Thimble is a word used for a small cap to protect the finger for use when sewing, and the name derives from Old English thyma and Old Norse thumall – the same root that gives up ‘thumb’ – and more specifically thymel a fingerstall. The root word really meant ‘swelling’ and words like tumour and thigh are also related.
The great thing about collecting thimbles is that they are small and you thus need only a limited amount of space to house your collection, and even if you have quite a lot, you are still not going to have your house or flat totally dominated by them. In the main, too, they are generally highly affordable – unless, that is, you decide to go in for either precious metal examples of antique or even ancient ones, for the use of thimbles goes back into antiquity. A bronze Roman example, a metal detectorist’s find, was offered for sale a few years ago for £25.
Indeed, one of the most expensive thimbles ever sold was a silver gilt one bought by an American collector from a UK auction twenty years or so ago for £18,000. It had provenance, having said to have been given by Queen Elizabeth I to one of her court ladies. A very fine French ivory thimble (something that will soon be untradeable) decorated with scrimshaw ducks round the rim recently made £360.
Another antique form is the Nuremberg thimble, like the same city’s famous jettons, were made, also in bronze, around 1530, right at the beginning of the modern thimble as we know it. A Nuremberg thimble sold recently for over £250, but more commonly for £30-50, like the one illustrated which has the added bonus of a maker’s mark on the rim – a flower. By the later 18th century our newly fledged porcelain industry was producing thimbles notably Royal Worcester, occasionally with signed painted decoration.
It was during the Victorian era that people thimble collecting became popular; practitioners are today called Digitabulists. Purely decorative thimbles, made for collectors or souvenir hunters come in many decorative styles including filigree work, scenes, plant and animal depictions, cherubs, borders, fleur-de-lys, sewing-related themes and, like the antique examples quoted above, come in a variety of different materials. My wife bought a cloissonné enamel one recently, probably Chinese and modelled as a Fo Dog or a tiger (it looks at first glance like an owl, but on closer inspection has fangs) for £1 and absolutely loves it.
Working thimbles – these are the sparsely decorated thimbles that were made specifically to be used. Although these might not be as fancy, they carry a lot of value of their own nowadays and are highly collectable. Commemoratives, souvenirs, advertising thimbles and many other varieties can be had for very little money. At fairs, for instance, some dealers have a box of them at a fixed standard price, and sorting through them can produce all sorts of attractive ones.
Some modern ones can also be pricey. I recently spotted a silver one assayed in Chester in 1962, in its original presentation box, very desirable to the collector of more decorative types, but at £175 I thought it over-priced; £20-30 would have been our estimate at Bamfords. More affordable were a pair of Edwardian silver thimbles in their original boxes priced more reasonably at £60 each. Both were decorated in good repoussé flower patterns and one had a decorative frieze, too. A box spotted recently at a local fair of silver thimbles was offering each item at £10. A good rummage armed with a loop to check the hallmarks might lead to a few little treasures that might show a slight profit, although the unit price at auction for a single silver thimble would be about £1.50 to £2, but they are always sold in groups unless particularly special.
Another stall I came across recently had a splendid selection: a 1970s NASA commemorative, and a pewter example boxed by the same supplier (£4), several porcelain ones, including a single Royal Crown Derby example (£1.50). Regarding the latter, a full set of 15 RCD ones with box shouldn’t set you back more than £50 and the firm issued several sequences of them. Many of those I saw were boxed, and there were others in brass, plastic, bakelite (sought after, and often £5-8) and so on, and all very reasonably priced. I also spotted a good embossed 9 carat gold thimble by Henry Griffiths & Son, on sale at £90, although at auction, £30-40 might be more like it.