For those of you may already collect, or are tempted to collect, thimbles and become a digitabulist and start searching for ancient examples, I am informed that the earliest thimble was Chinese and dates back to 206 BC from the Han dynasty. Although this is old by any standards, needles have been around for at least 5000 years. Therefore, although we have no proof, thimbles or some sort of guard may even have been used at that time.
By the mid-14th century, plain brass/bronze examples were in production made by casting or hammering, produced with an acorn shaped cap and which, unbelievably, had a small hole in the top - apparently for ventilation.
In 1530 Nuremberg thimble makers discovered a mix of copper and zinc which gave a bright, workable alloy, perfect for the thimble maker. Here, in the late 1600's, a British inventor, Christopher Pinchbeck, produced another alloy; a variant of the Nuremberg discovery and this was widely used for the manufacture of needlework accessories. The alloy still carries him name today.
The early porcelain production at the Meissen factory in Germany in the first quarter of the 18th century saw fine ceramic thimbles being produced with painted decoration from about 1720. These early examples are very highly prized and are some of the most expensive thimbles on the market today. Continental thimbles have a most pleasing beehive shape, unlike the British tapering cylinder.
The late 18th and 19th centuries saw improved living standards for most of the population of Britain. Fine materials, silks, and linens became affordable and this must have been the golden age of the needlewoman. As for the materials used to produce thimbles during this period, we have enamel from Battersea and Bilston, porcelain from Worcester, Derby, and other great manufacturers. There were also wooden thimbles from Tunbridge known as Tunbridge Ware, some of which were fine inlaid examples. Mother of Pearl examples came from the Palais Royale district of Paris and even tortoiseshell models made from heating the shell and forming into shape, often inlaid in silver or gold, were a great fashion in the Regency period around 1820. Last, but not least, gold and plastic.
By far the greatest numbers of thimble products during the 19th century were of silver. Birmingham, Sheffield, and Chester seem to be the main centres of manufacture of the many and varied products.
Much sought after is the antique souvenir thimble. However, I think at this point I must make it quite clear that I am talking about real thimbles, not the sort of contraption on the market today sold in many souvenir shops where the top of the thimble is adorned with a windmill, church, or even a Christmas tree, rendering it impossible to use for its original purpose. These are not real thimbles and within the collecting circles these would hold little or no interest or value.
The thimbles I mean are cast silver or engraved works of art, souvenirs with place names, events such as the 1851 exhibition, famous buildings, Royal commemoratives etc. These solid silver thimbles are so collectable and easy to date as they should bear a hallmark which gives the date letter for year of manufacture. The assay mark indicating more than likely the place where it was made and lastly, the initials of the maker.
Base metal thimbles by the mid-19th century were being used within the clothing industry but with the advent of the mechanical sewing machine it signalled the rapid decline and use of the thimble in industrial use. Domestic thimbles still survived, certainly well into the 20th century.
How many of you still use them for darning today ………………….. Who darns?
Reference Book : The Letts Guide to Collecting Thimbles by Bridget McConnell
The Thimble Society can be contacted on 020 72293135