The newest episode in the story of shifting ties between East and West may be unfolding over your Aunt Ethel's backyard clothesline.

It involves the esoterica of wood spring clothespins, which certain communist countries are sending into the United States at a floodtide rate.

The four major American manufacturers of wood spring clothespins want the government to stem the flow of rising imports from China, Romania, Poland and Czechoslovakia.

In case you belived the wood spring clothespin had been sent to oblivion by the gas and electric clothes dryer, consider these figures:

Last year, the United States imported 446.1 million clothespins with a total value of $2.8 million. China, Romania, Poland and Czechoslovakia accounted for 46 percent of the imports, but for only 40 percent of the dollar value - meaning their pins sold for less than the other countries' pins.

The big gainers in sales were China, which rose from zero in 1974 to $447,000 worth in 1977, and Romania, which climbed from $11,000 in 1973 to $167,000 last year. Poland, always ahead of the rest on clothespins sales, remained the leader last year at $513,000.

As these countries were gaining, the four U.S. firms - three with plants in Maine, one in Vermont - were falling behind in holding their share of the market, according to statistics they gave the U. S. International Trade Commission, which is investigating the firms' complaints.

The figures show that U.S. made clothespins were outselling imports by about 4 to 1 in 1973. By last year, domestic clothespins held just slightly more than half of the market.

Diamond International Corp., with a plant in Peru, Maine; Forster Manufacturing Co., Wilson, Maine; Penley Corp., West Paris, Marine, and National Clothespin Co., Montpelier, Vt., say the result is that their profits are down and jobs endangered.

"The money figures and the number of people are not fantastic, compared to what the American public hears every day. But if you stop the U.S. industry, you've ruined the economy of small towns and cut off workers' incomes," said Frederick C. McAlpin III, whose Washington law firm is handling the companies' petition.

McAlpin said the efforts by the communist countries where government determine production policies to flood the U. S. market with clothespins would be unfair to the domestic manufacturers and their employes.

But a spokesman for the trade commission cautioned against leaping to conclusions.

"It's true that if these American plants fold, it's welfare-town for the people who work there," he said, "But we will go into all sides of the issue and determine if other factors are affecting the market situation."

Earlier this year, for example, in the only other case similar to this, the trade commission investigated and rejected American producers' complaints that the People's Republic of China was inundating the U. S. market with cotton work gloves.

But back to clothespins. The U.S. firms agree that imported pins pose a threat imports are up 58 percent since 1973) but that the real threat is from the communist imports (up 113 percent in five years).

The manufacturers are asking the commission to apply a section of the 1974 Trade Act that deals solely with communist products as opposed to products from any other country. They want a limit on imports or higher import duties.

The ITC has seheduled a public hearing on the matter for June 22 at Portland, Maine, in the heartland of America's clothespin industry - which employed 316 workers last year.

By law the commission will have until Aug. 3 to report its findings and recommendations for action, if any, to President Carter.

The solar clothes dryer lives, but it is pinned, so to speak, to variable trade winds.