I inherited these clothes pegs from my British grandmother. She lived in a village in the Wye River valley in Herefordshire and she bought these handmade pegs from Gypsies who sold them door to door. It is likely that she bought these in the 1930s before the war, or should I say between the wars, the two World Wars that is.
By the 1970s my gran had moved on to using plastic clothes pegs, but these three pegs remained at the bottom of her peg bag, even though she no longer used them. I had always admired these lovely old pegs. They reminded me of the enormous-looking pegs used on washday that I had seen in pictures in some of the children’s books I had loved as a child, such as the Little Grey Rabbit books and Beatrix Potter. The watercolour illustrations conjured up an idealised English countryside, foreign to me both in space and time, as I was born and grew up in South Africa, with occasional visits to England to stay with my grandparents.
Even though I was very young I remember the field with fruit trees, cattle and sheep, and sometimes pigs with piglets, that my grandparents’ garden, alongside their neighbours’ narrow gardens, backed onto. But later on the trees were torn down and a housing estate was built on the field behind their house, just as happened also in the meadow on the hillside on the edge of the village adjacent to a patch of woodland, where I saw wild foxgloves and bluebells for the first time. Despite these developments, my grandfather continued with his traditional-style vegetable garden that included tall bean poles for the runner beans that my grandmother sliced, salted and bottled each year so they had home-grown green beans with their dinners throughout the months of winter.
Old photos of the field behind my grandparents’ garden in springtime and five years later in autumn. Excavation for the new housing estate has already begun and the lovely old trees are soon to be felled.
But to get back to the so-called Gypsy hawkers who made my grandmother’s clothes pegs; I don’t know if they were Romanies or Irish Travellers. My mother remembers from her early childhood the women, referred to as Gypsies, knocking at the kitchen door at the side of the house selling their handmade clothes pegs. She said that my gran used to buy from them as she felt sorry for them. However, one day when she was washing the dishes and, as was her habit, she had removed her engagement ring and placed it on the kitchen windowsill, some Gypsy women arrived at the kitchen door. She bought some pegs from them, finished the washing up, went to put her engagement ring back on and it was gone. For want of a better explanation, and perhaps also because of negative stereotypes of Gypsies, she assumed that the hawkers had nicked it and so that was the last time she bought their clothes pegs. Yet she still kept some of those pegs in her peg bag over 50 years later.
It was my gran who taught my sister and me the rhyme that we chanted as we clapped our hands on our knees, clapped them together and then clapped each other’s hands in high fives, interspersed with two criss-crossed palm-to-palm handclaps. It went like this: My mother said/I never should/play with the gypsies in the wood/If I did/she would say/naughty little girl to disobey. We would repeat this faster and faster and louder and louder, and it felt somehow transgressive and assertive. (Who can forget that David Bowie adapted this rhyme and chanted it at the end of “Ashes to Ashes”, with the gypsies replaced by the alien, threatening, self-destructing Major Tom, “a guy that’s been in such an early song”?)
Much to my surprise, I have discovered that these handmade clothes pegs made from a section of a split stem of wood, are indeed referred to as Gypsy clothes pegs. Stems of wood were peeled (debarked) and then cut to length and dried, then at one end they were split and carved to shape, and bound at the other end with a tin strip fixed to the wood with nails. Some of these tin “collars” were spiralled to produce a spring effect, such as the ones I have, and others had a single ring-style collar. The tin was cut from old biscuit tins or tin cans sometimes recovered from dumps – a form of recycling or repurposing. It seems that the wood used was willow or hazelwood, although I have also seen reference to ash being used.
For an interesting account of a family travelling in the 1980s in restored traditional-style horse-drawn caravans see Pam and Len Watkins, Life on the Road. The family are knowledgeable about and practice many Romany traditions and crafts, including peg making, as well as finding and preparing wild plants for food and for their medicinal properties.
And here is an overview of the ongoing stereotyping and outsider status of Britain’s Gypsy travellers.
And to end off, posted in February 2012 on the blog Organised Rage, here is an open letter from a Roma Gypsy to Channel 4, the British TV channel, which broadcast the so-called documentary series titled Big Fat Gypsy Weddings. The letter is interesting not only because of the response to the TV programme, but also because it clarifies some common misconceptions including the often ignored distinction between Romany Gypsies and Irish Travellers.
For this post, I have added a new category, Heritage, and it is in line with what I mentioned in my first post, that I am inspired by people who continue to use sustainable age-old garden and household skills and techniques. I love old and everyday things that can be passed on through the generations. ★
Posted by Carol at letting nature back in