History of Thimbles

History of the Thimble
The history of the thimble is fascinating.  It is probably their utilisation by virtually every known civilisation, together with the variety of designs and materials from which they are produced, that has made them so popular as collectable items.
They have been fashioned in stone, bronze, wood, leather, horn, bone, tortoiseshell, ivory, mother-of-pearl, glass, a number of metal alloys and, of course, porcelain. The production of porcelain models flourished when the advent of the sewing machine, by men like Elias Howe and Isaac Singer in the 1840s and 1850s, heralded the demise of the common “utilitarian thimble.”
Victorian England, with its emergent network of road and rail links and rapid industrial growth, proved an ideal marketplace for collectors’ thimbles. The Great Exhibition at Paxton’s Crystal Palace in London’s Hyde Park in 1851 triggered off a rash of souvenir thimbles commemorating the event.
By this Time there were over 6.600 miles of rail track and with greater ease and speed in long distance travel, the dawn of tourism was upon us. Castles, cathedrals engineering masterpieces, royal residences, abbeys, towns and cities – all lent themselves admirably to air increasingly lucrative trade in souvenir thimbles.
This passion for collecting thimbles has increased over the years and an impressive collectors’ market is now established.
Thimbles as we know them almost certainly came into being with the introduction of coarse thread and fabrics. Early needles were difficult to use because they were not smooth or polished, so some form of protection was required for the finger when stitching. Simple protectors in bronze or iron were employed initially, with needleworkers using the side of the finger in much the same manner as tailors use the open-topped thimble of today. Later when garments and soft furnishing became more elaborate and necessitated greater sewing, thimbles for general use were made of brass.
Silver thimbles in a variety of styles and decorations date from the 17th century. They invariably feature waffle-like indentations and chevroned strapwork, and are often found without rims. Decorative circular knurlings gradually replaced square-shaped indentations as the century progressed. English thimbles from the mid 17th century were tall and cylindrical and usually made in two parts.
The early 18th century saw a preference for the shorter, rounder shaped thimble, although up to the 1750s they were still being produced in two sections – a welded cylinder topped by a small cap. During the second half of the century, however, one-piece thimbles were made by hammering a metal disc into a mould.
They grew in popularity as artistic needlework became a fashionable pastime with middle and upper class ladies. Records show that Elizabeth I gave a thimble lavishly encrusted with precious stones to one of her ladies in-waiting, so it comes as no surprise that thimbles as gifts, chased with ornate Rococo designs and made from expensive material, were later included in finely worked etuis and chatelaines of the 18th century. (Originating in medieval times, chatelaines had a number of chains suspended from a central clip, with a different item attached to the end of each such as scissors, thimble, buttonhook, pincushion and needlecase.)
Porcelain thimbles, such as those made by the Meissen factory in Saxony, were never intended for practical work although many thought them ideal for sewing delicate fabrics such as silk. As with tortoiseshell and mother-of-pearl they were less likely to snag the fine threads. Made specifically as extremely beautiful gifts arid now financially beyond the reach of the majority of collectors, few Meissen thimbles exist outside museums and top private collections.
Their distinctive rounded form is enhanced by exquisitely detailed and delicate landscapes, seascapes, birds, flowers and romantically portrayed figures,
and they have an unrivalled quality and charm.
Fine examples of English porcelain thimbles were first manufactured in the early 1800s by Royal Worcester, Coalport, Spode and Wedgwood, although possibly the richest period for such items is from about 1885 to 1910. This was when thimble production at Royal Worcester in particular was at its height. Although the firm’s early thimbles are seldom marked, they can be identified by their highly translucent bodies, elaborate gilding and detailed brushwork.
Signatures of qualified artists like William Powell, who hand painted a series of British birds for Royal Worcester, only began to appear after 1900.
Wedgwood Jasper thimbles were also being made in the first half of the
20th century and by exactly the same methods as they were 150 years earlier.