Quick, Easy, and Frugal Teacher Gifts

Teachers are wonderful people. We have been blessed over the years with some truly fabulous teachers for our children. There has been the odd teacher here and there who is not a good fit for one of the kids, but mostly we have been lucky.

Every Christmas, I struggle with what to do to thank the men and women who work so hard on our children’s behalves. I don’t want to clutter up their lives with things, especially knowing that there are only so many things a teacher might like to get, and with anywhere from 18 to 30 students getting those same 10 things for them every single year, they probably don’t want yet another mug or calendar or keychain with your initials on it.

I’ve been told by teachers that gift certificates are always appreciated – to Tim Horton’s coffee shop, or better yet, to the teacher supply store. I understand. I do. But I also know that I want my kids to have a hand in the gifting, and when they were little, gift cards were not on their list of cool things to give their teachers.

One year, we made salt dough Christmas ornaments. (One can never have too many ornaments.) One year, we made homemade chocolates. One year we made super simple post-it note holders.  Last year, we made paper ornaments big enough to joyfully adorn a classroom (and easily recycled at the end of the season to reduce clutter).

This year, we went in a new direction.

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Once again, we chose a super simple, inexpensive, crafty-ish gift the kids could help make. We started with a pack of 100 popsicle sticks we bought at Bulk Barn for $1.50,  some semi-dark chocolate, and a few drops of peppermint flavouring oil. Honestly, the peppermint flavour is the most expensive item, but we had it left over from previous years of making homemade chocolates, and you could easily skip it for this project.

Start by melting the chocolate. We used the microwave on half power in 30-second bursts, stirring in between, until the chocolate was just about silky smooth with a few lumps left in it. We then stirred it until the lumps vanished and we had a smooth mixture that was starting to cool slightly.

We lined several cookie sheets with waxed paper, then dipped each popsicle stick into the chocolate and twirled it a little to make sure the chocolate was adhering all the way around and presto! Chocolate stir sticks that are perfect for stirring your hot chocolate with to make it even richer and creamier than it usually is.

The chocolate-covered sticks were then laid gently in rows on the cookie sheets and left to harden. You can put them in the fridge or freezer if you are in a hurry.

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While the chocolate hardened, we started filling little treat bags with marshmallows. Then we filled more treat bags with tiny peppermint-flavoured chocolate pieces that I found in a gorgeous antique-styled tin at Chapters, of all places. You could use miniature chocolate chips just as easily, or even skip this step altogether. Another bag was filled with hot chocolate mix, and then we filled the final bag with a half-dozen or so of the dark chocolate peppermint stir sticks.

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Add a mini candy cane for good measure, pack it all in a cute tin from the dollar store, and voila! A Hot Chocolate Kit for under $5 per tin. Don’t have a tin? Just buy some lunch bags, draw a snowman outline on them with a Sharpie marker, then have the kids paint them.

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We were having so much fun, we made some for the neighbours, too. Except if you look closely, you’ll see that the neighbours are also getting some Triple Chocolate Extra Pepperminty Peppermint Bark in theirs.

I’ll tell you how we made it in another post.

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Christmas is coming…

It’s true. Christmas is on its way. There are less than 6 weeks left until the big day, and I am already way behind.

I hate shopping. I dislike the crowds, and the noise, and the frustration of trying to find exactly what you are looking for in exactly the right size/shape/colour without having to visit 9 different stores and spend all your money and then some.

Correction:

I dislike all forms of shopping except grocery shopping and garden shopping and craft supply shopping. If you built a Michaels craft store next to a fabulous grocery store next to a great butcher and sandwiched between a quilt shop and a yarn shop, with a garden centre tacked on the end… I would build my house in the parking lot and never, ever leave.

Ahem.

Where was I. Oh yes, Christmas.

Usually, I shop for Christmas all year long. When I see something perfect, I get it. My goal is to be finished with shopping by December 1st, leaving me the rest of December to bake and decorate and do fun things with the kids from our Slightly Different Advent Calendar.

What’s more, I like to craft (no, really?) and I like to gift people with homemade things that I hope they will enjoy.

With 6 weeks left until Christmas, there isn’t much time left for crafting.

With 2 weeks left until December, there isn’t much time for meeting my (admittedly self-imposed) shopping deadline.

It’s a good thing I’ve already got a number of people taken care of thanks to my habit of shopping year round, or I would really be in a panic. And, miracle of miracles, the most impossible man to buy gifts for… has a gift hidden away that I hope will make him jump for joy on Christmas morning.

Or at least smile a lot as he searches everywhere for a plug that isn’t filled with Christmas lights so he can plug in his gift and try it out.

So knowing that there are a number of people to buy for, and a number of people to finish crafting for, and knowing that I just finished binding off a much-anticipated super-soft-and-bulky neck warmer thing that my little Miss B (who is not nearly so little) requested I make her a while back and that would make a perfect handmade Christmas gift?

