Every year when the holidays roll around, I’m overwhelmed by two very different feelings: excitement for the warmth of the season and time spent with family and friends and the somewhat icky feeling that comes with an intense round of shopping/buying/product talk. While gift guides are simply part of the season, I prefer to start this time of year with something a little different: a guide that’s dedicated to putting down your laptop and car keys and using your own two hands — and your heart — to celebrate your loved ones. Last year, I rounded up a handful of ways to give friends and family experience gifts — moments and special days that they’d cherish without you having to make a trip to the stores. And this year I’d like to keep that concept going with a much longer list of ideas to take those gifts to the next level. Because Thanksgiving is tomorrow and Hanukkah is right around the corner, it felt like the perfect time to focus on ways to show people how thankful we are for having them in our lives. These homemade gift ideas are all about showing people you care through spending time with them or thinking about what they truly love and would appreciate. As always, this post is more of a collaborative project, and I hope you’ll share your favorite ideas in the comment section below. These ideas will hopefully turn into truly memorable moments for all of you reading and for the people you want to treat with something handmade and from the heart. Happy holidays, everyone, and best wishes for a safe and happy Thanksgiving. I’ll be back on Monday with new posts, our first round of traditional gift guides and more holiday decorating ideas than you can shake a stick at. xo, grace
The full 10 ideas (with options for expanding each idea) continue after the jump . . .
1. Decorating Surprise: As a site devoted to all things decorating, it feels only natural to start with a concept that’s near and dear to our hearts. Most of us don’t have an overwhelming amount of time to decorate — or redecorate — our homes. Even the most devoted design fan gets caught up in work/life responsibilities and doesn’t have the time to follow through on every design plan they have. So why not help them make a decorating dream a reality? Whether you’re planning a surprise redecorating project or just committing to setting aside a weekend to help them paint and move furniture around, this gift is all about making a plan that speaks to what your friend or family member wants. (If your friend hasn‘t been talking about wanting to change things around at home, this definitely isn’t a good thing to surprise them with.)
Tips: Do your research. Whether you’re surprising someone with a makeover or planning something for the future, take the time to figure out what they want, not just what you think would look great. Check out their Pinterest pages, their clipped magazine photos and pay attention to what their home looks like inside. Make note of color trends, patterns and overall style ideas and make sure you include them in your plan.
Execution: Decorating isn’t always about buying new things. The best way to spruce something up without buying is to work with what you have. If you’re doing this as a surprise, try focusing on one room (maybe a home office or special space they want to spruce up), starting with cleaning and rearranging the space plan. Rooms feel totally different when things are moved around, so don’t be afraid to start pushing furniture. You can also upcycle things from other spaces. Old tins can be painted or cleaned and turned into vases and planters, and old boxes can be attached to the wall as bedside tables or hung as shelving. Old cutting boards can be given legs to act as rustic side tables — just start looking around and, if possible, ask a spouse, significant other or roommate what they think your friend/family member would like. If you have a total green light, bust out the paint and see how much bang you can get for your buck with that kind of change!
Presentation: If you’re surprising someone, this is all about the reveal and less about packaging. But if you’re planning this as a “future help” option, I think the best thing is to present them with a little mood board inspired by their style and design dreams. Wrap it up with a bow, attach a printed calendar page and select dates that you’re available — it gives them a choice, shows them you’re serious and assures this won’t be like one of those IOUs that never gets completed.
Bump it up a notch: Want to do something extra special? Package your gift with customized decorating supplies like a new tool belt, painted or decorated tools, a nice vintage cloth measuring tape or some embroidered (or monogrammed) work gloves for renovating existing furniture.
Mega budget option: To help decorate without taking on a full room, consider a small task. Make someone a handmade wreath from local greenery and put it on their front porch along with some flea market or pre-used items from your home that you’ve spiffed up (i.e., a repainted umbrella stand or a gently used doormat that you’ve ).
2. Cooking Treats: Baking or cooking something by hand is one of the most popular go-to handmade gift ideas every year. If you have a recipe you love and can execute well, this is always a great option. But there are ways to make cooking for someone a truly memorable and special gift. Our favorite idea is to make it a family or a personal affair. If you’re cooking/baking for a loved one, why not call or email your mutual and extended family members to collect old family recipes. Print them out or hand-write them on cards, decorate with stamps, paint or other details, and then combine them in a book or cute tin and present them alongside one of the recipes inside (preferably that family member’s favorite recipe). I think it would be truly special for a sibling or cousin to use an old cookie tin, spruce it up with some paint and attach a beautiful family portrait on top. Fill the tin with not just cookies from a family recipe but also a collection of family baking recipes.
