Posts Tagged ‘Thimbles’

Collecting Thimbles

posted by Karen Hood
Tuesday, June 9, 2009

by Carol Fisher

Thimbles are more than just useful objects for needle-workers, they are much sought after by collectors too. Most people who do much hand sewing will own and use a thimble, a simple, utilitarian object worn to protect the finger-tip. For collectors, though, it is much more than that and the thimbles they collect can range from the beautiful to the whimsical. Some collectable thimbles are old while others are brand new and made especially for the collectors’ market.

The earliest thimble was Roman and found at Pompeii. It was made of bronze and dated to the first century AD. A Roman thimble was also found at Verulamium, present day St Albans, and can be seen in the museum there. Other early thimbles were made of bone, horn or leather and have been found all over the world – apparently sore fingers from sewing are a universal condition. By the 15th century European fine ladies had thimbles made from silver and gold. It is said that Elizabeth I gave one of her ladies-in-waiting a thimble encrusted with precious stones. Thimble-making, using precious metals, continued but usually they were not hallmarked as they were deemed to small to qualify for the Assaying Acts. It was only from 1870 that they were regularly hallmarked.

So how can you date a thimble? The small dimples can help you. In the middle of the 18th century a machine was invented that could punch these into the metal, before that they were done by hand. If you find a thimble with an irregular pattern of dimples, it was probably made before the mid 18th century. The shape and manufacture of the thimble can also help you date it. Those from the Middle Ages have a high domed top and the metal, usually brass, is thick. Although they are rare, they are not particularly valuable as they are not pretty enough for most collectors. From the mid 18th century, most thimbles were machine-made so the metal is thinner and the top has a flatter, less domed appearance. Again, many of these were very plain so not desirable to collectors.

More ornamental thimbles were made in the early 19th century and often they were given by a young man to his beloved as a love token. These were usually made of gold or silver and, when the couple married, sometimes the rim was cut off and used as the wedding ring. Less benign, the teacher at a Victorian school would rap children on their heads with a finger wielding a hard, metal thimble.

In Victorian times thimble collecting became popular. During the Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace held in Hyde Park, London, many thimbles were made to commemorate the event. This led to further commemorative thimbles being made and the practice continues to the present day.

In 1880 Charles Horner, from Halifax, solved the problem that had bedevilled silver thimble users. Silver is a soft metal and so easily pierced by a steel needle. Horner’s solution was to use a steel core covered inside and out by silver. The resulting thimble was still as pretty as a traditional silver one but more practical and durable. Charles Horner christened his invention the Dorcas thimble and these are now collectable and known to collectors worldwide. The Dorcas has been made in a variety of patterns from the plain, traditional dimpled thimble to ones with flowers engraved on them. All of them were made to be used, though.

With the rise in popularity of thimble collecting many major manufacturers included them in their range. They have been made by companies like Meissen, Coalport, Spode, Royal Worcester and many others. Wedgwood, for example produced a set of thimbles called The Kings and Queens of England Collection. These were made in blue jasperware with the head of a king or queen as a white cameo. In all there were 41 thimbles in the set issued as a limited edition of 20,000 in 1980.

Collectable thimbles have been made in all kinds of metal as well as pottery or porcelain. Some have even been made with small figures protruding from the domed top – totally impractical of course. The sides of some metal thimbles have heavily embossed patterns on the sides while others are made in delicate lacquer ware. They were also produced by major companies as promotional items and these are sought after by both collectors of thimbles and advertising items.

Now many collectors buy brand new thimbles and there is a huge range available. There are still commemorative ones issued for special occasions like the wedding of Prince Charles and Camilla. Museums, stately homes, cathedrals and other visitor attraction also sell thimbles as souvenirs while others are made just to look beautiful in a collection.

Prices start at around £2 ($2.93) for a new, souvenir or commemorative thimble and go upwards depending on material, scarcity and desirability. Currently, one UK dealer is selling a 14th or 15th century bronze thimble for £60 ($88) and 18th century brass and bronze ones between £20 ($29.34) and £50 ($73.36). Another British dealer is selling examples in silver and gold at much higher prices. He has an American gold thimble with “House & Bridge” scene priced at £355 ($520) and a Victorian silver “Atlantic Cable” one at £245 ($360). The latter is the same pattern as the thimble used to send the first transatlantic cable signal from Ireland to Newfoundland. That one can be seen in the Science Museum in London.

Thimbles are a great area for new collectors. They are pretty, many are inexpensive and even a relatively large collection won’t take up a lot of space. What more could you want?

(This article first appeared in the UK monthly magazine What’s It Worth?)