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Farm Family Turns Willows Into Furniture
Janice and John Garrett have taken scrub from the Nebraska prairie and turned it into a work of art. Their self-taught hobby of making bent willow furniture has sprouted into a full-time venture called Willow Maid. The craft business which evolved five years ago, supplements their 500-acre crop farm near Minden, Neb.
Today their bent willow tables, chairs, baskets, shelves and magazine racks are marketed in 80 cities from Boston to Denver.
Janice Garrett, who has a knack for crafts of all kinds, developed an interest in bent willow furniture after seeing some antique pieces at auctions and craft shows. "I begged John to make me something," she says. Since patterns for the rustic craft couldn't be found, Janice drew her own. Most of Garretts' pieces are made from original designs. "Sometimes what I want a piece to look like and what John needs for strength and endurance are two different things," she says,.
The couple works well together, though. Janice designs the patterns, and both she and John build the furniture.
Most of the construction is done in win-ter, which fits well with grain farming. Half of a large machine shed on the farm has been converted into a workshop for the couple's thriving business.
The Garretts harvest willow branches in winter when the boughs are dormant and more pliable. They scout ditches and low spots. for Red Willow thickets which are more scarce now due to the recent drought. The couple looks for willows of all ages. A 10-year old tree is sturdy enough for the framework of a table, bed or chair, while a 5-year old willow makes a comfortable chair seat. Childrens' chairs and doll furniture are made from younger willows.
The wood has to be used within several weeks after it's cut so it can be bent and shaped. "If you let it dry out, it splits like a zipper," John says.
Construction is time-consuming and tedious. With both Janice and John working full-time, it takes a month to build a dozen straight-back chairs. Once a piece is finished, it takes about 6 mos. for the wood to cure. After it's cured, the Garretts apply a linseed oil finish to give the furniture a smooth, leather-like texture which enhances the wood.
Sales are handled by a marketing representative. That way, the Garretts can focus on production and expanding their furniture line. "You can't produce and sell," Janice says. "You've got to stick to one thing, do it better than everyone else and delegate the rest."
Their rep displays samples of Garretts' wares at trade shows throughout the country. Buyers from gift, floral and craft shops attend the shows and place their merchandise orders. Garretts also have a brochure which features their entire line, so shoppers can order items that aren't displayed at the show. They'll also custom-design furniture.
To diversify, they've branched out into other crafts including cut metal designs and dried ornamental flowers. "I keep looking for new ideas all the time," says Janice. She scans decorating magazines for inspiration and then comes up with her own creations.
Contact: FARM SHOW Followup, Jan-ice & John Garrett, Willow Maid, Rt. 1, Box 81, Minden, Neb. 68959 (ph 308 832-1188).
(Reprinted with permission from Partners Magazine)

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1991 - Volume #15, Issue #1