Presentation: If you’re gifting to family, you can try the ideas above, but for friends or co-workers, try using a container that’s specific to your relationship with them. Do you have an old college friend you’d like to cook for? You can always go the traditional route and use school logos and mascots on things, but it’s also fun to find a cherished memory and go with that theme. For example, if your college best friend loved roses, why not decoupage an old box in rose seed packets and tuck recipes for food inside that, alongside a meal scented with rosewater or something that’s theme-appropriate? For a co-worker, you can always use a file box that you’ve dressed up with decoupage, wallpaper or gift wrap.
Mega budget option: If the craft supplies and printing part of this project aren’t in the cards, you can easily use the computer to make this an all-digital project. You can take photos or use photos from the web to create a private Pinterest page, blog or tumblr account where your friend can browse recipes online, with little notes about the person who contributed the dish. (Though it would be nice to follow this with something homemade, even a simple batch of cookies or candies.)
Bump it up a notch: Want to knock someone’s socks off? Turn this into an indoor picnic where you cook an entire meal that replicates a special occasion you shared. Remember what you ate on your first date? A favorite birthday night out? Re-cook that meal, set up a special indoor picnic floor and hand them the recipe collection along with a night full of great food and memories. Want to take it even further? Amy had the great idea of scanning family photos and turning them into custom gift wrap. Then use that to wrap the recipe book. Shazam!
3. Working Parent Help: The older I get, the more friends I have who could use an extra helping hand this time of year. Whether you help them with babysitting, giving kids rides to school or just finishing up tasks that make their lives easier, this gift is ALWAYS welcome with the parents I know.
Presentation: This is a great place to bust out a classic IOU pack, with nicely printed or constructed cards in a little book that parents can turn in for either a night of babysitting or various hours of help with whatever they need.
Mega budget option: Since babysitting is pretty cost-free for you, I wouldn’t suggest bumping this down too much. It’s best to offer at least an afternoon of babysitting, which is free to you and incredibly helpful to the parent(s).
Bump it up a notch: It’s always nice to throw in something extra. Why not pack the parent(s) a picnic lunch and send them out for the afternoon while you play with the kids?
4. : This is quite possibly my favorite gift to give someone who lives far away and for whom you want to do something really special. This project is all about spending a few weeks (or at least a few days) writing letters that someone can open up and read over the course of a week, month or — if you’re ambitious — a year. It’s a free and incredibly loving way to show someone how much you’ve been thinking about them.
Presentation: A standard box with handwritten letters is great, but this is an excellent opportunity to be creative. (For Hanukkah, it would be fun to write eight letters that a dear friend or family member could open during the holiday.) I love to tie up letters in red and white twine and stamp them with homemade stamps in fun patterns, but you can always go the extra mile and wrap them like a regular present in tiny boxes. Or you could fold them like old school notes you’d pass in class and link them together like a chain.
Mega budget option: This project is free, but if you want to forgo the cost of paper and supplies, you can always set up a program like to send someone an email or a sweet note or picture/video every day.
Bump it up a notch: Want to do something truly special? Hand-make each card with a different color of the rainbow or a range of ombre hues so the overall package feels like a cohesive unit. Want to be even more dramatic? Try adding a small homemade/found object to each letter that corresponds to the theme (I like to cut out little shapes of paper to put in each envelope — like large confetti — that goes along with the letter’s theme).
5. Use Your Skills: This is the best chance to take advantage of any and all skills you have that could help out a friend or family member in a way that they’d normally have to pay for or hire someone to do. Are you a chef? Cook your loved ones a four-course dinner at home! Are you a photographer? Take a beautiful family portrait for someone or a headshot for his or her new business. Whatever your talent, lend it to someone special as a gift, with no trade requested in return.
Presentation: This depends on the skill, but in general, a card explaining the gift should be fine. But it’s always nice to add a little touch like photos, garland, confetti, etc.
Mega budget option: If you can’t offer a full session of whatever your skill is, this is best to skip. If you’re offering your skill set, only offer something you feel comfortable giving entirely for free. Offering someone a discount or a partial session of something doesn’t feel as heartwarming.
