Remember the gypsies, Irish tinkers, tatters and travellers, who used to come knocking at the door selling baskets and things they had made from wood, and offering to repair pots and pans? They would tell your fortune if you crossed their palms with silver. I’d tender my sixpence and they would tell me I’d marry a dark stranger, which indeed I did! Were they really psychic?
They were very skilled at crafts, and made artificial chrysanthemums by shaving the top of an elder stick very finely so that the pieces curled, and then coloured the flower – as a child, I thought they were utterly beautiful and would have bought the whole basket full. These websites show that this skill hasn’t been lost.
They also made wooden dolly pegs for pinning the washing to the line, far superior to modern plastic clips that mark the clothes. There’s a charming description here dated 1960 of a travelling couple making pegs, though these are the kind with a twist of wire holding them together.
My mother was happy to support these tousled women who appeared regularly on the doorstep, often with a baby on their arms or in a shawl on their back, as her supply of pegs was constantly being depleted: I loved making them into peg dolls using scraps of material from her dressmaking. These little characters, some with wire pipe cleaners for arms, performed plays for me or inhabited my doll’s house, providing action-packed family drama. Some of them went to live with my friends, who didn’t know how to make peg dolls or didn’t have the patience to make their own. Most of them got lost or fell apart after a while; none have survived.
The one I treasured most and which lived longest – for all I know, it may still be hiding in a drawer somewhere – wasn’t one I made, but came from a souvenir shop in North Wales when I was very small. I wanted a doll in Welsh costume, but they had sold out. It was wartime, and no prospect of any fresh stock coming in, so the lady who ran the shop told my parents to come back later and in the meantime she conjured up a lovely peg doll, complete with stockings, white lacy cap, tall black hat, red cloak and patterned shawl. It even had cotton drawers and a petticoat under its checked skirt and apron, and little black shoes with embroidered buckles. It was this doll that inspired me to create all the others, but I never came close to achieving anything as perfectly made as my Welsh Gwyneth.
Using some of these wooden dolly pegs to hang up the washing recently I was surprised when one of them snapped in my hand. I looked at it closely, and realised it was rotten with worm holes! I tipped everything out of the peg bag to examine the contents and discovered that most of them had woodworm in them.
How long has my mother had these pegs? She has no idea, but it’s so far back that she can’t remember buying them. So they are probably leftovers from my peg-doll-making days. Maybe they are valuable antiques! I’m very tempted to dress a few of these old pegs, just for old times’ sake. Can you still get fluffy wire pipe cleaners?