Why, on the first really cold day this autumn, when you could see your breath in the air and mittens were a necessity, I handed it to her to wear, since of course none of her existing scarves could possibly be warm enough.

What was I thinking???

Trust me, I am kicking myself even now.

Or at least, I was, until yesterday when she announced that, after giving it much thought, she doesn’t want any Christmas gifts this year. Not a single one. Nada. Zip. Zero.

Instead, she wants everyone to donate to Charity:Water on her behalf, since there are people in this world who need water more than she needs gifts.

Have I mentioned how much I love this girl?

I love this girl.

A lot.

Enormously.

And I think I know I don’t need anything for Christmas this year, either.

And yes, of course I’ll let you know as soon as I get her donation page set up.

 

Mama’s TAST progress

B isn’t the only one who has been working at learning TAST stitches lately. I’m still working away on the Christmas wall hanging and little by little, it is filling in. I’m a little behind in posting, so I’ll update you on a whole bunch of stitches all at once.

Week 14 was the satin stitch, and while B was busy with her bonnet girl, I was busy making trees. On the wall hanging, there is a little row of trees, tiny and sweet. While the pattern called for simple green felt triangles to make the foliage, I knew from the beginning that I wanted to do something a little more special. When Sharon B’s TAST challenge called for the satin stitch, I promptly stitched up two the the trees in an angled satin stitch.

The two outermost trees were filled in with chain stitch, mostly because I hadn’t done a lot of chain stitch before the TAST challenge and I liked how it looked and thought it would make lovely trees. The centre tree sat for a while, until TAST challenged us to make French knots, and I realized I really, really wanted a tree that looked rather like a fussy little boxwood topiary and French knots fit that bill perfectly.

An old mentor/boss from years ago when I worked at the science museum moved to Japan some years ago and has been posting pictures of cherry blossoms all over her blog, and so — being far from finished having a love affair with French knots — I made some cherry blossoms in stitches too.

I rather like how they turned out, and B announced they were her favourite letters ever. The PEACE letters acquired a few other stitches, too. A whipped wheel, some straight stitches, some chevron stitches, feather stitches, fly stitches, lazy daisy stitches, and a fun variation on barred chain stitch — a stitch I had never tried before and took several tries to get right.

I knew that TAST would teach me new stitches, but I never imagined that the combination of having taken Sharon B’s crazy quilting class last fall combined with seeing what everyone else is producing for TAST would create such a profound change in my own stitching.

I used to be a follow-the-pattern stitcher. Oh, I would vary things a little here and there, usually by omitting sequins in favour of much more interesting beads, but I never strayed far from the aesthetic of the original pattern and I relied on my favourite half-dozen stitches. Now… now I feel that there is an infinite amount of room for variation, and I can’t wait to learn more stitches!

(Now I just have to catch up on the last 3 weeks of TAST stitching! Wheat-ear stitch, here I come!)

Handmade Christmas Ornaments

Every year as Christmas approaches, we make handmade Christmas ornaments. Often we give them as gifts to teachers and grandparents, but just as often we make them for the sheer joy of making them and hanging them on our tree. Some are more temporary than others. Popcorn garlands and gingerbread cookie ornaments don’t last much beyond the big day itself. Others, we’ve kept for years and years, treasuring the evidence of eager little fingers covered in too much glue and not enough glitter — when is there ever enough glitter when you are three and four and five?

Last year, we went mad for salt dough. It was not the first time we’ve made salt dough ornaments, and I can guarantee that it won’t be the last. Salt dough is a lot of fun, and perfect for making ornaments with. It’s also easy enough that you can do it with kids as young as 2 years old, as long as you let go of the expectation that the ornaments have to look like anything other than colourful little blobs of painted salt dough on a string. Add some fancy cookie cutters and a generous helping of acrylic paints, and you’ve got hours and hours and hours of fun for kids (and grown-ups) of all ages.

Kitchen counter covered in newspapers and painted salt-dough ornaments

Last year, we also decorated the tree on our front lawn, using what has to be hands-down the easiest kids ornament craft ever. Seriously. And they came out so cute!

This year, we’ve been branching out in new directions.

Literally.

I saved a huge mess of branches when I pruned the silverleaf dogwoods that grow beneath our livingroom window, since they are such a lovely red, and I thought we would make wreaths with them. Of course, I did a spectacularly poor job of researching dogwood wreath making. In fact, I based the entire adventure on a childhood memory of twining grape vines into wreaths. We had grapes growing up the side of our house when I was a child, and one year my parents cut them all down for some reason — I think they were damaging the brick. Never one to pass up a good craft opportunity, my mother decided to make wreaths. I don’t recall what we did with our wreaths, but I do remember spending hours upon hours twisting grape vines into circles.

