|By Doug Graves
A rather insignificant industrial device used to stop fingers from becoming a pin cushion is becoming quite the collectible item these days. Thimbles, as tiny yet durable as they are, are once again appealing. And if you collect these finger protectors you’re considered a digitabulist.
There’s perhaps no better thimble collector or thimble authority than Sandra Woodyard of Columbus, Ohio. Woodyard is president of Thimble Collectors International (TCI), a group with 400 members worldwide. Woodyard has a collection of roughly 10,000 thimbles.
“I haven’t counted them lately and I’m always adding to my collection,” she said. “I began with wanting a decoration for my sewing room. I quickly outgrew that room with thimbles all over my house. I also collect other needlework tools and toy sewing machines.”
“There are many coveted thimbles,” Woodyard said. “There is the tall golden thimble made in France, the silver American thimble with a decorated band that resembles a swimming lady and there are various souvenirs of World’s Fairs or specific places. There are the beautiful enameled thimbles from Norway or the old, hand-painted porcelain thimbles by artists of the Meissen factory in Germany. I could go on and on.”
Five years ago a circa 1730 Meissen porcelain thimble with a landscape and a bridge scene painted on the band sold for $20,000 during the Ann Blakeslee Black Collection of Thimbles, Needlework Tools and Vertu auction held in Florida and presented by Leslie Hindman Auctioneers.
“There are thimbles that have been patented that can be a collection within a collection, or thimbles that have semi-precious stone tops, or thimbles with peoples’ names on them,” Woodyard said. “Different things make certain thimbles desirable to different people.”
Collecting thimbles on a much smaller scale is Amy Voegele of Richmond, Ind. Voegele frequents the monthly Urbana Antique Show & Flea Market, peddling (and trading) her thimbles. Voegele’s collection count is roughly 570 and still growing. She’s been at this hobby since her grandmother passed down her assortment of thimbles to her in 1995.
“My friends say I’m a fool for latching on to my grandmother’s sewing machine, but I was interested in her thimbles since I was a child,” Voegele said. “Grandma told me that the thimble is just a tool of the trade of sewing and quilting and a vital one at that. Over the years I’ve learned that the value of these thimbles is determined by such things as age, condition, rarity and what types of materials they’re made from.”
Indeed. Over the years thimbles have been made from gold, silver, glass, ivory, bone, mother-of-pearl, Bakelite and bog oak, just to name a few.
“People can invest a lot into collecting thimbles, but you can get them for around $5, too,” Voegele said. “The best part about collecting them, though, is they’re small and easy to tote around. You don’t need much space in the house with this type of collection.
“For some it’s all about topical collecting with thimbles. I collect all types so I’m considered a general collector but there are those who collect from a certain year or decade, or a celebration of a certain event. There are thimbles with plants and animals on them. It’s really endless.”
Since her fascination with thimbles began 23 years ago, Voegele has met collectors with high-valued collections. One friend, she says, seeks nothing but hand-painted Royal Worcester thimbles. Such thimbles were made in the 1870s and production ended in 1986, and they are difficult to find these days.
“The thimble rage nowadays seems to be those made of sterling silver,” Voegele said. “I have spent 10 times the hours of research on thimbles as I have collecting them. The history of these tiny sewing implements is quite fascinating. It’s truly as much fun learning about their past as it is finding one of those rarities.”
To fully understand thimbles is to know something about the history of these finger protectors. In her book The Story of the Thimble: An illustrated Guide for Collectors, Bridget McConnel wrote, “Ancient China is a civilization which yields information on the use and evolution of the thimble. China produced fine silk thread from 2000BC onwards, and consequently fine needles must also have existed. The earliest thimble found to date is Chinese, taken from the tomb of a minor court official of the Han Dynasty (206BC-220AD).
“By the mid-14th century, plain medieval bronze or brass thimbles, made by casting or hammering, were common in Europe. The acorn-shaped cap that is typical of the time is fairly shallow, and sometimes has a hole in its top. These medieval thimbles are delicate enough for embroidery. During the 15th century, brass thimbles continued to be cast in a mold or hammered, but became slightly deeper in shape.”
According to McConnel, it was the development of the Nuremberg thimble in the early 16th century that marked the turning point in European thimble production. In 1530, Nuremberg thimble-makers discovered a superior metal alloy, made of copper and zinc, which created a smooth, bright, brass of an even texture. Those craftsmen also produced gold and silver thimbles. Makers’ marks are sometimes found at the start of the knurled indentations.
“English 17th-century thimbles are very distinctive, recognizable by their domed tops, straight sides and tall slim shapes,” McConnel says. “They were made in brass, silver or gold and were often decorated with a form of strapwork. Some bear religious mottos around the bottom rim, and then indentations appear as square waffles or tiny circles.”
As for American thimbles, those factories came into existence in the 1830s. In 1832, Ketcham and McDougall of New York became known as “The Thimble House” and their thimbles were made until 1932.
Simon Bros. of Philadelphia started making thimbles in 1839 and continues doing so today. Webster Bros., who made thimbles and other sewing tools in Massachusetts from 1869-1950 sold their thimble dies and designs to Simon Bros. in 1932. Early American silversmiths often fashioned thimbles from silver coins. Coin silver was heavily used in the 1830s-1870s for thimble making.
“A thimble’s country of origin can often be determined by its mark, size numbering, shapes and decorations,” Voegele said. “One should first see if there’s a maker’s mark. Its location is also significant. English and French marks normally appear on the band. German’s marks are usually on the second row of the indentations. Although a few of the American and Norwegian are on the band, usually they are inside the cap.”
“Rarity influences prices,” Voegele said. “For example, World’s Fair thimbles were offered for sale only in the city of the fair’s location and only in that year. Also, if it is a known pattern that would be recognized by its name it will bring a higher price.”
There were advertising thimbles, ones that advertised everything from furnaces to cures for head lice. These were normally giveaways handed out by salesmen. Thimbles were also packaged at the factory with products such as flour. Warren G. Harding was the first presidential candidate to advertise on thimbles.
“Porcelain thimbles are works of art rather than a practical tool,” McConnel writes. “They were often hand painted with great finesse. There is little pretense that these porcelain thimbles were ever intended for practical work. They were fashioned purely as decorative objects.”
To learn more about thimbles or to start collecting go to www.thimblecollectors.com.