Make Yourself a Merry Little Christmas

When my husband and I were dating, I decided to replace his holey pajama pants with a handmade pair. I envisioned the height of romance. These pants would be with him when I wasn’t. I thought of him lovingly as I cut the fabric and taught myself to stitch the seams, convinced he would feel my love when he touched them and understand the depth of my emotion.

Tripe, I know.

The night I shyly presented him with his pants, sprayed with my signature scent and carefully wrapped, he tried them on, remarked on the amount of crack they let hang out and how painfully they squeezed his balls, and posed for a few pictures while we laughed till we cried. Then he shoved them in the back of his closet. He hated them. Every lovingly placed stitch. But he appreciated them and still fondly recalls the story of his young girlfriend learning a new skill just for him. I now sew pants for his two sons, with plenty of room for growing balls.


Thoughtful gift giving requires sacrifice. Not necessarily monetary sacrifice, but sacrifice of resources — time, creativity, attention. A gift should say, “I listen to you. I pay attention to your actions. I’m aware of your likes and desires, and I’m willing to make a personal sacrifice to fulfill them.”

This all sounds much more serious than I intended — thoughtful gift-giving doesn’t require blood-letting. All you have to do is hang out with someone for a while, and then use a little time and creativity to make something they need or want. Even if your hand-made gift ends up a Regretsy-worthy disaster, it’ll make an unforgettable story.

One recent Christmas, my parents, husband and I decided to exchange only handmade gifts and I received two of my most treasured possessions. My mother made a beautiful quilt for me that was the site of many winter floor picnics with my toddler, and provided a soft spot for my 3-day-old infant to nap at his first outdoor summer concert. My father made a preschool-style salt dough ornament featuring his handprint, marked on the back with “Curt, 64 years old.” He intended it both as a joke and a hope to put this whole handmade Christmas thing to rest for good. And we laughed. But I also keep it hidden in a safe spot and take it out occasionally when I miss my dad, who lives nearly 2,000 miles away, and trace his fingerprints with my own, marveling at how close in size my hand is to his when his huge paw used to envelop mine when we crossed the street together.

Tripe, I know.

But handmade gifts mean something. Even the ones that hurt your balls.

So, how do you go about actually making something for someone in a way that won’t look like you stumbled into a grade school craft room?

First, remember the internet is your friend on this -– especially YouTube. I had a great time once rewiring a “That was easy” button to say other things -– all you need are some Googling patience, the button from Staples, a few parts from RadioShack, and a local voice to say something profound.

But what if your creation requires special materials or tools that you’re not likely to find around your garage? In a state so permeated with artistry, it probably won’t surprise you to find out that there are many resources for new or experienced makers.

You might consider making some beer or mead – just be warned, beer especially is an “it’s the thought that counts” kind of gift – your first try, if you homebrew, is likely to need some work. There are great local homebrew resources, though, from the Rhode Island Brewing Society (ribrewingsociety.com), an organization dedicated to sharing homebrew expertise, to stores like Blackstone Valley Brewing Supplies in Woonsocket, Brew Horizons in East Greenwich, and Craft Brews Supplies in Wyoming. It’s a little less local, but Natick’s Barleycorn’s (barleycorn.com) offers “brew-on-premises,” allowing you to use their facility and their coaching to produce your own brand of magical elixir for someone. And if you want to go with something that’s proven tasty, Newport Vineyards (newportvineyards.com) will let you create a custom name and label and wrap it around one of their merlots. Finally, look into Johnson & Wales’ brew club, JBrew. They have their own facility, equipment and club, accessible if you have some kind of connection with the University (fb.com/jbrewclub).

Or, make something much more long-lasting. There’s also Providence’s Steelyard to consider. Here they have workshops for makers who want to work in metal. You can find a metal sculptor to commission, or take a class and get access to some pretty heavy equipment. Thesteelyard.org for more information.

Photography darkrooms, which are sadly dying out, still exist and are also class-accessible through AS220 or RISD Continuing Education, so you can snap and brew your own photos.

AS220’s maker-oriented culture presents quite a few options, according to Shawn Wallace, Industries Director at AS220. There are “core classes” that happen every month, usually for a few hours each over a couple of weekends. These prepare you to use some of the more sophisticated equipment, like laser cutters, CNC machines (computer programmed cutting and milling machines used to create components), vinyl cutters, print making machines, and even screen printing facilities. Once you’re trained, you can rent these facilities and equipment by the hour, or offset that by volunteering as a monitor with a membership. Details on all these offerings are available atshop.AS220.org

There’s also the “Fab Lab” to consider. It’s short for fabrication … or is it? The Fab Lab is part of an international network of 250 labs that coordinate a distributed learning curriculum that combines in-lab, hands-on experience with internet presentations and mentoring.  All the labs use the same software and techniques, and students learn to create all sorts of things. There might not be time to pull this off before gift-giving time (the next Fab Academy starts in January), but it might be something to think about for future efforts. 

Wallace has seen makers produce an assortment of objects using these tools. Ideas include many types of ornaments, hand-made and printed cards and screen printed fabrics. Costumes and costume components, and masquerade masks popular at each year’s Foo Fest are also achievable. “We have a few people who really get into Halloween,” explains Wallace, who sees the growth of micro controllers, wearable tech toolkits, and more on the horizon making custom-made wearables more promising and popular. “We have some members doing very interesting things with haptic controllers,” he adds, describing special gloves that can be used to interface finger movements with devices, like musical instruments or computers. Boxes, holders, wall hangings, lawn ornaments, one-of-a-kind jewelry and custom skateboards, shaped from your own design and materials, are all common. “We had one person who made a wonderful orery [a steampunkish mechanical model of the solar system] where each planet could move around,” says Wallace. The AS220 labs have an open house on the first Tuesday of every month (131 Washington St., but enter around the back of the building, from Lucie St.)

There are other “maker spaces” where you can find tools, support and encouragement. In Bristol, there’s the recently launched Tinker | Bristol (fb.com/TinkerBristol). In Newport, there’s a Newport Fab Lab that’s part of the same network (fabnewport.org). Makerfaireri.com has links to specific companies and upcoming fairs and events.

Finally, 3D printing, which Wallace notes as the “leading edge of the maker wave,” is becoming more and more common. You can find those in the maker facilities already mentioned, and also at the public libraries in Cranston and Warwick. There’s even a meet-up for locals with 3D printers. Find the next monthly meeting at 3dppvd.org. They’re still working on 3D printers that can be made entirely from parts made by 3D printers, but once that happens, watch out! They’ll be everywhere, and then it’s SkyNet time.

If you don’t want to put all that work into creating something new, you still have options – the AS220 Lab has a holiday show coming up on the first Saturday in December (Dec 6). It won’t be things you’ve made, but it will offer things that are one-of-a-kind and local. And of course, gift certificates are available, if you know your recipient would really like the gift of knowledge. And to make his or her own stuff.

Find more ideas for things you can make on these respected maker websites: thingiverse.com and shapeways.com