It’s true what they say, you know. History truly does repeat itself, only this time it was with beautifully lustrous dogwood branches and an eager 8 year old B doing the twisting.

And twist, she did! Hours and hours and hours worth of twisting and twining and shaping. She made wreaths daily for over a week. She made larger ones, then smaller ones, then palm-sized ones, and with each iteration, she used fewer and fewer branches until, eventually, she had shaped her vision of a wreath out of a single branch, and it was only just barely big enough to fit over her doll’s hand to be a bracelet. Because dolls need Christmas presents too, don’t you know.

Lest you think B and I did all the crafting, rest assured, K tried his hand at wreath-making too, but as is typical for him, once he had done it once, he considered it to be a skill he had mastered and so he moved on to other things. Like Lego. And Minecraft. And practicing on his big brass baritone horn. He does that a lot these days, you know, and we’re coming to appreciate the loud, rich sound of brass instruments in a way we hadn’t before. Because, it must be said, brass instruments are loud. Extremely loud. Especially when played with enthusiasm, and he does play with enthusiasm. Lots and lots of enthusiasm. Which translates into lots and lots of volume.

After a while, however, one tires of wreath-making, and so we moved on to a new thing: Paper.

We began with a simple ornament made of strips of paper in varying lengths, glued together by the ends. We used clothespins to help hold them together while the glue set up, and double-sided scrapbook paper to give them some colour and heft. I don’t think I would make this with regular weight paper, as they would be far too fragile and not likely to curve smoothly. We glued them with regular old school glue, but you could staple them, too, which would make them even easier to do.

Once we had each made a few of them, we moved on to a more complicated star made from thinner strips of the same scrapbook paper. This one is made by first weaving six strips of paper together, then twisting some of the pieces into points, making a second piece identical to the first, and then glueing the two together into an eight-sided star. It looks much more complicated than it was.

All in all, our paper ornament experiment was an enormous success. There was only one small problem. An itsy bitsy problem, really, but a problem nonetheless. We got so caught up in the crafting that we completely lost track of time, and when we realized we were way past what should have been dinner, and that the table we usually eat on was covered in paper and glue and fragile still-wet ornaments held together by clothes pins…

…we left the entire mess sit until morning and ate in front of the television.

Distracted By Crazy Quilting

I like having projects on the go. I like keeping my hands and mind busy. I have come to believe that when you live with chronic pain, if you wallow in it, if you allow yourself to focus on the negatives, over time your general outlook on life will change, and not for the better. And so, I distract myself with things I am capable of doing, even on my worst days. Knitting. Gardening. Embroidery. Handwork, in particular, appeals to me, and I’ve usually got at least two projects on the go if not more.

Lately, I’ve been learning an entirely new distraction: crazy quilting.

(That’s a picture of a naked CQ block before I began working on it.)

It all started a few months ago when I came across a stunningly beautiful embroidery piece that featured a dragon profile outlined by a mess of richly detailed and thickly layered embroidery. You can see it here. This led me to a new-t0-me website, Sharon Boggon’s Pin Tangle. There, I started exploring. And lusting. And wondering… could I do this sort of thing? How would one even start?

Around this same time, B started becoming seriously interested in hand embroidery, and I got distracted into helping her learn a few basic stitches, start sewing little pillows and other tiny objects of uncertain description. Next she wanted to sew on buttons, and then beads, and so we kept busy for a little while. Somewhere in the midst of this, I printed out Sharon Boggon’s wonderful stitch definition pages, and B and I explored some more, visited other websites, and played with thread and needles.

And then I saw it.

This teeny little reference to how much fun it was to take Sharon’s sumptuous surface embroidery class. And a link, to another absolutely stunning project in progress. The sort of stunning that had me printing out the picture just so I could pin it to the bulletin board in my office and stare at it a while.

I had to learn how to do this. This thing, this sumptuously embroidered concept… I was determined it would become my latest distraction.

I have a few requirements in my distractions. They must be able to be done in small bursts, and be put down and ignored for days or even months. They must be able to be done when my powers of concentration are low and my stamina for exertion is downright nonexistent. They must be able to keep my mind busy enough that I can ignore all but the worst of the pain and the most aggravating of pins and needles. And, most important of all, they must give me a sense that I have accomplished something valuable.

The idea of having a richly detailed embroidery piece that seemed to break all the known rules of embroidery… well, it sounded like exactly my kind of distraction.

There was only one problem: Sharon wasn’t offering the class again this year.

But she was offering one on crazy quilting.

I have memories of an old, vintage crazy quilt that belonged to my grandmother, I think. Or maybe it was Mom’s, I don’t quite remember. It was old, and full of lush velvets in deep, rich colours, and it was so heavy and warm that to sit on the couch with the crazy quilt on your lap was to risk smothering in warmth and heaviness.

