I believe most Mainers’ first word is “yup.”
For Downeaster’s, their first word may be “wreath” or perhaps “tips.” “Downeaster” denotes those who come from the 2 southeastern counties along our coastline of Maine, Washington and Hancock counties. Wreath-making is often a family event, and I’d guess balsam sap may very well run through their veins…
I spent almost 2 months making wreaths and like many Mainers, can now spot the difference between a bad or “Canadian wreath,” and one made by an experienced maker.
My manager’s from a small town downeast and has been making them since she was a young child. Like many from her area, fishing/lobster boats are a source of income during the warmer months; tipping and wreath-making take over during the colder months. I was fascinated (obsessed) with understanding the history and inner workings of this fading tradition and while I’m grateful to have been a part of it, it’s far from easy. If it were, I suppose it wouldn’t be a dying art…
Perhaps you’ve taken a workshop in the past and learned to make wreaths or read about the process in the local papers. Maybe like I once was, you have no clue how they’re made and are curious about it. Let me lead you through a behind-the-scenes tour of what it’s really like to work in a wreath shop. I began my journey feeling like one of Santa’s elves and ended with the same feeling. Like a good whoopie pie though, there’s a lot of stuff in the middle you may not read about in the local paper…
When Rob or I mention my trip into the world of wreath-making, everyone comments on how wonderful and fun it must have been. “Oh, you must smell amazing when you come home!” “It smells like Christmas in this wreath shop!” It’s not quite as exciting as you may think.
- Wreath-making is piece-work. When you’re paid by what you make, you work longer hours, longer weeks, and avoid lunch and bathroom breaks. Healthy or not, this short state of suffering lasts only 5-6 weeks. We start at the end of October, with the first 3 weeks being the hardest; most orders are shipped out by Thanksgiving with our flatbeds of Christmas tree. We must have made at least 8,000 wreaths in the total 5-week span, with a crew of 7. Some weeks I didn’t take a day off, even if it meant working from home.
- Wreath-making attracts an interesting crew. Some people involved in the process are misplaced, disadvantaged, and downright shady. Some days were like walking on the set of Jerry Springer with stories of survival, dysfunctional family situations, pan-handling, homelessness, and addiction. I had a glimpse of Stephen King’s characters I couldn’t get anywhere else and appreciate the insight into another world. People are fascinating…
- You never know who you’re working with. This isn’t a regular 8-5 job where you’re interviewed, hired, and fill out paperwork. You’re paid by what you make; your first few wreaths will take an hour each to make if you do them correctly. You quickly learn to not rely on anyone, knowing stragglers will come in for a day, see how hard it can be, then leave before sticking it out long enough to gain speed. A local peddler realized it was more work than they wanted… “it’s easier to peddle.”That’s the reality of it as a job—you don’t make wreaths for the glamor or fortune unless you’ve done it for 40 years and can crank out 60 wreaths per day. (After 2 months, I can make about 2-dozen in an 8-hour day). This is a labor of love—survival during a jobless winter. I’ve gained a deeper respect for anyone who sells their own wreaths or works in a wreath shop.
- It can be wet, cold, and miserable. When it snows, your tips come in with snow and ice. Tippers love bringing in brush after a good rain or snow as they’re paid by the weight of their brush. Clumps of ice, snow, and wet tips weigh more than dry brush, as do tips brought on large tree branches. Those snowy tips leave you soaking wet with frost-bitten hands. I learned to wear latex gloves under my fabric pair for added protection, bringing a spare fabric pair with me so I could keep a pair drying on the heater and continue working. The sound of makers whacking snow and ice off their tips into the garbage pail or on the floor became a familiar percussive sound. One woman wore a garbage bag to keep herself dry (a pullover raincoat would serve the same purpose, though I admire her ingenuity!).
- While they heated our shop, it’s also drafty and has a large garage door that’s continuously opened. We were lucky—I learned many wreath shops have no heat. On sunny days, our greenhouse-turned-wreath shop turned into an oven, even with the heat off. My manager’s advice was spot on: wear layers of clothes you don’t mind ruining. 20 degrees and sunny can heat a greenhouse to a painful 70 degrees, especially when you’re moving. A sunny greenhouse also means wreaths will cook if they’re not moved to a shaded location.
