My mother is extremely hard to buy presents for. She's 84, has a houseful of stuff, usually doesn't want or need anything more, and is also extremely picky. I have many anecdotes of times when she asked for something specific, I took pains to get her exactly what she said she wanted, and she still wasn't happy with it. I'm generally good at conceiving and preparing presents for people and don't have much trouble coming up with ideas for any of the other people on my list, but it's a challenge to come up with a Mother's Day, birthday, and Christmas present for Mum every year.
Fortunately there are a few ideas or idea-generating techniques I can fall back on. While the clothes I've bought or made for her have almost never passed muster with her, I am good at picking out jewelry that's to her taste, so I can give her a new pair of earrings, a brooch, or a necklace occasionally. She likes movies, so DVDs can be a good option. She loves to garden, so something for her garden makes a good gift for Mother's Day. She also has some use for notebooks and notecards. Two other possible avenues are Irish/Celtic things, or owl stuff. Mum's ancestry is over half Irish, she was brought up by her Irish-born maternal grandparents, and she has always felt very connected to her Irish roots and likes Irish things. Mum thinks owls are very cute ("They're wise, and they have big eyes,") so all year round, whenever and wherever I shop, I keep an eye out for Irish things or cute, useful owl-themed items that she might like. Over the years I've given my mother an owl brooch, owl fabric tote bags, an owl trivet, owl potholders, an owl tea towel, a red plastic owl kitchen timer, and an owl cushion I knitted for her.
If I'm stuck for an idea I go to Winners or Home Sense or some such store or browse around looking for something she might like and be able to use, which often works. If I'm really stuck, I can ask my mother directly what she wants, though I prefer to surprise her and sometimes even she can't think of anything she wants.
This year when casting about for a good Christmas gift idea, I thought owl stationery might be a good direction. Perhaps I could get her an owl notebook, owl letter paper or notecards and envelopes, and maybe even an owl pen to go with them. I searched online but couldn't find anything suitable in the way of an owl notebook or owl notecards. Then it occurred to me that perhaps I could make her some stationery using stencils.
Dollarama has carried a cute little owl stamp set for several years, and I had always thought of my mother whenever I saw it, but never bought it because I didn't think she'd have a use for it. Then when I came up with the idea of making a stationery set for my mother, I thought it would do very well for the purpose, so I bought it. But when I experimented with it, I was disappointed. I couldn't seem to get the kind of clean, sharp images I wanted with it. It was much more a child's arts and crafts plaything that anything that was going to produce the level of artwork my mother would approve of. I dumped the owl stamp set in the cardboard box of kids' art supplies I keep on hand for when children visit me, and went back to the stencilling board. After first looking in Michaels for an owl stencil of the right size, I purchased the stencil above online.
I had plenty of card stock, watercolour paper, and envelopes on hand for the notecards, plus a reasonable selection of craft paint for the stencils. I tried to find an inexpensive notebook with a plain cover that could be stencilled, but didn't have any luck with that. As for pens, I searched all the stores within walking distance of my house, then bought the set of four you see depicted above online. They're quite cute, and while I had my misgivings about their potential quality, when they arrived and I tested them, I was pleased to find that they write fluidly, are comfortable to grip, and feel well-balanced in the hand.
When it came time to make the cards, I decided I would make 10 cards in a smaller 3.5" x 6.5" size and 10 in a larger 5.5" x 7.5" size, given that I had envelopes in both sizes on hand. To make the cards, I cut card stock to double the size of the intended card and folded it, then cut 24 corresponding frontispieces out of watercolour paper which I could attach to the folded notecards with double-sided plastic tape once I had the stencilling done. Because I could also use the front or the back of the watercolour paper frontispieces for stencilling unless a particular piece had a watermark on it, this gave me a fairly generous amount of leeway for screwing up during the stencilling process, which I was confident I would need.
I was right about that. I enjoyed the stencilling process, but it wasn't without its moments of sick dread, when I was sure the results were going to look bad. Putting
on my painting shirt and mucking about with paint took me back to my
art school days of over twenty years ago, when both my classroom and homework hours made me feel like a little kid,
happily playing with art supplies, while also at the same time hoping anxiously that the
results didn't look like something a little kid would produce.
For the smaller cards, I chose two shades: cerulean blue and silver sterling. To keep two or more shades of paint pure and distinct when stencilling, one would probably have to stencil the different colours separately. Being that I was working on this project on Christmas Eve and was pressed for time, I did both shades at once, which resulted in some blending of the shades, but I thought it made for a prettier and more interesting look than two flat shades would have done. Doing colours separately or together could be a design choice, depending on the effect one wants. What wasn't a design choice was the bleeding of colours over the defining lines of the stencil. It's crucial to make sure that one doesn't use too much paint when stencilling, as one wants a clean, sharp image.
I did all twelve of the smaller frontispieces, flipping some over for a second chance when necessary, then selected the ten best pieces, photographed above. I was modestly pleased with the result. I also think I did a pretty good job of centering the images given that I didn't do any measuring or marking -- I just eyeballed it.
Once the smaller frontispieces were done and set aside to dry, I began work on the larger set. For the bigger cards, I chose leaf green and spun gold paints, and the larger owl stencil. The combination worked less well than the blue and silver of the smaller notecards, probably because the gold was too light a shade to have the visual impact it needed. I got the bottle of cerulean blue and added it in to the mix, sometimes painting over the existing gold once it dried, sometimes flipping over the frontispiece for fresh start. When all twelve cards were done, I picked out the ten best cards, which you see depicted above. They didn't look so bad in the end, though I still think the smaller cards turned out better.
Once the frontispieces were dry and I'd assembled the cards by sticking them in place on the folded notecards, I packed them and the owl pens in a box I had on hand, one that had been the box for a fancy photo album I'd been given. It was just the right size for this set, and made for both convenient storage and decent presentation.
I think my owl stationery set idea translated into reality fairly well, and that the result is something my mother will at least not be embarrassed to fill with her still-perfect old school elementary schoolteacher's script. The set doesn't quite have the level of professional design and polish I was hoping to achieve, but it's cute and workmanlike.