It’s been said time and again (by Charlie Brown, for instance) that the holidays in the US have lost their meaning and become a great shopping-and-spending fest. First Christmas became over-commercialized and now Thanksgiving — America’s national day of thankfulness — seems in danger of becoming the “day before you start your Black Friday shopping.” Around where I live in northern New Jersey, Halloween is also over-hyped, with stores devoted to decorations and costumes galore.
My mother always sewed costumes for my sister and me when we were children: We were “colonial girls” with beautiful frilly dresses in blue and pink that she made at her Singer sewing machine. Another year I was a rabbit and one year, a Native American (ok, an “Indian” as I said back in the 1970s) in a costume sewn by my mom that I decorated with fabric pens. When I was very young, I had looked enviously at the shiny, ready-made plastic costumes in the stores but soon came to appreciate how valuable, and much more special, a homemade, mom-sewn costume made just for me was.
I’m no seamstress — at the most, I hem my pants or sew on a button — but my mom is, as well as my late grandmother Ngin-Ngin and several great aunts. They all sewed clothes (Ngin-Ngin was known to criticize the poor sewing of the chain-store clothes we had wasted our money on) and knit sweaters, crocheted afghans, cooked everything from scratch. Those Halloween costumes my mom made and years of home-cooked Chinese food have given me a huge appreciation for making things yourself, for knowing how the clothes you’re wearing or the food you’re digging into was made and by whom.
I’d love to make all my gifts and doing so seems a proper way to occupy Black Friday and embrace Buy Nothing Day. My time and talents being lacking in regard to sewing and cooking, I usually limit my holiday gift-making to creating photo calendars and cards for relatives. But I like to seek out things that are sold and made by individuals. This holiday season, my aunts and cousins will receive hand-designed and printed towels from Skinny Laminx. I’ve no knitting ability and have been glad to find the creations of TortillaGirl. A hand-sewn bag from Moop in Pittsburgh or a backpack from Infusion or Sketchbook in Oregon make carting around books, a computer, coffee (which tastes better in a nice cup, no?), lunch, colored chalk and everything I need to teach a breeze on the crowded cars of New Jersey Transit and the PATH train.
Some of these handmade gifts do cost more than what you’ll find in Target or Macy’s. By buying directly from the person who makes what you’re buying, your dollars are going right to the source, directly to the person who is supporting her or his own small business, for their materials and equipment and labor rather than to Some Large Multinational Conglomerate that divvies out the smallest possible piece of profit to the women sewing in sweatshop conditions in another country. Many of these small business owners have blogs or other sites in which they write about their process so you get a clear idea of the work that goes into making something and of how this is a 24/7 effort; of how a day taken off means well-earned rest, but also no new revenue to keep the business going. They also sometimes write about their daily life, their families, what inspires them, their work as artists and makers.
The first year we moved to Pittsburgh, Moop was only Jeremy and I. It was the first holiday season Jeremy had experienced working full time at Moop and the first holiday season where our studio was not in our home. From late October to early February, we sewed and sewed and sewed late into the night, every day of the week. We would pick Parker up from school and drive back down to the studio, where she would spend the rest of her day and evening and part of the night. The studio is quite small…it’s only about 700 square feet and houses our office, production space, storage and everything else. That year we put a Christmas tree in the window, a folding cot in the back room and a crock pot on our desk. We would let dinner simmer all day long, Jeremy and I would trade off helping Parker with homework and then we would eat as a family in the back room of our studio during short breaks from working. Afterwards, Jeremy and I would get back to sewing and Parker would settle down with a drawing pad and colored pencils and we would listen to A Christmas Carol. Parker would eventually fall asleep on the cot until we could head home around midnight every night. It was an immensely exhausting time, but it was filled with fond memories of our little family of three, working to make holiday gifts for those around us while spending time together as we all adjusted to life in a new city.
Because of the support from all of you, we’ve been able to hire a few assistants so our holidays are not quite as Tiny Tim as they used to be. They are still a huge amount of work, but it means we get to take off for Thanksgiving and Christmas to spend at home with friends and family. …Even though we have grown (and Parker no longer has to sleep in the back of the studio during the holiday season!) we’re still the same – building every single bag, start to finish, in our small and cozy studio.
Buying handmade or what my husband sometimes calls “homemade” online is very different from clicking “buy” and sending your credit card number to some anonymous worker at BigCompany.com. Thinking small (business) when you’re getting gifts this holiday season can make a bigger difference than you may realize and can make the world a lot smaller, and more homey, too.
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Photo by kate*