How to Give Great Gifts that Also Give Back

Some people are natural born gift-givers. They seem to read deep into minds and hearts. They know what you love when you don’t even know it yourself. And they make this seem so effortless.

I envy those people. I’m not one of those people. But I do know a great gift idea when it’s shown to me. So it’s around this time of year that I start desperately visiting websites to get inspiration for gifts. That’s why when UncommonGoods contacted me, it’s like they read my mind and heart, as the good gift purveyors that they are. I turn to them to solve my holiday gift-giving problems, and maybe they can solve yours too.

Giving gifts doesn’t have to be hard or stressful. Here are four simple ways to find a great gift. Look for a gift that captures one or more of the following elements. I share a few examples for each gift-giving concept.

⇒ Uncommon and Unique

Seek an idea that’s not available at stores a mile away from home. Instead of a commodity everyone has seen before, choose the surprising twist.

Mini Desktop Bowling AlleyAmpersand Cheese and Crackers Board

Why not a little desktop bowling alley, for when the mind needs a break? The surprising twist here is, it’s a common thing made very small and put in an unusual place.

As another twist, the ampersand added to the common wood cheeseboard is creative. Use it for wine & cheese, cheese & crackers. The ampersand makes sense because who fills a whole board with just one thing? It’s always something & something else. This also has practical applications. See how the crackers are propped up nicely in the grooves. The design helps make an easy, attractive display.

⇒ Things That Make You Laugh

Life can get heavy and serious enough. So every home and office should have light things that make you laugh, right? Here are examples of fun decor gift ideas:

Whatever ClockDJ Scratching Pad

Do you know anyone who has given up trying to be on time? This clock is for them. Or, the rebellious (and maybe smart?) people who think the super-busy world around us is crazy.

If you know anyone who likes music and has a cat, this gift hits the jackpot. It gives a new name to scratching some beats. As a decor blogger with nice furniture and two cats, I can tell you, my cats are not declawed and there’s no need to do that. They have cute scratching pads around the house, and they were trained to scratch on those, not furniture. We all live happily together with furniture intact. So this is a gift for people and their pets.

⇒ Sentimental Memories

At any age, people have memories of the past. Just, some of us have more past than others.

Another sentimental angle is gifts that help build closer relationships among family.

80x Mix Tape DoormatMother Daughter Book Letter Set

Anyone who grew up in the 80’s knows what a “mixtape” is. Even Millennials are appreciating the nostalgia of these playlists on actual physical tape. Yes, us old folks, the Boomers and Gen X’ers, we invented the original playlists. And the hand-written mixtape label can be personalized; choose what you want it to say. It’s sold as a mixtape doormat, but it could be cool wall art too.

Another great idea is gifts like the Mother & Daughter Letter Book Set that help build written memories and stories among family – a memento that’s more beautiful, substantive and enduring than text messages.

⇒ Favorite Food

When all other ideas fail you, go for food. Find something related to your intended’s favorite food. Mix in an uncommon, unique or funny element about food. You can’t go wrong.

http://www.uncommongoods.com/product/know-your-knives-cutting-boardDIY Hot Sauce Kit

This cutting board with the “Cliff’s Notes for Knives” is interesting. We have a knife block with a bunch of knives, but I never give much thought that each knife is designed to do a specific job. This cheat sheet on a cutting board will help keep things straight.

UncommonGoods has many DIY food kits, but this caught my eye because with hot sauce, doesn’t it seem like the sauce is either too mild, too hot, rarely just right? Well, make the sauce just the way you like it!

Doing Good with Gifts

Now that we’ve learned how to find great gifts, I’ll raise the bar a little higher. It’s a big bonus when the gift also does good for people or the planet – when the purchase helps support a worthy cause.

To be honest, it’s not lost on me that I blog here about decorating homes, when so many on this planet can only hope to have a home again. Conflicts and severe weather around the world have left millions of people seeking new homes, and even seeking the most basic dignity and safety as they live in transition not knowing their next steps. I’m also an animal lover and I follow the organizations that save orangutans affected by deforestation in Indonesia. The fuzzy orphaned babies, they’re so cute in little diapers, but really they shouldn’t be wearing diapers and they shouldn’t have to be on Facebook. They should be clinging on their moms, learning how to live in the trees. But the safe forest isn’t there. So when I can support organizations working to do good through the gifts I choose to buy, I will make that choice every time.

