• Matilda Dixon-Smith's miniature models of her mother's cocker spaniels. (Matilda Dixon-Smith)
Hand-making Christmas presents is not quite as easy as it looks, Matilda Dixon-Smith discovers.
Matilda Dixon-Smith

22 Dec 2017 - 10:00 AM  UPDATED 22 Dec 2017 - 10:00 AM

Every Christmas on the Lifestyle channel they play a program called Kirstie’s Homemade Christmas. It features Kirstie Allsop, one of the toffy but fun co-hosts of property TV fave Location, Location, Location, sharing tips on how to hand-make your very own bespoke-fashioned Christmas.

Now Kirstie’s Homemade Christmas is absolutely full of the kinds of things one never really has the time or skill or even the inclination to make during the festive season. Would you really crochet your own tree ornaments? Would you carve your own wooden cheese board and spoons?

But this year was different, because I found myself abruptly jobless mid-way through November. This meant not only did I have buckets of time on my hands, I also needed to pinch pennies through Christmas. So I sent a message to the family: “This year everyone is getting handmade presents. I can sew something or cook something. Put in your orders.”

Handcrafting Christmas gifts is no joke, actually, because it has to sort of look as good as something you would buy in a shop

I’m a self-taught seamstress, I bake, and I’m an avid (though deeply amateur) artist. Also, to stave off the anxiety of being suddenly unemployed, I was on a daily diet of kind-hearted crafty TV shows like The Great British Bake Off and The Great Pottery Throw Down and Project Runway. So, I had my inspirations handy, in the brilliant and creative things the contestants on these shows were making each episode. And I had a drawer full of bright cotton I’d collected over the years but never used, and 2.5kgs of air-dry clay I’d bought from the art store on Swanston Street. 

Handcrafting Christmas gifts is no joke, actually, because it has to sort of look as good as something you would buy in a shop. Inspired by the brilliant pieces they throw on pottery wheels in The Great Pottery Throw Down, first up I cut a lump of clay off my air-dry packet and Googled a Wiki-How article on “How To Use Air-Dry Clay”.

One 13-hour session later, I had used the entire 2.5 kg packet, about 500g of which went in the discard pile, because the bowl had misshapen and fallen apart, or the clay bird looked vaguely serial killer-esque, or because the clay had dried out too much and cracked.

It took me halfway through the process to realise I needed to keep adding water to the clay to stop it from drying out. Another quarter of the way through I realised coiled pots need to get narrower as you build them up, because when you mould clay it stretches – so far every pot or mug I’d attempted had stretched out to become a pretty flat, broad “bowl”.

The miniature models of my mother’s dogs I’d made for her needed surgery with a flat wooden knife (which I’d kept from a take-away dinner) because I’d made each one look so squat and fat they now resembled obese bulldogs instead of svelte cocker spaniels. Then, in the drying process, Violet the dog lost both her ears, and Toby lost half his tail.

Two bowls cracked in half when I sanded them down, and every colour I mixed for the painted decorations came out neon bright, instead of a subtle pastel like I’d planned. Still, at the end of it all, I had several possibly decent pieces to give away.

Then I moved onto the sewing. I made a baby’s bucket hat in Very Hungry Caterpillar fabric for my boyfriend’s new nephew (watch me become the best girlfriend he’s ever introduced to his family this New Year’s Eve). That was fine, but when I tried to pattern a little tunic for my new baby cousin out of the remaining material, it came out the size of an 18-month-old toddler. (That one’s gone back in the sewing drawer for Christmas next year.)

I’ve attempted a make up bag for my sister’s girlfriend no less than three times – each time the bag is too big or too small for the zipper that’s supposed to accompany it. And thankfully an easy thing to make is always a hanky. I’ve made dozens, and every family member will receive one whether they want it or not.

Looking over all my homemade Christmas presents, I must admit they look pretty amateur. And I worry if my aunt will really want three clay pears for Christmas instead of, say, a new book or an attractive kitchen utensil. But I guess, as they say, it’s the thought that counts. 

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