- You can’t easily move around a wreath shop. I don’t care how it’s shown in photos—it’s tricky to squeeze in 10 people, 10 large tables, 10 sticks of brush, 10 garbage cans, and the equipment needed into a wreath shop. Each maker has piles of wreaths around them waiting to be decorated for mail or retail orders as well as piles of plain wreaths waiting to be moved into our shade area. You learn to maneuver in small areas, being careful not to step on one of the 100’s of different-sized wreaths on the ground.
- Forget the bathroom. At least not in our shop. Our normal on-site port-o-potty not only has 10 extra men using it from our seasonal tree crew, but has 10 extra female wreath-makers also using it. While I thought a summer port-o-potty was horrendous in 90+ temps, I was in no way prepared for a brutally cold version of it. An ungodly amount of frozen waste, frigid outdoor temps, and snow seeping in through the holes at the top of the structure make for an unbearable experience. Even the fresh, minty scent that occurs after the weekly cleaning is unnoticeable in those temps. I immediately reduced the amount of water I drank to avoid using the bathroom unless it was the weekly cleaning day.
- Wreath-making isn’t about creativity. Don’t get me wrong—there are times you have to creatively turn horrible brush turn into a beautiful wreath a family will treasure. There are days you’re running out of tips and have to find ways to stretch it further than usual. Most days you have flat brush, round brush, in-between brush, and have to use it all on one wreath. Wreaths have to be round and somewhat uniform—you can’t have odd pieces sticking out but it also can’t be too perfect. We leave those cookie-cutter wreaths for the likes of LL Bean (AKA wreaths made on “clamp rings” placed in a cutter to make them all the same size and shape… gasp! A clamp ring!?! Where’s the art in THAT!?!). Our wreaths look hand-crafted and unique… like a snowflake, each one looks different and contains the personality of its maker.
- It’s painful. The first couple of weeks leaves your back in pain from standing still for 9 hours. I’m used to moving around at work. A lot. I helped the women at my table breath properly and stretch frequently, which helped a wee bit. After the first couple of weeks, my back pain subsided and moved to my hands and arms… tendinitis is unavoidable. The steering wheel, tables, walls, your legs and work bench quickly become invaluable stretching devices. Epsom salt soaks and hand massages become the daily norm. As I write this a week after my last wreath, my thumbs still ache, as well as other muscles in my hands… it will be a long winter of stretching, I see. Ah yes, I recommend a wrist brace, if you make multiple wreaths.
Despite what you’ve read so far about the secret pains of making wreaths, I loved it and look forward to it next year. It’s fun, social, fast-paced, fulfilling, and keeps you in the holiday spirit. Making scented mandalas for hours each day keeps you in the moment. There’s a sense of fulfillment in knowing you’re responsible for sending holiday joy and a Maine tradition all over the United States. I listened to holiday music and learned about life in rural and downeast Maine. I did smell like Christmas as did our car when we made wreaths from home or delivered them. We’ll be cleaning up spills from the house for months, but that’s a reminder of the joy of the season…
If you’re curious about making wreaths for yourself or are considering about some of the lingo I shared above, keep reading. I’ll share the terminology as I learned it over the last couple of months. This will also help you know what to look for when you’re shopping for wreaths next year.
- Tippers bring in tips on sticks weighing 50 pounds on average. The sticks are made of fallen or cut larger branches, with the tips placed upside down on the stick. Tips are secured by a rope, twine, phone cords, electrical wire, and anything else available to tippers. Wreath makers carry these sticks from a cold storage room to our individual station, so they need to be easy to move. Most of the wreath-makers I worked with were injured or were older, so 70-pound sticks become impossible for them to move. A stick that heavy is also tall, which can make it challenging for us on the shorter side.Here’s a pile of sticks in our storage room… we had 3x this amount in there at one point, which requires clever maneuvering!
