THIMBLES are intimate, feminine little objects, which despite their small size, utilitarian nature, and often low monetary value, are faithfully collected by needle-crafting fans and anyone with an eye for a detailed, lovely object with the added elixir of daily use.
Their design has not really changed since the Bronze Age, when thimbles were made of bronze, leather, or wood in a domed cup to cover vulnerable finger tips during sewing.
The indents in the top were intended to fix the needle’s position, making the work easier and safer.
These depressions were stamped into steel and brass thimbles in the 18th and 19th century with a dedicated ‘nose’ machine, and the caps became flatter in the 1700s, some covering the top two thirds of the thimble.
John Lofting, a Dutch business man, is credited with opening the first thimble factory in England. During the Industrial Revolution, steel and brass examples started to carry a patent number and sometimes a registration design mark — useful for dating and assigning to a maker today.
Brass and base metal thimbles are a good entry point for your nimble-fingered collection. Women of every class were expected to be handy with a needle, and from fine embroidery and lace making, to simply shoring up old socks, these were vital, socially expected skills.
They were on occasion used as weapons of abuse — tapped on the heads of 19th century schoolchildren for example by a teacher for painful, surprise ‘thimble-knocks’.
Sewing tools including thimbles were mass produced in their millions, and some really do rate as tiny works of art.
Rarities command a premium but it would be unusual to pay more than €150 for even a relatively desirable metal thimble.
Once you become a serious ‘digitabulist’ (thimble collector) — silver, gold, mother of pearl, porcelain, and ivory offer fabulous little treasures at better boot sales, antiques fairs and at auction, where inherited but unappreciated collections come under the hammer quite regularly.
Early 19th century thimbles may not actually carry a hallmark. Surprisingly, this is not because of their small size but because until the 1870s they were considered to be under the statutory weight for marking.
16th and 17th century pieces are eagerly sought museum pieces and very, very rare as they could be so easily lost or simply tossed out with a women’s small personal pieces on her death. These pieces have steep domes and thicker walls than later examples.
Quality brass and steel-lined silver thimbles were decorated with engraving, die-stamped or ‘dot’ design.
Though easy to source, you will soon discover that the registration design mark, maker, and variety, in detailing such as the various flowers and scenes at the base of the thimble, can mark one out as unusual and therefore far more expensive, as much as €500 to €600 for a really stunning example.
A standard late 19th century stamped example starts at around €20. Initials or a dedication are a really moving touch bringing you closer to the hands that toyed with the thimble for possibly a lifetime.
Landscapes where they are engraved on a thimble are largely idealised places of quaint, high-pitched roofs and cloudy flowers, but there were many souvenir pieces made to record holidays at home and abroad, a sub-section of collecting if you want to zero in.
In English makers, James Fenton (Chester hallmarks), and Charles Horner (Birmingham hallmarks and the maker of Dorcas thimbles), are names to conjure with in ornate gold and silver thimbles. Fine silver thimbles in a bee-hive shape are often French in origin.
Collectors of thimbles are always excited by the presence of an original or handmade case, an important point in presentation and storage for any lady.
Often, German thimbles were sold in a small wooden case carved in a fantasy rustic Black Forest style. The Victorians adored this kind of decorative whimsy.
Small purses in silver, dainty fabric or pressed glass shoes including a pin cushion to the heeled end, bead-work eggs on fine chains, silver fobs, minute buckets, and beautifully carved bone and wood acorns were all popular themes.
Dorcas, made in England, were famed for attractive holders meant to be left on show and containing a steel-cored silver thimble. The very best thimble holders might even be set with small jewels, often cabochons of semi-precious gems to the tip.
Additional features for holders include other small sewing implements in ivory or steel attached to the side of a resting thimble when not in use.
The Americans sometimes included a minute sliding knife for cutting threads set directly on the thimble.
Better brass thimbles include exquisitely crafted ivory liners to cushion the finger, and the thimble would be pierced to show off this added luxury. Ivory liners are often damaged or missing entirely as they could slip out of position as the metal was stressed, so look out for good, surviving lined thimbles in your travels.