At Christmas, the craft world is abuzz with talk of lengthy gift lists, craft-induced stress, late-night craft-cramming sessions, and the nightmare that is having to wrap an unfinished item. At the same time, parodies of the homemade gift pop up over and over again. Crafters are losing sleep over their lists of gift projects while a whole host of voices want us to believe that everyone secretly dreads a handmade gift. Of course, the parodies, like most pop culture tropes, are cheap, one-dimensional, and tired. Unless you are watching a period piece, you rarely see a skilled maker produce a beautiful handcrafted item that the receiver loves, despite how often this happens in real life. And I think that people who really believe that “the only real gift is a purchased gift” are a small, albeit vocal, minority of people you probably don’t want to hang out with anyway. But given all the stress and anxiety and hurried toiling that comes with gift-related crafting, I’ve been wondering: why do we give homemade gifts?
I don’t mean that as a rhetorical question, as if to say: “why bother?” I ask the question genuinely, as in: How do we make decisions about when to make gifts and what to make and for whom? What kinds of values underlie those decisions? When does making gifts pay off and when is it an unnecessary drain on our creative energy?
Kari at UCreate has a list of 10 reasons to give handmade gifts that sums up a lot of the reasons I like to make gifts. My biggest motivation for giving handmade gifts is that it allows me to give things that are personalized and unique. Handmade gifts can also be a sure thing for people that you know appreciate certain items–I like giving Aidan socks because he wears them enthusiastically and his mom always likes getting knitted dishcloths. In the past, I’ve given something handmade when I’m short on gift ideas, which can work well if it matches the person’s interests and personality. I was stumped for gift ideas for my sister’s 12th birthday and ended up making her this sock monster. It might seem like a random gift, but it matches her quirky personality and her love of all things cute and silly.
But other motivations for giving handmade gifts can creep in, like the belief that handmade goods are inherently superior. Or the belief that a handmade gift is the only way to provide a personal gift or the only way to opt out of the rampant consumerism that takes over during gift-giving seasons like Christmas. The idea of a handmade Christmas is nice, but does it run the risk of replacing the pressures and expectations of consumerism with a different set of pressures and expectations?
Sometimes I wonder if there isn’t also an aspect of performance to making handmade gifts. By that, I mean that I wonder if there is some part of us that is working to show that we are skilled and to have this skill verified by the people who receive the gift. I think this performance is more unconscious than anything and, to some extent, unavoidable. Of course I want to have my skill recognized. I take pleasure in having people appreciate the time and thought and skill that went into making something. But it’s dangerous to let that desire for praise or the need to perform “craftiness” take over—if you fall into a place of looking for external validation as the primary marker of the worth of what you’ve done it only breeds bad feelings and disappointments.
Gift giving is emotional, for both giver and receiver. And for the giver, it seems that the emotional stake in a gift increases the more we invest. We worry more about whether a person will like a gift when it is expensive or when we’ve had to go out of our way to get it. Or, in the case of the handmade gift, we worry more about how a gift will be received if it took a lot of time or precious materials to produce. When we inflate the value of handmade goods (simply by virtue of being handmade) or burden ourselves with more gift projects than we have reasonable time or energy to produce, we increase our emotional investment and, likewise, our risk of disappointment if the gift is not received in the way we hope. When we have an inflated emotional investment in a gift or when we’re desperately looking to have our work validated in specific ways, this puts more pressure on the receiver. And perhaps that’s where some of the disdain for handmade gifts comes from—from people being put in a position where they not only receive something they dislike, but where they know, implicitly, that there is added pressure to be extra appreciative or to actively praise a person’s skill.
There’s always a risk that someone won’t like a gift. The question for me, as a maker, is: how do I keep my emotional investment in a handmade gift in check and make giving a handmade gift as positive an experience as possible? I find that my best handmade gift-giving experiences come when I’m realistic about my time, my ability, and about the person that I’m giving a gift to. Likewise, my worst experiences have come from not being realistic. Usually, being realistic means that I focus on my energy on just a few handmade gifts at Christmas and the occasional handmade gift through the rest of the year rather than trying to make something for everyone. To stay realistic, I’m continually asking myself questions like:
- Is working on a deadline or making something for someone else going to make me feel resentful? Do I have the creative energy to make this gift or am I already immersed in projects I’d rather being working on?
- Is this gift appropriate for the receiver? Am I making it for them because I think they will appreciate it or just because I want to make them something?
- Have I chosen materials appropriate for the person who will use the gift and for how the gift will be used? If I’m thinking about using expensive or delicate materials, do I think the receiver will appreciate those materials? Are these materials that I love and want to keep for myself?
- Do I really have the time to make these gifts? Have I factored in other life events and responsibilities that will zap my energy or interrupt my ability to work on these gifts? Do I have time to do the finishing work that will make this item shine?
- If I’m starting to feel overwhelmed or stressed, what can I cut from the list? What can be saved for the next gift-giving occasion?
- Can I actually make this thing and make it look good/be functional?
- And when it’s done: Am I happy with how it turned out? Do I feel good giving this as a gift?
It’s always a challenge to be realistic about your time, especially at Christmas when everyone is busy and there is continual pressure to make the season special. But I think it’s also difficult to be realistic about your ability. The bizarre ornament your 6-year-old niece made in art class is charming, but the dry, burnt cookies you receive from someone who only dusts their measuring cups off once a year in December are decidedly less charming. It’s tempting to use new skills to make everyone gifts (because, “Hey! Look at this awesome thing I can do now!”) or to learn a new skill because you want to make a particular gift. But being new to a craft means that even simple projects can take a good deal of time, can require the purchase of new tools and materials, or can make you feel insecure about what you produce, all of which inflate your emotional investment in the gift. It’s not that I think you can’t take up a new craft and start making gifts right away or that every new crafter endures a period of making endless items of shame. I’ve sewn gifts for three people in the very short time that I’ve been sewing, but I’ve tried to be mindful of my ability in doing so by picking projects I feel confident I can execute well and that aren’t a burden to complete.
I take for granted that the only acceptable response to a gift is to say “Thank you,” even if you’re visualizing the fastest route to Goodwill while you unwrap it. But there’s no denying that the handmade gift, despite the thought and love that might go into it, can become a special kind of disaster. I like to think that being mindful about why and when we give handmade gifts can help us avoid playing out the parody.
Since I’ve been thinking a lot about handmade gifts, I’m curious: Are you making gifts this season? How do you choose what to make and who to make gifts for? Where do you think handmade gifts go wrong?
(All of the pictures in this post are of knitted gifts I’ve made over the years. You can click on each picture to get all the project details on Ravelry.)