- Wreaths are made of different sized Balsam tips. We break tips (or boughs, as some call them) to an appropriate size hand for the wreath we’re making. (An 8” wreath needs MUCH smaller tips than a 72” wreath! If you know the “fruit of the loop” wreath across the street from Stephen King’s house, it’s a 72” wreath my manager makes.) I haven’t mastered this part yet and it’ll be next year’s goal—I suspect this keeps me to only 2 dozen per day.The 72” wreath hung across from King’s house:
- A tip is the branch of the tree broken off for us to work with—it’s literally the “tip” of the tree branch, typically the length of elbow to hand. Some makers refer to these as boughs. Breaking these tips releases the essential oils into the air creating that “holiday” aroma.
- Spills are the individual needles on a tip or bough. They fall off when you’re assembling wreaths or just moving sticks of tips. We compost ours or send them off for scented saches.
- A “hand” is the portion of tips used. Each hand is wired on to the wreath ring individually. We make double-sided wreaths in our shop, so a hand is wired to the ring, it’s flipped over, and we wire another hand on the backside. You flip it over again and repeat the process until you get to the end of the wreath. The ending hands are made thinner and shorter so the wreath remains seamless from the beginning to ending. The ideal wreath doesn’t show where a hand begins or ends, nor can you see the wreath wire when it’s made.Double-sided wreaths are great for windows, as you’ll have a beautiful view on both sides of the pane. If you’re placing a wreath on a window or location where wire could scratch it, make sure you at least get a single-sided wreath with a backing vs purchasing a wreath made on a clamp ring. Clamp rings can scratch a window as there’s no backing to protect the wreath. There’s a picture of makers using clamp rings in one of the news articles I share at the end of this.
- “Mixed green” wreaths are made of balsam, cedar, pine, and look like the cover photo when completed. These take a bit longer to make and are typically single-sided to keep the weight down and eliminate confusion over which side to decorate. And to think I just put ranch dressing and beans on my mixed greens…
- Balsam trees are protected by the game warden. Tippers cannot go on to private property or tree farms to get tips though some do. I can spot tree farm tips now because they are the best quality tips you’ll find. The game warden paid us a visit one day with a load of tips he confiscated from a tipper—the wreath shop gets the tips, the tipper goes to court, and the homeowner chooses whether they wish to collect the money we would have paid the tipper. The tipper collects a nice little fine for their work. In this day and age of cameras, it’s a wonder any tipper goes on private property.
- Trees are only tipped once each season, so the tree isn’t harmed. The tops of the trees are basically useless to us though we’ll find a way to use them if we’ve inadvertently bought them. Flat brush comes from heavily shaded trees, or branches that are on the bottom of the tree. Balsams exposed to the sun have much rounder and full tips. Overly yellow tips come from trees very close to water, such as rivers or bogs.
- Tippers are fond of the “Jewish bank roll,” as Rob called it. For those of you not familiar with this term, it’s a reference to a wad of singles with a $20-bill wrapped around the outside. The illusion makes it seem as if the entire wad is made of $20’s. Tippers often put the best brush on the top and bottom of the stick so that when it’s weighed, it looks perfect. When you get to the middle, you often find the flat or straggly brush. It’s important to look at the entire stick as much as possible when you’re buying them in.
- Wreath-making requires you to work fast and have multiple piles of brush to choosing from. It takes concentration to do this and still ensure your wreath remains somewhat uniform. People expect uniformity, not perfection. A wreath can’t use flat tips for one half and round tips for the other. No one wants a lop-sided wreath. You learn how to incorporate different tips into one wreath—you have to make do with what you have, after all.
This is one of my first wreaths that’s not so perfect but isn’t the worst I saw all season, either… stick with it and you’ll get better!
- Waste is a big no-no. (Yyyyyyeeeesss!) My manager and I had 1/2 of a garbage can filled with waste… some makers filled more than a can. The wreath shop pays for every ounce of tips we’re given—it’s understandable they want as little waste as possible. I operate on the concept you can use almost everything in every situation, so I found the challenge fun.
