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The best homemade gifts

People's eyebrows rise and their faces beam after being given a homemade gift, says Sandra Phinney whose jam is always a big hit.

"I think that people are flattered that you took the time to make this stuff from scratch," she says, a writer based in Yarmouth, N.S. "Homemade jams or pickles simply can't compare with what you buy at the grocer's."

But not everyone is crafty. I vowed never to make a homemade gift again after staying up until 2:30 a.m. one Christmas Eve knitting a blanket for my in-laws. They loved the finished product, but the stress was too much for me.

But there are ways to keep it simple. We've amassed a list of five gifts that are sure to raise eyebrows and get you in the good books of those in-laws or whomever you're trying to impress. And to make sure you finish what you start, we've kept the craft level low, so everyone, regardless of skill, can make his or her own gifts well and cheaply.

Phinney has made jam for 15 years, so her method is easy-to-follow and super cheap. On the top of her supply list are Mason jars -- you can buy a box of 12 for about $7 at any hardware store. Next are the ingredients, starting with four or five cups of mashed fruit, frozen or fresh. Two bags of frozen fruit cost about $10. Then, you need five to seven cups of sugar, a package of pectin and lemon juice, all of which costs about $7.

To make the jam, simply bring fruit, lemon juice and pectin to boil. Add sugar, then boil for another minute. And that's it. Each batch yields about seven 250-mililitre jam jars. Buy some labels for a few bucks at a dollar store and voila -- your very own name-brand jam.

Total cost (without shipping): $24. Depending on the fruit preparation (blueberries and raspberries are ready to go, others may take a bit longer), it takes about 20 minutes to make this kind of jam, says Phinney.

Photo ornaments
Gone are the days of sending relatives and friends photos of your family around the Christmas tree. Now you can have your family photo made into a decal small enough to put on an ornament to hang on a tree.

It's easy -- and cheap. Start with a digital photo or an image of a paper photo. Then, copy the image on to a piece of adhesive paper using a printer or photocopier. A box of five sheets costs about $18 at an office-supply store, and you can get about 20 images on each sheet. "You can put pictures of baby's first Christmas on the ball," says Brenda Neufeld, manager of MacPherson Arts and Crafts in St. Mary's, Ont.

Or, you could use a vintage black-and-white photo. A box of eight balls costs between $7 and $15. Total cost: about $20 for six to eight balls. And they take less than an hour to make.

Everyone can use a calendar, so why not make a personalized one? There are many free online services that let you upload your own photos and use them to make monthly flip calendars or a one-page poster calendar with the months above and below a large image. Try www.familycrafts.about.com for free make-your-own calendar software.

For more professional-looking calendars, most photo stores and print shops can transform your photos. Calendars start at $19 for a mini-desktop calendar, or you can opt for a standard wall calendar in which one print appears per page and the month is on the other 8" by 10"' page. Prices range from $26 to $39 for these.

Don't leave this until the last minute. It can take a few days to make a calendar depending on where you go, so plan ahead.

Anyone can string a bead on a wire, and thanks to the luxurious offerings and sophisticated styles of today's beads, you can't tell the difference between jewelry that is store bought and homemade.

Kellie Mowat, artist-in-residence at MacPherson's, suggests starting with a spool of wire for $6, which can be used to make necklaces or earrings. Craft store beads work really well and aren't all that expensive -- a brand called Gutermann, which are small beads that hang in bunches, costs about $11. Or, Mowat says old-fashioned beads from an old family or flea market necklace, or even one from the Salvation Army, work well when mixed together with new beads.

To get fancy, pick up a book on beading at any craft store, or search online for beading instructions. Depending on the kind you make, it shouldn't take more than a few hours to make a necklace. Total cost: about $16.

Gift baskets
If your creative juices are tapped, the easiest homemade gift, which is still very thoughtful, is a basket of goodies. Who can't use more shortbread, olive oil, pâté, crackers or hot chocolate? If you shop for upscale goodies at a specialty food store, expect to spend about $40.

Or, do like Sharon Anderson of Fredericton, N.B. She puts together selections of her own homemade jam, fudge, shortbread cookies and pickles. Then, to make it look festive, she ties ribbons on the baskets she bought at a discount store and places holiday fabric over the tops of jars. "I just took the basket with a ribbon and gift card tied to the handle, as they always dug into it as soon as I gave it to them," she says.

The price can vary for a homemade basket but expect to pay about $30 for supplies.

Melanie Chambers is a freelance writer based in London, Ont.

-- Posted: Dec. 9, 2005
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