Spinning Into History

Some people think hopping on I-95 and driving for an hour or more to get to work is a bit much. But that's nothing compared to Judith Marzan's time-traveling commute: She journeys back more than four centuries to play her role as a cloth-spinning Renaissance dame.

Marzan and her husband, Patrick Withers, three years ago began their quest to relive the past -- the 1500s in particular. Already they've become tied into the annual Florida Renaissance Festival, where this year they are presiding over the "Creations Encampment." While jousting and human chess matches take place elsewhere in the park, the couple spins yarn from wool, teaches about the past, and oversees an impromptu village of craftspeople.

During the five-week festival, which continues on weekends through February at Quiet Waters Park in Deerfield Beach, hard-core participants like Marzan and Withers stay in tents behind a hedge and eschew modern conveniences. On the public side of the hedge, a picnic table and chairs sit near a campfire, where folks in period costumes rest and play drums. Others demonstrate spinning, weaving, dyeing, and wood carving to the public.

Sitting at her spinning wheel in the afternoon sun, Marzan smiles warmly at visitors and welcomes their questions. Her hair is wrapped in a cream-colored snood, a finely woven cloth hair-net like those she sells. She's wearing a peach-colored cotton dress bordered in green with a matching green underskirt. A man nudges his daughter toward Marzan's display and asks, "How do you keep the thickness of the yarn uniform?" Marzan explains that it's necessary to keep the wheel spinning at an even pace and to feed the wool into it in uniform amounts.

The curious also often ask why anyone would choose to live in a park and do tedious work when modern comfort and manufactured goods are so accessible. "It is our way of saying that this whole consumerism business is a problem," offers Withers, who has hauled a tree stump to a shaded area and is sitting astride it in his green tights and Renaissance-style tunic. When people ask, "Why not buy?" Marzan counters, "Why not make?" She points out society's dependence on modernism, offering the impending Y2K fiasco as an example. "We did without these things before. We aren't going to fall apart," she says, noting that people attend festivals such as this to get reacquainted with past skills.

Indeed, it's not long before Withers is busy preparing lunch in a cast-iron skillet over an open fire. Soon he's doling out fried potatoes and onions on skewers that he has sharpened with a knife, and the appreciative craftspeople enjoy the simple meal.

Marzan smiles at her husband as she returns to her seat with her food, recalling why they got into the Renaissance in the first place. She was enchanted at their first Renaissance festival in Marathon in 1997, where she was pulled from the crowd to assist in a puppet show. Later that year the couple attended a festival near their home in Hollywood. Marzan saw a woman spinning and fell in love with the craft. Spinner Caroline Nelson made her an apprentice, and Dame Judith the spinner was born.

"People take on personalities of that time," says Withers. "Since I sing, I took on a singing part as a minstrel." The part-time choir director even made his own harp after researching instruments from the period.

On Monday the minstrel will trade his harp for his modern handyman's tools, and Marzan will return to her 20th-century profession as a medical transcriptionist. But just until the following weekend, when they get to play make-believe again. "It's great having some kind of connection to days gone by," notes Marzan, "and [to] people who have done this before." And besides, where else can you camp out in tights without someone calling the cops?

-- Eileen Jager

The Florida Renaissance Festival runs weekends through February 28 at Quiet Waters Park, 6601 N. Powerline Rd., Deerfield Beach. Hours are from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission prices range from $5 to $12.95. Call 954-776-1642.

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Eileen F. Jager