The Tricky Art of Handmade Gifts

My crafty, creative friend, Harriet, recently posted this on Facebook:

I am nervous that my hand made gifts will not be popular under the xmas tree. Yes, I am. I care when I make them, and when I give them. But that does not mean people want them! Sigh. I will be brave! It is personal, but a refusal is not supposed to be taken personally (how else can I take it, anyway?). The art of giving does not always match up with the art of receiving, does it?

Raise your hand if you’ve ever felt this way about a handmade gift you’ve given.

Now raise your hand if you’ve ever felt this way about a purchased gift you’ve given.

Uh-huh. I thought so. Reality check: Gift-giving can be risky, whether the gift is handmade or not.

Giant hand-knit slippers awaiting felting.

Hand knit slippers that will now be felted to fit. These were family gifts one year.

A Little Perspective

We all want our gifts to be enjoyed. That’s the purpose of gifts, isn’t it? But you know the saying, “You can’t please everyone.” We trot that saying out when a good effort doesn’t work perfectly, when some people aren’t happy with it, and it helps us shrug off the disappointment. It means “don’t expect to please everyone because you can’t, and that’s okay.”

Well, it’s true, even in gift-giving: We can’t please everyone, and that’s okay. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, but perhaps we should go in knowing that some of our gifts will miss the mark and be prepared to shrug those misses off. Easier said than done, I know.

Linda shared her experience:

Hand made gifts are not always valued and loved. It hurts as a maker to know that some people don’t value what you do. I stopped making gifts some time ago because of this. In some ways I felt it was not fair to the people I was giving things to, they had not asked me to spend hours making something for them. I’d had the pleasure of creating the gift and then I kind of expected them to give me the pleasure of being appreciated too. It felt like an unfair balance…

I think Linda is right. There’s a difference between expecting and hoping. Of course we hope our recipients like and appreciate our gifts, but perhaps we shouldn’t expect them to.

Cathrine offered this:

The biggest gift is actually to give, so give unconditionally. (And do not forget the pleasure of making it.) If they like it, it’s an extra bonus.

Felt camel, elephant, and zebra Christmas tree ornaments

Handmade holiday ornaments.

I love this perspective! We need to remind ourselves over and over until it is tattooed on our psyches: Love the making, love the giving, and let the gift and the recipient take it from there. Don’t require any particular response or feeling from the recipient, just give and take joy and pride in the giving.

Again, easier said than done. I know. But I think it’s a good attitude to try to adopt.

Choose Your Recipients Well

In response to Harriet’s post, Margaret shared this story:

I am very choosey about who I give a handmade gift to. I’ve been burned too many times. Worst one was when I overheard the recipient telling someone that I’m so cheap I couldn’t be bothered to buy a gift. That gift took 2 months to make, matched the person’s tastes perfectly, and the materials cost was 60 dollars.

Wow. I’m so sorry, Margaret; that is harsh! Shame on the recipient in this scenario; there is a lack of appreciation, respect, and plain old kindness here that is despicable. S/he doesn’t deserve a gift.

But what Margaret learned is something we should all consider: Be choosey about who will enjoy and appreciate our handmade gifts. We already know we can’t please everyone, so let’s try to choose the best candidates for our recipients. This could require some trial and error, so let’s start with something small. If it’s received well, we might try something more time-consuming or risky next time.

Handmade log cabin doll house

The log cabin doll house Mike made for our niece. He worked on it during two long Alaska winters, hauling it to and from lodges and eventually across the country.

Acknowledging the History of Handmade

One of the reasons I think handmade is sometimes under-appreciated is because the technique is accessible to everyone. Children are encouraged to make gifts. How many parents beam with pride and proudly display a clay paperweight gift or wear a macaroni necklace to work? Also, children are used to outgrowing things—clothes, games, habits, interests. It makes sense that some people will want to outgrow the childhood tradition of making gifts.

Who hasn’t heard stories of struggling pioneers and depression-era families making corn husk dolls and feed sack dresses? Historically, handmade is what some people did when they couldn’t afford manufactured.

Even for today’s financially stable crafters, handmade often includes recycling, upcycling, and re-purposing. Frugality and conservation can be part of the creative challenge and pleasure.

In each of those scenarios, there will be people who genuinely admire the ingenuity, effort, and result of handmade items, and there will be people who won’t. It’s been that way since there have been haves and have nots, and it will continue to be that way until our sun explodes and no human has anything. Out on the prairie, Nellie flaunted the pretty things she had from her father’s store while Laura developed an appreciation for her family’s handmade self-reliance. It’s an old, old story.