UncommonGoods has a program that does this. For every purchase, they donate to a partner in their Better to Give program. Through UncommonGoods purchases, you can support a variety of causes: help for refugees, programs for sexual violence survivors, restoring forests on our planet, and literacy and education for children.

International Rescue Committee

Here’s how it works: when you shop, pick a non-profit, and a $1 donation will be made with every purchase. As part of sharing the Better to Give program with you here today, UncommonGoods has donated $50 on my behalf to the International Rescue Committee. The news about refugees and humanitarian crises in the U.S. and abroad has been on my mind a lot this year.

Beyond the social cause donations, as an avid DIY’er myself, I also appreciate how UncommonGoods sells products made by individual makers, artisans, cooperatives in the U.S. and other countries. They support the pride and talents of individual people who make products with their hands.

So, when you’re perusing websites or wandering aisles, searching for the perfect gifts, choose what fits one or more of these:

How to Give Great Gifts


This post was sponsored by UncommonGoods. I own a wall shelf purchased from their catalog many years ago, and yes it’s an uncommon and unique wall shelf, and people always noticed and commented about it. So the company lives up to its name!

DIY Saree Curtains and the Brightest Light Bulb in the World

Nothing like trying to sleep with a bright light bulb shining in your face. Imagine the bright bulb is not in your room, but it is in the NEIGHBOR’S house! And it’s shining into your bedroom through open windows. That’s what happened to us in India this summer.

If you’ve ever been to India, you know that flavors are stronger, sounds are louder, the heat is hotter, colors are brighter and … well, actually, light bulbs do not shine brighter in my experience. Except for that one light bulb the neighbors have shining 24/7, right outside our bedroom window. Of all places, why there?!?

This single light bulb had the power to render eyelids useless. And there are privacy issues of course. It’s hard to drift off to happy dreamland when you worry about someone peeping in the window only three feet away.

Light Bulb

The window was naked because curtain rods were not installed yet. So we draped a saree over an open ladder. Classy times. That blocked 60% of the window. It was enough for the weary to get rest.

The next day, a few guys hung curtain rods on all of our windows, and I turned that saree into actual curtains.

Sew a Saree Curtain

I know there are many readers here from India who wear sarees, and please forgive me. I do worry that what I’m about to suggest is like suggesting we turn my clothing into curtains. But it’s so tempting. Sarees can have 18 and more feet of fabric, about 3 feet wide. And many are so beautiful. I know people will drape them over four-poster beds, people will drape them down walls, so why not drape them over windows.

Here’s the saree I turned into curtains for the India pied-à-terre master bedroom:

Saree for Curtains

It’s a simple beige silk, with white, gray and gold block printing and copper metallic thread accents. I bought it at a Craftmark silk show in Chennai many years ago.

Silk Saree

First, I sewed white cotton into lining, We found the plain white cotton at Nalli saree store in Panagal Park, Chennai. Let me tell you, it is not easy to find plain unadorned non-textured white fabric in India. It’s quite the hunt. And you get interesting looks when you describe what you’re looking for. Like, why?!? Given the millions of colorful, patterned, textured choices in India … indeed, why, except curtain linings should be as plain as possible.

Sewing the lining is simple. You sew down the sides, sew the top, sew the bottom. I sewed on a vintage Singer machine stand we found in India (tailors have them on roadsides everywhere) and I brought my machine from the U.S. in a suitcase! We had to get an electrical transformer that weighs about as much as a rickshaw, to allow me to use the machine in India.

Sewing in India

The biggest problem is wrestling with such large lengths of fabric, and keeping lines straight over the long haul. Be vigilant to ensure straight lines don’t creep into becoming crooked lines. Measure with a ruler and pin all seams. Your eyes can fool you into thinking you’re folding straight lines over many yards of fabric. A ruler will keep you honest.

And also, boredom. This was about as much fun as sewing hospital bed sheets.

Pinning and Sewing

Thrilled to move on from this boring task, I didn’t want to spend any more time with it to iron it. So the lining is wrinkled, but they face the outside so this isn’t noticeable.

Curtain Lining

For the saree, sewing was simpler because the selvedges made the right and left sides. Seams were needed only at the top and bottom hem. The hardest part here was ensuring both pieces of fabric wound up the exact same length. Measure. Then measure again. Then measure again. Measure one more time.

