FRANKLIN — The town that bills itself as the “Christmas Tree Capital of the World” may also be home to its fastest wreath maker.
“The most I’ve ever done in one day was 13 dozen,” says Audrey Gilman of Franklin.
That’s more than double the number made by the current Guinness World Records holder, Canadian Carolann Naugle.
Indeed, Gilman assembles a two-sided, 24-inch decorated wreath in fewer than 15 minutes while pausing frequently to explain the process to this reporter.
“This is a tradition that my parents passed down to me,” explains Gilman, who grew up in nearby Sullivan.
Now 47, Gilman started making wreaths at age 7. The seasonal cottage industry was a family affair for her parents, Roy and Bonnie Whalen, and her siblings.
Gilman’s paternal grandmother raised 21 children. With that many hungry mouths to feed, they all went into the wreath business.
“The boys would go out and get the brush and the girls would wind,” Gilman said.
During her own childhood, her family had a standing order for 100 dozen wreaths for a New York florist, which they’d assemble from Nov. 1–23. By Thanksgiving, the whole clan would be exhausted from their labor, the fruits of which would be loaded into two vans and taken to the city.
Gilman carries on the family tradition by making and selling 60 to 100 dozen wreaths each season. She also shares her knowledge by teaching adult education classes offered through Regional School Unit 24 and the Ellsworth School Department in early November.
One of the nice things about wreath making is that there is little start-up cost. The main component, brush, is free if you do your own tipping. Otherwise, you’ll need a good pair of clippers (Gilman recommends Fiskars brand), metal wreath rings, green-coated wire and decorations.
Tipping is snipping off the ends of balsam fir branches. As Gilman stresses in her classes, there’s a right and a wrong way to do it.
First and foremost, you must have written, dated and signed permission from landowners to harvest on their property. Permission should be obtained every year and you should carry the note with you. Notify the landowner when and where you’ll be on the property. Illegal tipping is punishable by steep fines in Maine.
Tipping and hunting season overlap, so don’t venture into the woods without wearing blaze orange — preferably two pieces of apparel.
While in the woods, remain aware of your surroundings and the location of your vehicle. You don’t want to get lost or have an unfortunate wildlife encounter, Gilman says.
You’ll be looking for mature balsam fir trees with lush green foliage. Flip the branches over to check for any brown or shedding needles.
Tip the right way, and the foliage will grow back fuller in two years; tip the wrong way and you could kill the tree, says Gilman.
Never cut a branch back all the way to the trunk, always leave a stub for new growth.
Tips are measured fingertip to wrist, and a bough extends from fingertip to elbow, according to Gilman. She uses a tree pruner to help cut high branches.
“When it sounds like a carrot, it’s time to tip,” Gilman advises, snapping a branch to demonstrate the sound.
While she enjoys reconnecting with nature while out tipping, Gilman’s favorite part of wreath making is decorating.
Her classic wreath, which sells for $25, features a red bow, three bunches of pinecones and faux holly berries. But Gilman likes to experiment. One of her creations featured Barbie dolls. Last year, she helped her cousin make a 6-foot wreath to adorn a Southwest Harbor barn.
Gilman buys her metal rings and pinecones from Kelco Industries.
She finds more decorations in the Goodwill Christmas aisle and at yard sales, dollar stores and on post-holiday clearance racks.
She also makes centerpieces and garland.
With more than three decades of experience, Gilman makes wreath-making look effortless. She gathers up bunches of tips, breaking down boughs as she goes. Each bunch is attached to a 12-inch metal ring with a quick rotation of her hand. She flips the wreath over and repeats the process, working around the ring in increments. Gilman’s mother and grandmother taught her that the tips should stand up next to each other like “little soldiers in uniform.”
Gilman prefers working with bare hands so she can “really feel” what she’s doing. To remove the sticky balsam resin, she uses a mixture of sugar and peanut butter followed by a wash with Dawn dish soap.
She built her reputation selling to wholesalers, including M.A. Clark, which only sourced from the best wreath makers.
“Mine are what they call premium wreaths … You’ll know the difference when you see them,” Gilman said.
Some companies now use stamping machines, which staple brush down rather than wrapping it by hand.
Gilman is not a fan.
“It’s taking jobs away from other people, but then, a lot of kids today don’t want to do it — they’re not interested,” she said.
She hopes her classes inspire more families to revive the tradition.
For orders, call 565-5023.