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Wool spinner shares joy, history of craft

Centerville resident tells stories while showing how to spin

Jason Peterson isn't sure what to think of Judy Gunn's baby lamb at Bingham Creek Library in West Jordan.
Jason Peterson isn't sure what to think of Judy Gunn's baby lamb at Bingham Creek Library in West Jordan.
Tom Smart, Deseret Morning News

With a shock of pink-dyed wool in one hand and a drop spindle in the other, Judy Gunn smiles warmly at her audience. She's apparently unfazed by the facts that she just sang "Pop Goes the Weasel" almost entirely solo and that she's not wearing any shoes.

It's typical for spinsters to kick off their shoes, Gunn explained. It allows them to feel the treadle better when they're working a spinning wheel.

The Centerville resident has become a regular guest at libraries, schools and community centers — sharing the history of spinning through stories and songs while demonstrating spinning with a drop spindle and wheel.

It started out as a neighborhood thing — people asked to come over and see the sheep and then they wanted to hear about spinning, said Gunn who currently owns 17 sheep, all of which are named.

In addition to spinning, Gunn first cleans combs and dyes the wool she's sheared from her sheep.

"The more I learned about spinning, the more history I learned, the more I tried to include in my presentations," Gunn said.

She sells her yarn along with designer yarn and spinning supplies from her shop, Judy's Novelty Wool, 1035 N. Main Street in Centerville. Gunn also teaches a spinning class from her shop and keeps her sheep out back.

That's why she's often able to bring a lamb with her. This night is no exception. Children crowd around the playpen where the lamb nestles in baby blankets.

Throughout her presentations, Gunn involves her audience, passing around samples of animal hair — anything from dog to alpaca — and letting her audience guess what it is.

Gunn is heavily involved in the spinning world — which is surprisingly big. More than one hundred spinsters belong to Salt Lake Valley's Wasatch Woolpack spinning guild, and Utah is home to nine or more guilds.

But Gunn hasn't always used spinning jargon as naturally as she does now. The self-described "beach bunny" from Southern California had no idea what to expect 17 years ago when her husband bought three bum lambs to keep the grass down behind their Centerville home.

"The next thing I knew my sheep were having babies and they were being sheared," Gunn said. "They were going to throw out the wool but I said, 'No way.' "

With no knowledge of how to use the wool and no ready excuse to save it, Gunn began attending a wool spinning class at the community center.

"I was hooked — hook, line and sinker," she said.

It took Gunn six years before she purchased her first spinning wheel, but she immediately began spinning using a hand-held drop spindle. She now owns 16 spinning wheels, most of which she uses to teach spinning students.

Her first class, in 1997, consisted of a group of home-schooled children. When their spinning unit was finished, neither the students nor their teacher wanted to quit, so they evolved into a 4H class, she said.

Her 4H students were the first youths to display hand-spun items at the county and state fairs. They had to create a category in order to compete.

Gunn said seeing students she's taught win a blue ribbon at the state fair for something they've worked so hard on is one of her favorite parts of spinning.

"(Judy) knows how to teach," said long-time friend Shirley Marshall, a south Salt Lake City resident who has been spinning for the past 20 years. "We always kind of funnel people to her, she's just so willing (to teach) — not even for money, just for the art of spinning."

And more and more people are getting interested in spinning, said Kristine Bullock, owner of Three Wishes Fiber Arts, a store for spinners and weavers located at 7130 Redwood Rd. in West Jordan. Many of Bullock's own customers learned how to spin from Gunn.

The guilds attract a variety of individuals who use it as a means to de-stress, Gunn said.

"The people in this venue are just good people — doctors, lawyers, teachers, farmers, Molly-Mormon homemakers, dads who need a break from mechanics because they're mechanics all day," she said. "There's no right or wrong way of spinning, only different ways."

It's so relaxing you can actually fall asleep spinning, she said. Under her doctor's orders, she used the treadle on her spinning wheel for physical therapy after undergoing knee surgery.

There is something therapeutic, akin to gardening, about spinning animal or plant fibers, Marshall said. It's also nice to meet up with other spinsters through guilds to make friends and spin together.

"We tell most people it's cheaper than Prozac," she said. "We get together and talk and do something that's natural."

Those interested in taking a spinning class or learning more about spinning guilds can contact Judy's Novelty Wool at 801-298-1356 or Three Wishes Fiber Arts at 801-748-1881.