You will probably have to measure yet again. This will happen when the first panel is sewn and the two panels are no longer the same length. They were before. But they’re not now. You may want to punch something. Don’t. Measure instead. Make it zen. Turn on 80s dance music. Whatever you gotta do to deal with it. Remove pins from the second panel, measure, pin again, then measure again. Then measure again. Measure one more time.

Measuring took more time than sewing!

This is what I did for a whole day of my vacation in India. Pinning, measuring, sewing. Great times.

But the final result was … no more brightest-lightbulb-in-the-world shining through our naked window, and fears of waking up at 3 a.m. to see a face peering in. One day of work, many nights of peaceful sleep. It’s a fair trade.

Saree Curtains

So to address the obvious issue here …

Saree Curtain

Leaving part of the pallu design on one side was necessary to get the right length. (The pallu is the part of the saree that hangs straight down when draped over a shoulder.) I thought it would be like an irreverent cast-all-rules-out-the-window kind of look. It says I’m willing to break the curtain molds that bind us. But it is bothering me now. I might replace the bottom of the left side with the blouse fabric. It won’t be the same design as the right side, but it will be a contrasting border, and it might help this situation feel more balanced.

Saree Curtain and Vintage Singer Sewing

Adinkra Cloth: Symbols to Tell a Story

In the U.S., we don’t usually wear our hopes, dreams and wishes on our clothes. Well, except for when you want your sports team to win! We don’t weave talismans and protections into our fabric, even when we feel vulnerable to things that affect us. Should we? There is a way to do it without being obvious. Like, you don’t have to print “I want the winning lottery ticket” on a T-shirt. You can use symbols to tell your story. And the combination of symbols can be beautiful. We can learn from how other cultures weave meaningful stories into their fabrics, like the Adinkra cloth of Ghana.

Here is Adinkra cloth from the Smithsonian:

Adinkra Cloth from Smithsonian

From Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco:

Adinkra Cloth from Museum of Fine Arts San Francisco

From Hamill Gallery:

Adinkra Cloth from Hamill Gallery

The black patterns are printed, and the colorful areas are made with embroidered threads. Here’s a close-up of the cloth from Hamill Gallery, so you can see the print and embroidery:

Adrinka Cloth Closeup from Hamill Gallery

Adinkra cloths have caught my eye for awhile — the lively mixes of patterns! — and I got curious to learn more and do a post about them.

These symbols are from the Akan culture in Ghana. They use these Adinkra symbols to decorate things like wood objects, pottery, jewelry and fabric. Traditionally these designs were reserved for the Asante kings, but now more people in Akan culture wear the cloth for important occasions.

Here you see that drawing a comb over the fabric creates lines:

creating-andrika-cloth

Just like with the more popular mud cloth and kuba cloth, the symbols in Adinkra cloth have meanings, Some symbols represent more complex ideas like proverbs and folk tales, others show simple images like plants. Master artisans and elders know how to match the symbols into combinations that tell stories. From Aaron Mobley Heart of Afrika Designs, here is a chart showing the meanings of many symbols – click here or click on the image to open a bigger picture where you can read the words:

aaron-mobley-heart-of-afrika-designs-adinkra-symbol-meanings

The symbols are pressed into cloth with ink and stamps. The stamps are carved from gourds:

Adinkra Stamps Carved from Guords

Oh my! If I spotted these on the roadside while traveling through Ghana! From Flickr:

Adinkra Cloth Stamps in Ghana Flickr

 

If you’d like to use these symbols, the graphics at Adinkra.org were made for you to use for personal, non-profit and educational purposes. Save them and open them in a graphics program. Create art and digital fabric designs. Print them and transfer the images onto fabric or wood. You can carve your own printing blocks in foam.

If you were to choose Adinkra symbols to tell the story of your life, or your hopes and wishes, which would you choose?

Right now, I would choose:

Story of My Current Life Andikra Symbols

These symbolize things I’m dealing with right now:

  • Adaptability
  • Transformation
  • Initiative, Dynamism
  • Humility, Strength
  • Hardiness, Toughness, Perseverance
  • Unity, Human Relations
  • Support, Cooperation

Yeah, heavy stuff. But I have some work to do to change some things in my life. I wonder what these symbols would look like if they were made into a cloth! Maybe we will see …