Seven examples of DIY wedding gifts that worked, and tips for creating something of your own.
I couldn’t wait to see my older daughter, Sofie Hodara, walk down the aisle. I couldn’t wait to celebrate her wedding to her longtime beau, Nathan Thomas Wilson. And I couldn’t wait to give the happy couple my gift.
I had spent months working on it before their May wedding in Philadelphia. It was a giant brass key ring hung with marital advice I’d solicited from immediate family on both sides. I dubbed it the marriage ring.
Everyone had emailed me their messages: “Saying ‘Thank you for washing the dishes’ never hurts,” an uncle suggested. “As you grow as a couple, continue to grow as individuals,” Sofie’s godmother wrote. My brother and his wife shared a short treatise they titled “Snakes in a Bag.”
I compiled them all, and after fiddling with page breaks, margins, fonts and colors, printed them and turned each into a small book. There are nine, bound with staples, covered in multihued cardboard or brightly patterned origami paper; one I rolled into a scroll. They are attached to the key ring with ribbon or ball chain, alongside tokens like a heart-shaped rock and a sachet of orange peel my husband had ground up.
I made the marriage ring because I wanted to share with Sofie and Nathan a collection of wisdom and counsel. But I also made it as an outlet for the swell of emotions I was experiencing, and as a tangible manifestation of a lifetime of growth and history and love.
Sometimes a set of knives won’t do. Sometimes a check feels too transactional and the options on a wedding registry too impersonal. An alternative is something handmade, something created specially for the newlyweds: a gift that honors the connection between the giver and the couple.
A cheese board, with conversation
Michael O’Malley, a La Verne, California-based artist, has thought a lot about the nature of a gift. In a statement on his website, he compared his experience of making a piece for a gallery to making a wedding present for friends. Of the latter he wrote: “It was this direct expression of feeling and connection. It occurred to me that love generated a very different object.”
That particular object was a cheese board that O’Malley, 53, made for Rachel Watson and James Hegge. The inspiration came from a confluence of factors: his love for the couple, the couple’s love of food and some salvaged 19th-century long leaf yellow pine timbers, which he said was a “rare and beautiful wood that still had nail holes in it.”
A cheese board made sense: “We always hung out and talked over wine and cheese,” he said.
Beyond serving appetizers, O’Malley views the cheese board as a repository of shared stories and a lasting symbol of his bond with his friends. “If you make something that is truly cared about, it will continue on as an heirloom or an object of durability, not disposability,” he said.
Another of those items is the throw pillow Emily Vislocky sewed for Mina and Jason Ash when they got married last year. Vislocky, 30, is a designer at a technology company in Portland, Oregon. The bride is one of her closest friends.
Vislocky found the couple’s registry less than inspiring. “Mina is such a creative person,” she said, “and most of the gifts were pretty plain.”
Before turning to her sewing machine, Vislocky checked with Mina Ash: “I asked if I could go off registry and make something, and she said yes.”
The pillow is a patchwork of fabrics, each chosen to reflect her friend’s aesthetics. Vislocky added a few metallic elements because, she said, “Mina has a really bright personality.”
The choice to make a pillow was deliberate: “I like to think it will be part of the home they build together,” Vislocky said.
Recipes for days ahead
A third example of a gift with long-lasting potential is the recipe book that Lucy Hyde, a social media manager in Washington, assembled when her childhood friend Alexandra Hubbard married Noah Flessel last year. After consulting with the bride’s mother, Hyde, 30, emailed family members on both sides requesting a favorite recipe.
She gathered 38, including hummus, cocktails and a grandmother’s treasured cookies, then prepared and photographed 17 of them.
Hyde used Artifact Uprising to produce a hardcover coffee table book that she titled “Hussel in the Kitchen,” combining the couple’s surnames.
For the wedding day
While O’Malley’s, Vislocky’s and Hyde’s presents were made with the newlyweds’ future in mind, some options highlight the wedding day itself. When Sarah Wedge walked down the aisle in 2012, her headpiece — a floral wreath and a white tulle veil — was a custom wedding gift from her aunt, Carol Markel. Markel, 74, is a milliner in Manhattan. She dived wholeheartedly into the task. “I adore my niece,” she said. “It was my extreme pleasure to do this.”
Markel began as she begins most projects: with an inspiration board filling her studio wall with images selected from a stash amassed over time. “I choose what matches my feelings about what I’m working on,” she said.
In this case, the board included pictures of Kate Moss at her wedding (“Sarah loved Kate’s veil,” Markel said), lots of Jeanne Lanvin gowns (“I love Jeanne Lanvin,” she said) and childhood photographs of Wedge.
Markel created several possibilities and invited the bride-to-be and the mother-of-the-bride-to-be for a try-on session. In the end, Wedge wore a wreath of moss-green silk adorned with vintage lilies of the valley that Markel had given to her in an elegant box.
The sound of music
A gift need not be a physical object. Consider Rosanne Olson’s present to her friends Donna Hanneman Kerr and Patricia Lucille Dawson when they wed in 2013. After the couple exchanged vows, Olson, 68, an artist in Seattle, Washington, sang an original song. She had written the melody and lyrics years earlier; one evening over dinner she sang it for Kerr and Dawson and offered to perform it at their wedding.
Titled “Traveler,” the haunting song was sparked by Olson’s now-30-year marriage to her husband, Ted McMahon. “I was thinking about how I could possibly describe the feeling of loving someone so deeply,” she said.
The lyrics include “If you were the mountains, I’d be the sun,” and “If you were a poet, I’d be the rhyme.” At the wedding, Olson played guitar, joined by McMahon on percussion and another guitarist, Jed Myers. “I feel like I’ve given them a piece of my heart,” Olson said, “instead of buying something at Crate and Barrel.”
Composing music, woodworking, crafting headwear — not everyone has these skills. But that doesn’t rule out giving a handmade gift. Lauren Swann, 35, of Venice, California, sews garters for good friends using strips of stretch lace and appliqués she finds on Etsy.
Ask first, or trust your instincts
Guests often assume they should stick to the registry because that is what the newlyweds want. When in doubt, those moved to make an alternative can ask first. Or they can jump in and trust that their efforts will be appreciated for what they are: an expression of good wishes and love.
For 45 years, Christine and John Koziol, of Somers, New York, have appreciated the wedding gift they received from Christine Koziol’s beloved aunt and uncle, Eloise and Charles Harmon. It is an untitled painting created by Eloise Harmon: vibrant flowers spewing from a cream-colored vase against a bold red background. Harmon was a painter, sculptor and potter whose home, Koziol recalled, was filled with art. “It was something exotic that I loved,” she said. “She saw beauty in everything.”
Some of her aunt’s vision endures in Koziol and in the painting that graces her home. Shortly after they married, the Koziols purchased a house and hung the painting over the fireplace. When they moved to a new home, then to another, and yet another, the painting retained its prominent placement. It is inscribed on the back in Harmon’s handwriting, a rarely seen presence that Christine Koziol finds comforting.
As for the Marriage Ring, Sofie told me recently that Nathan directed her to one of the books in the aftermath of a lovers’ quarrel. I am delighted that they are using it. For me, it was the perfect gift.
The problem is, Sofie’s younger sister, Ariel, and her fiancé, Mark Foley, are planning their wedding in 2019. Now what am I going to make for them?
Susan Hodara is a journalist and educator who lives in Mount Kisco, N.Y. She is an author of the collaborative memoir, “Still Here Thinking of You: A Second Chance with Our Mothers.” She made lots of small books for her daughters when they were young.