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  • Writer's pictureAntiques in Oxford

At your fingertips: a guide to collecting thimbles




Thimbles represent a compelling slice of social history as well as miniature vehicles for artistic expression.

There have probably been thimbles for as long as there have been needles. Before the invention of sewing machines, everything had to be made by hand, from the sails of a ship to the sheets for a bed, from a baby’s swaddling clothes to the grandest royal gowns. A little cap worn on the finger protected it during the long hours spent pushing a needle through fabric.

Although thimbles were invented out of necessity, there are now an infinite number of variations, from utilitarian examples made from bone or Bakelite to gem-studded thimbles that are fit for a queen.

The best chance of employment for a young girl from a poor background might be as a maid. She needed to be able to undertake all kinds of sewing and repairs, so she was taught skills from buttonholing to darning. She sewed to survive. At the other end of the spectrum, well-to-do ladies would meet with friends and bring their sewing tools. A valuable thimble was a sign of status; an expression of a lady’s taste and personality, and her ability to own fashionable, expensive things.

The highest price achieved at auction for a thimble was in 1990, when the auction house Phillips sold a late-16th-century gold thimble encrusted with sapphires and rubies for £20 000, plus fees. What really set this thimble apart was the provenance – it was reputed to have belonged to Queen Elizabeth I, later given to one of her ladies-in-waiting and passed down through the generations of the same family.

Collecting thimbles doesn’t need to break the bank. It would be easy to find a simple antique silver thimble for £5 or so – slightly more than the scrap value of the metal. Then after a year of buying pretty ordinary thimbles, collectors start to want something better; their interest is piqued, they start to get more knowledgeable, and then they specialise. Unlike a big, heavy piece of mahogany furniture, unless you go completely bananas, thimbles are not going to take up much space, so it’s easy to build quite a big collection.

Aside from the ease with which they can be displayed or stored,thimbles’ diminutive proportions are also aesthetically appealing. Collectors appreciate the skill required to achieve beauty in miniature. Their tiny size requires us to focus on them intently, taking our minds off life’s bigger trials and tribulations.

Given the scope in manufacture, there are innumerable ways of focusing a collection. Porcelain thimbles, for example, are a popular avenue for collectors. Derby made them in the 19th century, and Royal Worcester. They were easy for these companies to make and decorate, and they were sold in their thousands. But porcelain is really not a great material for a practical sewing tool like a thimble, as it is so easily broken, so they’re now much less commonplace.

A thimble’s condition has a significant impact on its value. For example, a silver thimble was sold in Brighton in the 1820s, a time when thimbles were popular souvenirs from spa towns, such as Bath, or the fashionable new seaside resorts.  This a small frieze featuring the promenade and the chain pier. Some of them can be quite worn, so they’d make around £40 at auction. A nice crisp example would go for much more, maybe £200.

There’s an even rarer Brighton souvenir thimble that features a donkey wheel, which for a very short time raised water from the harbour, which was then used to keep dust down on the streets. A really good example of the donkey wheel thimble could go or £250 to £350.

In more recent years, online platforms like the-saleroom.com have been a boon for collectors – the search term ‘thimble’ will throw up hundreds of results.

Good examples being sold in mixed lots can be missed, be on the lookout for thimbles in amongst things like sewing boxes or assorted sewing tools.

Prices were at their height in the late 1990s, buoyed by a number of very active collectors’ clubs. You might have paid £300 back then for a nice Royal Worcester thimble that would make £80 to £120 now. Enthusiasts, however, tend to be motivated by the pleasure collecting brings them and their fascination with the subject, rather than by thimbles’ investment potential.

Across the centuries, thimbles have been made in so many different materials and styles, with different types of decoration, to commemorate all manner of events, people or places, which means that there will always be something exciting and new to discover.

 

 

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