Cards with your hallmark

Create hand-crafted greetings without spending heaps of time or money

We are entering the holiday greeting-card season.

You've got a mailing list but no cards yet. You may still be teetering between that box of polar bears or a New England winterscape. (You're definitely not the forward-thinking type who scooped up marked-down cards last year after Christmas).

If you're in this undecided zone, consider handmade. It's old fashioned, inexpensive and needn't be a burden. In fact, making cards can be a wonderful social mixer for family and friends - especially over the long Thanksgiving weekend Americans celebrate.

A handcrafted card has an air of authenticity. It may not be a masterpiece, but it's original and expresses a little TLC. When children join in, it's even more fun.

Before starting, remember simplicity is a virtue in the design process, especially when making cards in quantity.

Although craft expert Priscilla Hauser teaches many advanced techniques, she recommends making a stencil as one of the most effective means of creating a repeatable design.

Ms. Hauser has taught crafts for more than 30 years, conducts seminars in Panama City, Fla., and wrote, "Create Your Own Greeting Cards & Gift Wrap" (North Light Books, 1994).

Craft stores sell various stenciling materials, but Manila file folders will do the trick, she says. And other alternatives are parchment, freezer paper, and index cards, to name a few. The main thing is to find materials stiff yet thin enough to cut easily.

Don't feel creative? Lack confidence in your drawing skills? Not to worry. Basic stencil images can be found by browsing through magazines or coloring books. These can be traced and transferred to stencils using carbon paper, then cut using an X-acto-type of cutting knife or a pair of scissors. And craft stores often carry inexpensive holiday stencils. A copying machine can be a great help in adjusting a stencil's size to fit your project.

Hauser suggests "a simple holly design. Berries can be added for each of one's children. The same thing can be done with a Christmas tree stencil. Each child can cut an ornament from a piece of, say, Christmas paper and then glue it on the stenciled tree."

Acrylic paint is a popular choice of crafters, but fabric paint and latex house paint will do, too. Just be sure to use a water-based product (for ease of cleanup) that's not so watery it wrinkles the paper.

Short, stubby stencil brushes, sponges (the natural kind are great), and foam rollers are among the many paint applicator options. Experiment, that's half the fun.

Very often, Hauser says, the raw materials for greeting cards are available in one's home.

Last year's holiday gift wrapping paper may work. No old gift wrap? Hauser looks around her kitchen during a phone interview and spots a bag of mints.

"The mints are in silver foil paper with green writing," she says. "That's a good source" for decorating cards. "And on top of my refrigerator I see some potato chip bags, so I've also got some red, blue, and gold foil." The gold, she observes, might make nice angel wings.

Magazines are filled with color photographs which, when cut into small pieces, offer a palette of colored scraps. Her advice: "Start with the wastebasket. Look at those papers and think, 'I could cut a star or bell out of that.' "

Wallpaper stores are an ideal place to find patterned, homey-looking papers. Discontinued samples are often free for the asking.

Children enjoy sprinkling cards and there is a wide array of colorful glitters and confettis to choose from.

"Put some white glue in a bowl and thin it with a little water," Hauser says. "Take an old paint brush or even your fingers and smear the glue on the card. Then sprinkle on the sparkles."

Rubber stamping is popular and can be faster than stenciling. Any major crafts store has a good assortment of stamps, including Christmas designs.

If these are too pricey, though, consider the most basic of alternatives - potato stamps, carved on the face of half a raw potato. Gum erasers and sponges will also work.

For a variation on this theme, try gluing thick string to a small square of cardboard in any shape desired. The stamp image won't be crisp, but there's a certain appeal in its unevenness.

Another technique is flyspecking; tiny droplets of paint are spattered around the silhouette or cut-out of an image. This is done by bending the bristles of a paint-loaded toothbrush.

Framed photo cards don't need to be fancy. Attach the photo to the middle of a piece of white cardboard and then decorate the border. Children can sign their names around the outside.

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