- Beware of miscellaneous brush like hemlock and spruce. Red spruce looks similar to balsam fir until you turn it over and it smells like cat pee when it’s warmed up. That’s not the best option for a wreath. Hemlock is often confused with balsam though once you’ve made wreaths, I’d guess you never make that mistake twice. We also don’t want sticks full of what I call “branches”… these are thicker tips are cut from a balsam tree, rather than tipped. Wreath shops and makers want the tip, not the whole branch. Break them tippers, don’t cut them to remove them from the tree. Makers don’t have the time to tip a branch for you and it’s harmful to the tree.
- Wreaths last longer outdoors in the North while they’re best inside in the South. When we sent a wreath to Momma Lucchesi in FL, she was instructed to keep it inside with the air-conditioning… wreaths need to stay cool if you want them to survive. You also want them to stay moist, so a light spraying with water keeps them fresh longer. They also need to stay out of direct sunlight… they’re no longer attached to a living entity… sunlight will cause them to fade faster. Are these the rules from “Gremlins?”
- Wreaths made in Maine are sent all over the United States, so they need to be a very specific weight to maintain accurate shipping costs.
- Evergreen brush is used for all sorts of holiday cheer. Our shop made round wreaths of multiple sizes as well as garland, swag, as well as wreaths shaped like crosses, peace signs, triangles, and stars. We also offer workshops on how to make wreaths. Unfortunately, many wreath shops are closing up and are unable to find tippers or makers—I’m lucky to have had the opportunity. It’s piece work for everyone involved, from tippers to makers. There were days we went home because we ran out of tips and had no prospective tippers coming in that day. Our shop is fortunate to work with another shop downeast, often trading our tips for their wreaths. They can’t get tips, we can’t get enough people to work—it’s important to nurture your networks, no matter what your business is.
Despite the reality or not-so-sunny-side of what I shared above, I urge you to continue this fading tradition. Whether you do it for yourself, friends, family, or as extra holiday income, it’s a part of the holidays I’d miss being a part of. And remember, not every wreath shop will operate the same as ours. Here’s a bit more on the process from our local paper that will give you some shop to check out, should you wish to join in on the holiday fun next year. Here’s to the beauty of working with the seasons in Maine!
P.S. If you have your own terminology or experiences to share about making wreaths, post a comment below or email me and I’ll add it to this article!
Fast-forward 25 years, and it’s clear she’s learned a few things along the way. Her fingers flew deftly around the wreath frame, flipping it back and forth as she added the boughs to make it double-sided and full. In between fir boughs, she adds other natural materials she has harvested from her yard, including pinecones, dried hydrangeas, fern seed pods, birch twigs and bright-red clusters of holly berries.
“I like wiring in the weird stuff,” Henner said. “I like going and gathering stuff, having a bit of me put in the wreaths.”
In general, she said, making wreaths is not a complicated process. For the workshops, the museum purchases bags of boughs from Sprague’s Nursery & Garden Center in Bangor, which also sells forms and other wreath-making supplies.
Thousands of Washington County residents work the winter months in the wreath industry. They are tippers, wreath makers, wholesalers and retailers. There also is still a large cottage industry of wreath makers who create wreaths in their homes and sell them — undecorated — to wholesalers.
No one in state government tracks the financial impact of the wreath industry. The Maine Department of Conservation monitors tippers, making sure each harvester has the landowner’s permission, but there are no accurate figures for just how great the impact is.
“Millions,” Whitney assessed. “Millions. I think the financial impact is greater than people know.”
Doug Kell Jr., a co-owner at Kelco Industries, said it would be very conservative to put the impact of wreath making in Maine at $10 million a year.
“Thirty years ago, the wreath-making business was mostly wholesale,” he said. “Now it is mostly retail and so producers are getting much more money per wreath.”
Kell said wreath making is a hidden economy. “It is here for six weeks of the year and then it is over and it goes off the radar screen.”
Seasonal work is a part of the fabric of Washington County, Whitney said. An employee who makes bows in the fall may be a periwinkle harvester in the summer. Someone who works tying the wreaths may rake blueberries in August.
“Everything here has its season,” Whitney said.
Kell agreed. “In other places in the state, people have grown up with yearlong occupations, such as logging, working in mills. But here on the coast, we have fishing, blueberries and Christmas.”