Holiday reflections: Best gifts are made local — childhood memories of family ‘recycling’ projects

Long before the word recycle was in vogue, our resourceful Grandmother repurposed items headed for the trash bin. Each year’s batch of rescued treasures was crafted into holiday gifts for each of our parents. Under our Grandma’s watchful eye, our small hands worked on projects we knew would thrill our moms and dads on Christmas morning.

Our group of grandkid-crafters averaged six to eight participants in any given year: cousins, siblings, boys and girls, preschoolers and teens. Oldest helped the youngest — all handed the same pattern and materials for each project. Perhaps inspired by this family tradition, one cousin grew up and founded a company called RecycleForce.

Since 2006, this company has safely recycled more than 65 million pounds of electronic waste while providing job training to thousands of souls returning to the workforce. Grandma would be proud.

Our grandmother, a skilled seamstress, stitched up tailored Chanel-like suits with matching pillbox hats, which were awarded blue ribbons at Indiana state fairs. Her creations were noticed by the community, and soon the petite farmer’s wife sewed for many of the rich ladies in town. Wealthy women with important-sounding names shopped in the big cities and purchased their couture from fancy stores. They then brought their ensembles to my grandmother for alterations. “She makes the garments fit like gloves,” they said.

Grandmother was always happy to comply. An underfunded artist in her early years, seamstress work kept her in canvas and oil paint. Scraps of plush and premium materials were stashed for future projects.

Grandma’s sewing room had a chest of drawers, a bargain piece discovered and purchased at a farm auction. Its plain appearance belied the treasure trove of fabrics that lay inside. Rolls of leftover satin, brocade, taffeta and velveteen, tied with seam tape, filled each drawer. Even plain muslin pieces, left over from dress fittings, proved useful for future endeavors like decoupage covers for golden angels.

One year the gift project slanted toward the female parent, the one who darned socks and restored buttons to their rightful spots on shirts.  The drawers of the treasure chest yielded velveteen for elegant cushions to hold pins and needles for the family’s seamstress. Side by side, boys and girls sewed triangles of soft napped fabric, creating three-sided miniature pillows that would be stuffed with dacron and stitched together in a piece called an Amish Puzzle. I’m not sure if our fathers felt a loss or a relief as that year’s gift was unwrapped.

Amish Puzzle pin cushion

Grandma’s procurement of gift supplies became a community project. A group of her friends were enlisted to save their periodicals to contribute for the coming fall’s craft fest. Choirs of cherubs were fashioned from folding the pages of countless magazines, foraged by our frugal grandparent. Reader’s Digest formed angels of just the right height for the smaller singers. Taller members of the ensemble of singers were constructed from McCall’s magazine for women.  Our families never lacked for holiday decorations and adored the original art work added to displays each year.

Leftover muslin from the magical drawers adorned hosts of heavenly angels to grace our family holiday tables. The strips of cloth, covered with gooey decoupage and draped around plastic pop bottles, became the base for objects of beauty. Forms were dusted with gold spray paint. Glitter-covered halos attached to the Styrofoam oval heads completed our divas of divine glory. Bless her heart, we found our Mom’s set and the photo is of a group crafted by yours truly about 60 years ago.


Writers scribble notes, inspirations for future essays. Grandmother filled many albums with photographic scenes to document our family events, and jog her memory for the images she’d later create on oil and water color canvases. Her trusty 35 millimeter Pony camera had a separate flash attachment. What to do with all those used flash bulbs?

My all-time favorite grandkid-crafted gift project utilized those purple-colored spent spheres. Decorative wall plaques were created. Used bulbs, wired together, formed clusters of grapes, enhanced with our choice of frosty snow or gold toned glitter paint. The finished art mounted to wooden boards, could be hung on the wall and admired by our proud parents, all year long.

Grandpa was happy to contribute his leftover lumber for the grandkids’ gifts. Ordinary flat boards, cut into arty shapes, were sanded and stained. The results displayed the glistening grapes to great advantage.

Inspired by his spouse, Grandfather utilized scrap lumber to create gift projects of his own. Butcher-block cutting boards, crafted for the grown-up women — his sons’ wives and other female in-laws — were treasured by the recipients’ and passed on to their appreciative daughters. Prized possessions in my kitchen to this day are a pig-shaped cutting board, and a wooden apple. Created by Grandpa’s trusty jig saw, the flat apple’s silhouette has a notch that holds recipe cards and a still red hue to the wood.

Pig cutting board with apple recipe holder.

Handmade, handcrafted house wares wax and wane in popularity over the years. Last season’s expensive treasures populate the shelves of the thrift shops.

Visiting the home gift area at a local garden shop, I gasped in shock as I examined the paper price tag on a wooden towel rack.  Grandma’s voice (in my head), echoed past sentiments-

We could make dandy towel holders for next year. Let’s go poke around in Granddad’s wood pile.”

— By Kathy Passage

Restaurant writer and Edmonds resident Kathy Passage also occasionally submits essays for our publications.


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