ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Lori Van Voorhis crossed an emotional threshold using just a bit of recycled cloth and some imagination.
Holiday crafters are creating "softies" such as "Mr. Stripey" out of discarded fabric.
It was the holiday season and the recently married crafter was trying hard to get to know her new in-laws, who live out of state.
"For Christmas I had made them some scarves that looked like animals," she recalled.
"The distance made it harder to get to know my husband's side of the family." Her sister-in-law, a quiet 12-year-old on the brink of adolescence, was the most difficult.
Van Voorhis paused and then smiled, describing a phone call that came weeks later from her mother-in-law.
"She told me my little sister-in-law hadn't taken the scarf off since I gave it to her.
"It felt really, really good to know that she was basically sleeping with it at night. ... It kind of brought tears to my eyes." Van Voorhis finally had made a connection with her sister-in-law, starting their relationship on the right foot.
"It kind of let me know that I'd been accepted into the family," she said.
Crafters like Van Voorhis tout the magic of handmade gifting because every gift can be custom tailored for its recipient. "Making your own gifts highlights the relationship of the person that you're giving the gift to, and it shows an understanding and appreciation of that relationship."
In a holiday season overshadowed by a national financial crisis and a sluggish economy, handmade gift-making takes on a monetary sparkle. See how to make a stuffed animal toy »
"People have more time than they have money right now," said Van Voorhis. "It's a money saver, it's cheaper and it's a great option for the person who has everything."
Gift givers who are new to crafting will find an entire culture -- both in the real world and online -- centered on its creative energy and innovation.
The heart of the handmade crafter culture beats at brick-and-mortar craft fairs across the nation and online at Etsy.com. The Web site has become a sort of eBay for crafters and a market for more than 100,000 sellers worldwide since its birth in 2005.
"There's definitely been a lot of momentum," said Van Voorhis. "Crafting is getting popular with people like young mothers who're looking for home-based activities and among people in their mid-20s to early 30s." Many crafters join knitting clubs and other neighborhood groups.
For some crafters, it's a movement not a hobby. Followers of "craftivism" think of it as a less aggressive form of community activism.
Craftivists, said Van Voorhis, "want to take something back into their own lives. They want to move away from the negative aspects of the consumer-driven culture."
The concept transcends arts and crafts. "You see it with people learning how to garden and canning and making jelly. It's the same as people learning how to sew and to make or fix their own clothes. It's a very DIY philosophy that all kind of focuses on craft, because that's where we all connect."
Craftivists look for ways to use their talents to improve the world. Their projects often are designed to limit waste and may be made from natural or recycled materials.
For example, coffee cup sleeves knitted from yarn can be reused. One popular crafting trend involves reconstructing older clothes that have fallen out of fashion into new and cool wearables. iReport.com: Send us photos of your handmade gifts
Many crafters enjoy it as a family activity. Each year in her home in Springfield, Virginia, Kelly Wilson and her 7-year-old son Zack turn handmade gift-making into their annual project.
"We make gifts for 16 or 20 friends, family and teachers" said Wilson, co-author of "The Crocheter's Guide to Yarn Cocktails." You have all the materials set out and we create an assembly line and we'll just package them all."
Wilson said she spends about $30 on materials and probably saves about $100 that she would have spent buying gifts at a store. Van Voorhis said she spends less than $200 on materials to make her holiday presents and she likely would blow twice that amount if she purchased her gifts.
Compared to last year, 58 percent of respondents to a survey by U.S. arts and crafts retailer Michaels said they're more likely to make their own holiday gifts. Forty-one percent said handmade gifts were the best use of their holiday shopping dollars.
Michaels expects its popular handmade gift supplies for 2008 to center around jewelry-making, apparel decoration, yarn and baking for kids. Michaels also offers in-store craft seminars and online tutorials.
Many crafters are drawn to it because it "returns to a simpler time, when their aunts, mothers or grandmothers crafted and used what they had at home to make something new," said Wilson.
But be careful: Making your own gifts can also lead to disaster, warned Van Voorhis. "You can really get your feelings hurt if you're not realistic about your abilities."
"If you're not Martha Stewart, don't pick some really complicated craft that you're not going to be able to execute well." That mistake, Van Voorhis said, will lead to an unwanted gift. "Really, all you're giving them is just guilt wrapped up in a bow."
Just be sure to begin handmade holiday gift projects early, crafters say, otherwise the temptation to give up and shop at the mall might be too hard to resist.
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