I have fond memories of that quilt. But make one? Me? The crazy lady who quilts with only half a clue what she is doing?

So I hemmed and hawed and hemmed and hawed and then I started googling crazy quilts, and what I found was amazing. So many of the quilts were absolutely smothered in luscious, rich, detailed embroidery and bead work. Especially Sharon’s. Her quilts stood out among the many I looked at as being intricate and delicate and thick with embroidery. Really thick with embroidery and beads and buttons and more embroidery. Absolutely encrusted with it.

And she was teaching a class called “Encrusted Crazy Quilting.”

Before I could stop myself, I had signed up.

I had no intention of learning how to make crazy quilts this year. I am not a quilter. I dabble, every so often, and make quilts for the kids, but I am not a quilter. And I am definitely not a crazy quilter.

Or so I thought.

But with Sharon’s patient, detailed, and insightful teaching, I produced these:

Six weeks after starting the class, I have two finished blocks and plans for about a zillion more. What’s more, many of the things I learned in class have started sneaking their way onto other projects, like this one:

I’m having so much fun doing these complicated layers of embroidery and beading and motifs and buttons… I just can’t stop! The blocks are chock full of little surprises, like owls and toadstools and a beaded dragonfly. To see them here, they look pretty, but in person, they are nearly irresistable. People can’t stop touching them. I can’t stop touching them either. There is something about all the layers of stuff and the multitude of different stitches and the little charms and buttons that just begs your fingers to reach out and feel your way around the block. They’re just… irresistable.

Of course, all this crazy quilting has thrown me into a bit of a tizzy, since my habitual Christmas crafting got pushed to the back burner for six whole weeks while I tried new thing after new thing and found myself completely consumed by it. So, dear family, please don’t feel slighted if you don’t get a handmade gift this year. I’ve been a little distracted. In the world of pain and pins and needles that I inhabit most days, being a little distracted is a wonderful, wonderful thing.

Pumpkins and tombstones and glow-in-the-dark potions, Oh my!

Halloween just wouldn’t be Halloween without pumpkins. (Ironically, Halloween didn’t have pumpkins until it migrated to North America. It used to have turnips. Really.)

Every year, we set the kids loose to carve their own pumpkins. Some years, they choose little ones. This year, they choose rather large pumpkins, and did rather a lot of carving.

Like last year, we had extra kids on hand for the carving on the theory that the more, the merrier. The theory works. Truly. Though there is a secondary theory that says the more kids with pumpkins, the more pumpkin gut cleanup will have to be done. (It’s a small price to pay for so much fun.)

This year, the pumpkin carving very quickly got serious. Last year was full of friends with jokes and laughter and vomiting pumpkins, which led to grossed-out groans and yet more laughter.

This year, there were friends with jokes, laughter galore, and vomiting pumpkins — what’s Halloween without a child giggling over pumpkin guts spewing out of a carved out pumpkin mouth, after all? — but there was also great seriousness. Really, really great seriousness. The sort of seriousness that makes a Mama tiptoe quietly past the table where the carvers are hard at work.

Such seriousness demanded a suitably serious home for the finished pumpkins, and so we went to work setting out potion bottles and skulls and crows and all sorts of other witchy odds and ends on the front porch.

B’s pumpkin was on the porch itself, taking pride of place beside an assortment of gourds, candles, skulls, and even a miniature tombstone.

K’s pumpkin was much scarier than B’s, so it got moved off the porch and onto a pedestal of its very own, with more candles and more skulls and our rain-gauge-turned-mad-scientist’s-candlelabra for good measure.

The rest of the front lawn was transformed, too:

By day, it was a little creepy. But by night… by night, with the candles lit, the porch light out, a strobe light flickering, and the smoke machine spewing both sound effects and a thick, white fog… by night is was positively scary.

The pumpkins, so carefully and patiently carved into jack-o-lanterny goodness, were absolutely marvelous:

And that purple jar that you can see in front of B’s pumpkin? That was one of three glowing ‘potions’ that we made, and they attracted the most attention of everything we put out.

Start with a clean, empty jar (this one is a plastic mayonnaise jar), break open a glow-stick from the dollar store and dump the contents in, then close it tight and give it a strong shake to break the glass vial that holds the second fluid that activates the glow.

WARNING: Be careful – this does involve glass, and if you get the thicker glow sticks, it takes an adult to cut through them safely.

We used the thick, squat glow sticks rather than the thin necklace-style ones, and they glowed for about 12 hours. The purple was the brightest, the greeny yellow was the most toxic-looking, but the red… Oh the red! It looked like radioactive blood in a jar, and it was lots of fun to play with. This is definitely something we want to do again next year!