creating a warm atmosphere and enjoying the good things in life with good people. The warm glow of candlelight is hygge. Friends and family – that’s hygge too. There’s nothing more hygge than sitting round a table, discussing the big and small things in life. ~Visit Denmark

My theory is that:

  • We value that which is hard to come by – the whole scarcity thing in economics centres around this. If perfection is impossible, we want it. If perfection is the norm, we want a kind of imperfection which seems superior to that perfection. There’s also the cost element – machine made items are cheaper (at the moment, anyway), handmade is more expensive, ergo harder to come by, ergo more desirable.
  • We admire that which is hard to attain. The elite in China used to wear their nails long as a sign that they didn’t need to do any work. Anyone who had to work with their hands was never going to be able to grow their nails like that (and as someone who has never been able to have long, painted nails without artificial assistance, I can attest to this!) Think about standards in women’s beauty. In times/cultures when/where food is scarce, it’s the voluptuous woman who is admired. In times/cultures where food is plentiful and lifestyles sedentary, fat and lazy are easy to ‘achieve’, so our beauty standards range from painfully thin to powerfully athletic.
  • We want to feel connected – in a world where so much can be achieved remotely, we yearn to connect on a human level, and the slight imperfections in handcrafted goods speak of that humanity
  • We are becoming more conscious of our impact on the planet, and reusing, repurposing, upcycling and all those good things enable us to tread more gently upon the earth, as it were.

Thoughts? Views? Ideas?

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Upcycled Christmas part 2 – handmade decorations

As a follow on to my last post, today I’m going to focus on Christmas decorations made out of reclaimed materials.

To start the ball rolling, here is a Christmas wreath made out of a pool noodle, hessian, ribbon and various other bits and pieces I had to hand – mostly saved from centrepieces from previous Christmases. There’s even a pair of earrings in there somewhere. Can you spot them?

Christmas wreath from reclaimed materials

This weekend coming (25-26 November), our village church is holding a Christmas tree festival. My entry is called (as you might expect) Upcycled Christmas. The trees and everything on them will be made from reclaimed materials.

I already touched on the madonna-and-child models I made with the local craft-and-coffee group, using reclaimed materials and polyfilla. My own madonna will be part of my display at the festival. As will this little choir, and their conductor. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what went into making them!

Totally rubbish singing

Obviously, I don’t want to reveal all my secrets in advance, but here are some of the trees I have made out of reclaimed materials in the past:

A mooring rope…as you do

Wall-hanging tree for small spaces

This pair was a commission

Table top tree

 And of course, there are the decorations to hang on them! This is where discarded curtain rings, disposable coffee cups, previous years’ ribbons and wrappings, broken jewellery, scraps from the craft cupboard, etc. come into their own. Even a piece of an old bathmat has been pressed into service in one of these photos (see if you can spot it). The chains from a few hanging baskets will also be putting in an appearance, but you’ll have to wait until after next weekend to see them!

Tree topper

Broken jewellery and a wedding garter are included here

Lots of curtain rings and glitter glue

The point of all of this is that so many of our decorations are made of plastic, and wind up being thrown away after Christmas. Only there’s no such place as ‘away’. It’s all going somewhere. And, with a little thought, they could all be pressed into service for another go-round in a different guise. You could even make a family activity out of it – it will help build the excitement. And children love to see their own handiwork hanging in pride of place on the tree. Just make sure any hot glue and/or superglue is kept at a safe distance from little fingers. And make sure to use solvent-free options where possible when involving the little people.

I’d love to see your own handmade Christmas decorations!