The holidays can pose a challenge for crafters: What to make for friends and relatives that is useful, attractive — and fast to churn out? Speed and simplicity are key this time of year.
These five projects capture the imagination and offer ample opportunity for improvising; put your creative twist on any of them for memorable gifts.
FELT SOAP: The first time Leah Adams of Seattle gave out felt soap for the holidays, one of her relatives cut the felt away, taking it for elaborate packaging. It wasn't. The colorful felting is slightly abrasive and holds suds well.
Five years later, Adams sells hundreds of felt soaps, including at her Etsy online shop, kneek, or SpiderFelt. But she always includes a tag that warns against cutting away the felt.
The whole family, including children as young as 4, can join in felting soap, she says.
Adams recommends viewing her Felt Soap Tutorial on YouTube for complete instructions, but it's basically wrapping a 2-ounce bar of soap in wool roving, adding water, and then gently agitating the wool until it shrinks tightly around the soap. Presto.
Not all wool will work; some is too coarse. Adams recommends sheep's wool, in particular Corriedale and Merino, which is finer but more costly.
E-READER COVER: Lisa Occhipinti of Venice, Calif., is a painter and sculptor who tears apart old books, incorporating pages into her fine art but also devising ingenious everyday sculptural uses, from mobiles and mirrors to wreaths and the "Kindle Keeper."
"What's the point of living with (a book) if you're not going to live with it actively?" asks Occhipinti.
She finds old books at thrift stores and garage sales, preferring linen covers embossed or imprinted with an illustration. The Kindle Keeper can be fashioned for any electronic tablet, protecting the device while returning the feel of a good book to the e-reading experience.
"It's a beautiful combination of old and new," says Occhipinti.
She explains how to customize the project in her book "The Repurposed Library" (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2011): Start with an orphaned hardcover book whose title or cover art match the gift recipient's interests and is large enough to comfortably fit the device.
Tear out the inside pages, saving them for another project. Cut a piece of decorative paper to fit the spine's height and width, adding ½ inch to the width. Glue that in; allow it to dry.
Apply three small Velcro dots to the back of the electronic device — two at the top, one at the bottom. Attach the hook mates to each piece of Velcro, then remove the paper backing and center the device on the inside back cover of the old book, pressing to secure the Velcro to the back cover.
Add a bookplate or library pocket to the inside front cover to personalize the gift.
FELTED MITTENS: Scavenging for this craft is half the fun: Dig through unworn sweaters at home or at a local thrift store. They don't have to be wool, but wool is warmer, according to Stefanie Girard, the Burbank, Calif., author of "Sweater Surgery" (Quarry Books, 2008).
A wool sweater needs to be washed in hot water (with a cold rinse) with laundry detergent and a clean towel, then dried flat to block it. This shrinks and tightens the wool fibers, making the sweater appear felted.
If the sweater has a ribbed bottom edge, this is where the wrist of the mitten goes to give it a nice edge.
Make a mitten pattern tracing your own hand, adding ½ inch all the way around, larger or smaller depending on a gift recipient's hand size. Repeat, and cut out both tracings. Embellish the top side of the mitten, if desired, then machine sew it to the other tracing, right sides together. Clip a small slit at the inside of each thumb point, without cutting the stitching, to alleviate bulk before turning the mittens right sides out.
SIMPLE BEADED JEWELRY: The 2011 "Martha Stewart Holiday Handbook" shares instructions for how to make delicate, beaded necklaces with minimal parts. Its simplicity is the beauty of this project, says Marci McGoldrick, editorial director of Holiday & Crafts for Martha Stewart Living.
A ribbon necklace is trendy.
"A lot of jewelry on the market now uses ribbon instead of chain, or there's fabric incorporated into it," says McGoldrick.
Using 20 inches of 5mm-wide ribbon and a beading needle, string assorted beads, from large to seed beads. Attach a clasp and a connector to the ribbon at each end, knotting them into place.
Another necklace: For a continuous strand of beads, use 20 inches of silk beading cord. Attach a connector to the end of the cord and thread with beads. At the midpoint, thread two jingle bells, and then continue beading. Affix the clasp to the other end by knotting it.
EMBELLISHED T-SHIRTS, TOWELS, TOTES: Finally, there are many ways to embellish and personalize a T-shirt; hand or kitchen towels; or a tote.
McGoldrick suggests taking a profile photo of a beloved pet, enlarging it and cutting it out of a fabric that won't fray, such as ultrasuede. Attach the silhouette and a twill-tape collar and leash to a tote with craft glue; sew them to a T-shirt or towel.
H. Camille Smith, senior decorating and handmade editor at HGTV.com, says a towel or T-shirt also can be embellished with iron-on decals and transfers. Or cut letters or designs out of fabric and sew them on. Add bling with adhesive crystals to items that won't get washed.
Jodi Kahn of Larchmont, N.Y., scans and prints wrapping-paper patterns onto T-shirt transfer paper and irons it onto white hand towels for a favorite hostess gift. She recommends using a pattern with a white background.
"It looks incredibly professional. It really looks like you got it printed," she says.
The same can be done with nearly anything: wallpaper, fabric, photos, maps, even items scavenged from a hardware store, says Kahn, who includes this project in her book "Simply Sublime Gifts" (Potter Craft, 2010). Once the supplies are collected, it's a half hour to complete a batch of gifts.
"It is a really great gift for the holidays, just to whip up a few of them to have on hand," says Kahn.