Bump it up a notch: Do you have a friend you can pull in to help you make the gift a one-two punch? If you have a friend who is starting a new business, perhaps you could offer your skills as a photographer to take her headshot, and your interior-designer friend could offer advice or a simple space plan for her new office. The combo of two areas of help is really generous and kind.
6. Field Day: Inspired by , Amy and I have been talking about the idea of customized maps/trips that help you get to know your neighborhood. Why not expand this concept as a gift for a loved one? Pick an area around town and find inexpensive (preferably free) activities you can do together. Perhaps you start with a walk around town to see historic spots (do your research so you can share information along the way) and drink mugs of hot chocolate you make at home. Then you can visit a park for a homemade picnic lunch, stop by the free evening hours of a local museum and maybe catch a free concert series or another entertaining activity that you find unique to your city. Keep your eyes peeled for discount evenings, free hours, etc.
7. Modern Mixes: Everyone loves a mix tape. But what about a digital 2013 version? In addition to — or in lieu of — a traditional mix tape, why not set up a private Pinterest or blog page where your friend can access a carefully selected group of music, videos, poems or photos that have special meaning.
Presentation: You can always make a digital invitation to something like this as a surprise, but I think it would be cute to construct a little computer out of paper and attach it to a card that explains the digital mix concept.
Mega budget option: This is pretty free as-is. Hooray for the internet!
Bump it up a notch: Make a real mix to go with this. Skip the blog or Pinterest page and make an actual CD for someone to listen to or a group of poetry that your loved one would like to read.
8. Favorite Activity Day: What is your loved one’s favorite thing to do in their downtime? Do they love to play volleyball? Do they enjoy a ride around town on bikes? Would they rather just have a cookout in the backyard? Whatever that activity is, plan it for your loved one and do all of the legwork of figuring out a time, date and location with their loved ones and family, so all they have to do is show up and enjoy the great day.
Presentation: This is really based on the activity, but it would be fun to present in a playful way since it’s an activity gift. Maybe you make a cupcake with a tiny plastic soccer ball inside; they find it, and you get to explain the fun group soccer party (with cupcakes? Yes, please!) they’ll be having soon.
Mega budget option: This is supposed to be a free outdoor activity, but if you want to help cover additional costs, you can see if your loved one’s friends want to chip in to add something special to the day like drinks, snacks or some sort of memento to document the day.
Bump it up a notch: Make something special to commemorate the day. Hire someone to photograph the event, make inexpensive hand-printed t-shirts with the date and name on them — anything to make the memory last a little longer.
9. DIY Gifts: It goes without saying that if you don’t want to offer an experience, per se, you can always make something by hand. My favorite things to make by hand are candles and beauty products and adding custom embroidery to existing objects. Here’s a roundup of all our favorites from the D*S DIY gift history.
Presentation: Handmade gifts always have a bit of the maker in them, so don’t be afraid to customize the present down to the wrapping, using paper you decorate yourself with drawings, decoupage or handmade patterns.
Mega budget option: Working with objects around the house, you should be able to keep costs low, but you can always do this with entirely found objects, too — like gathering wild flowers and greenery for a nice wreath or bouquet.
Bump it up a notch: Add something pre-made to your gift. For example if you made someone a beautiful tea towel by hand, maybe you can combine it with a nice tea tin or even a mug. A combo that continues the theme really takes a gift to the next level.
10. Re-gifting: Ok, I know this is going to sound controversial, but Amy and I thought this through, and we feel there are a few small exceptions to the rule, namely surrounding reading material. All of us have special books, poems and even magazine collections that we love. Why not collect these pieces and customize them in a way that shows you thought about why they’d make sense for the recipient? I’m not saying you should wrap up any old book, but if you have a book that helped you through a tough time and think it would be a good fit for someone dealing with the same thing, passing it on with a special note would be meaningful.
Presentation: This needs to be done well, as you’re re-gifting something you already owned. Take the take to make a book jacket cover or do a pretty wrapping job that makes the gift feel as new and special as possible. I’d suggest grabbing some butcher paper and hand-stamping it or painting on it. Or — my favorite — make custom bookplates! Make them for every magazine in a collection (who wouldn’t want a full set of old Domino magazines?) or for a single book, and make it really feel special for the recipient.
Mega budget option: You’re re-gifting. It doesn’t get more affordable than that.
Bump it up a notch: If you’re re-gifting reading material, it would be great to hand make some bookmarks to go with it so your loved one can keep their spot. All you need is some spare paper for fabric and a little creativity.