We need to be okay with the history of handmade and recognize the associated stigmas, whether they are relevant to our gifts or not.

Hand sewn Christmas stockings

Handmade stockings. Additions to match a set made years ago.

On Being the Recipient of a Gift That Misses the Mark

Cathrine also brings up the issue of how we ourselves respond to handmade gifts:

I think the worst thing is to get something you don’t like and feel guilty and ashamed because you don’t like it.

I can think of two times when I felt this way about a gift, and both times the gifts were not handmade. So, again, this feeling is not unique to handmade gifts. As someone who makes things, I find that comforting. The playing field may be more level than we imagine.

I think that feeling of guilt actually demonstrates an appreciation for the gesture. Someone cared enough to take the time and/or spend the money to give us something s/he hoped we’d like. We feel badly for not really liking it. We acknowledge and honor the giving even while not wanting the gift.

I don’t think this is the worst thing. It’s an unpleasant feeling, to be sure, but why can’t it be enough to love the kindness and generosity?

Someone once gave Mike and me a gift of fancy coffee. Neither of us likes coffee, fancy or plain. I still appreciated the gift: I put it in the freezer and had something wonderful to offer our next visitors! Giving me something to give someone else is a great gift. It’s not what the gifter intended, but it’s not a bad or wasted gift, either.

This ties in to giving unconditionally: If the gift misses the mark, let the recipient appreciate the kindness and enjoy re-gifting the item. Allow them this. That can be a joy, too.

M’chele shared this about handmade gifts:

I think we can all understand that feeling of will they/won’t they be liked. You pour your heart and soul into them and then send them off into the world hoping they will be appreciated. Most times they are, sometimes they aren’t. You just have to keep making your art and putting it out there. It gets easier.

Yes, it does get easier. And it helps to cultivate a good perspective on the art of giving and getting handmade gifts, which is what I hope we’re doing here.

Handmade is Good For the World

Hand-embroidered bracelets

Hand-stitched bracelets. These might be my favorite handmade gifts ever!

I think there are a lot of really good reasons to give handmade gifts, far more reasons to give them than to not give them. Here are some:

  • Handmade gifts satisfy our desire and need to create.
  • They are personal and unique in a way that a mass-produced item can never be.
  • They demonstrate that we ourselves appreciate handmade, so others are free to give us handmade and feel good about it.

What are some other good reasons to give handmade gifts? I know you’ve got some.

We need to be leaders here. We value handmade, so we should give handmade gifts proudly and confidently, demanding no particular feelings in return, and accepting that not all gifts—commercially made or handmade—are slam dunks. Our job is to make our gifts and send them with love to their recipients. That is all. Take joy in that.

Go forth, be bold: Give handmade gifts.

6 Responses to “The Tricky Art of Handmade Gifts”

  1. I like the way you’ve brought together our various comments. I’m still not convinced that hand made is best for giver or recipient but you’ve made a good case!

    December 15, 2013 @ 10:26 am
  2. Jen

    Thanks, Linda! There are so many sides to this issue that I don’t think I’m convinced there is a best or better at all. Although, when it comes to gifts, I think the dominant feeling everyone should have is happiness.

    December 15, 2013 @ 10:41 am
  3. Lena Wright

    First, I really do think it is the thought that counts! That said, I almost feel sorry for the person who can’t appreciate a handmade gift and the thought, time, and often the expense, that has gone into it. I really wish I still had the ambition to make gifts the way I once did. I’m sure you, Jen, remember the hours and hours spent making Christmas ornaments for the neighbors. Or perhaps plates of cookies. There was always so much joy in the giving — regardless of where the ornaments (or the cookies, for that matter!) ended up. And I really do believe most people still appreciate and admire handiwork. Please do not let this tradition die!

    December 15, 2013 @ 4:52 pm
  4. Jen

    And candles! Don’t forget the candles.

    Yes, we had a lot of fun sitting around the counter or dining room table making gifts for friends and neighbors, and then walking around the neighborhood visiting and delivering them–and being rewarded with cookies. I especially like how we used the post-Christmas vacation time to make gifts for the following year. I know you were mostly trying to keep me busy, but talk about being on the ball–you had your handmade gifts done a 11.5 months in advance!

    I have no doubt that’s a big part of why I do what I do. Thanks, Mom!

    December 15, 2013 @ 8:43 pm
  5. Shelly

    What a wonderful post! Thank you so much for sharing it.

    December 23, 2013 @ 6:25 am
  6. Jen

    And thank you for reading it and taking time to comment, Shell.

    December 23, 2013 @ 7:55 am

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