Australian thimble aficionado Sue Gowan talks about her passion for sewing thimbles, from hand-painted Royal Worcesters to plastic ones. She discusses the history of thimble making, the various materials used, the different design styles employed, and their collectibility. Sue can be contacted via her website, Thimbleselect of Australia, which is a member of our Hall of Fame.
My husband, Mike, used to buy me pieces of china. One day he bought me a Jasperware blue Wedgwood thimble and I put it aside with my other pieces of Wedgwood. Later, one of his aunts left us a silver thimble, and then my daughter got a christening thimble, and it just flew from there. I don’t sew, so I don’t why.
You can’t collect in a vacuum, so I looked for a society to join. I lived in South Africa at that time, and Jenny Scharff had just started her South African Thimble Collectors Club. That was 25 years ago, and the passion has never ceased.
By American standards, my collection is quite small. I have about 2,500 thimbles, but they don’t take up a lot of space. I always collected postcards when I traveled, but then I started looking for thimbles instead. I dabble in lots of little things, but since 1984, my passion has been thimbles.
The biggest part of my collection is Australian thimbles. Once I got to Australia, I read an article on Australian thimbles, and because it was all new to me, I started to try to find them. It was a way of getting to know my new country. I try to get one from each manufacturer.
I wrote a book, Thimbles of Australia, and I started collecting a lot more Australian thimbles once I began writing because I knew what to look for. The book came out in 1988 and 11 years later, there’s still nothing really new on the topic. I never set out to write a book, but I just didn’t know how else to keep the passion going.
Thimble collectors are amazing people and they share enormously.
My other big thing is joining local groups. Once I left the club in South Africa, I joined the Australian equivalent. In the meantime, I joined the really big international group, Thimble Collectors International, which is based in the States. I’ve been a member of that for over 20 years now. You get wonderful bulletins and that’s how you learn.
I also belong to the club in the U.K., which is where I’ve met most of my thimble friends. They come and stay with me and I go and stay with them. We talk the same language when it comes to thimbles.
In addition to Australian thimbles, my other big passions are English Victorian silver thimbles and the hand-painted Royal Worcester thimbles. The phenomenal detail of the early hand-painted Royal Worcester thimbles makes them a fine art commodity and the prices keep going higher and higher. You don’t even need a magnifying glass to see the detail on them. It’s just so amazing. They stopped painting them in 1986.
Getting familiar with the backmarks and hallmarks leads to a wider interest. I’ve always known how to read a hallmark, which can tell you whether a thimble is made of Sterling silver and who the maker is. Then you start to see patterns emerging of all the different kinds of thimbles from that maker, and how different makers copied each other. I suppose it’s just that never-ending quest. You’re always looking for just one more.
There are early plastic thimbles, too, and they were all a cream color because they were trying to replicate bone and ivory. Those were made during the 19th century and into the 20th. They’re becoming scarce now. There are also thimbles made out of something called ivorine, which is a creamy color, too.
I know a lot of people won’t collect Sterling silver if it’s got a hole in it, but thimbles were made to be used, so what’s the point of a sewing tool that was never used? Silver is very soft, so with any kind of hard use—and I’m especially talking about the Victorian thimbles—it’s too soft, especially if it’s the same person using it because you tend to press on the same place every time, so you’d put a hole in it. Every time you use it after that, the tip of the needle would prick or hurt your finger, so that thimble is then useless to you, but you could swap with someone else because she will never find that same hole. We all sew differently.
If you look at the tip of your fingers, they’re not round, but thimbles were always made in a perfect circle because they’re machine made. So if you take a thimble that has been used, you’ll see it goes to what we call “out of round”—it’s become a finger shape. This is again that whole history of sewing and the women handing down their tools from mother to daughter and grandmother to granddaughter. In the 19th century, women were sewing all the time. It wasn’t a necessity—they did it for recreation. There was beautiful embroidery. So thimbles are tools.
Collectors Weekly: How long ago did people start using thimbles?
Gowan: We know of two stone thimbles, one in the Cairo museum and one in the Metropolitan Museum. We’re looking at 2,000 B.C. Obviously, those are unbelievable.
The ones that you see most probably came along the Silk Route. We haven’t found anything that we can authenticate from China, but they would’ve come along the trade routes from the East and into Istanbul and through to the West. There’s no trace whatsoever of Roman thimbles, so we don’t know what they used to protect their fingers, probably something like leather.
My earliest thimble is from the 16th century. If you look at a modern thimble nowadays, it’s made up of an opening to put your finger in, then around the sides and the top is the apex. You’ve got little dimples on the shape of the thimble so that a needle would fit into that hole to help with the pushing. Only in the 1680s, in Germany,did they have a machine to start making those mechanically. Before then, they had all been hand-beaten. So I can look at a thimble today and know its era—before 1700 or after 1700—just from the way it was made.
They had a guild of thimble makers in Nuremberg in the 14th and 15th centuries, and they saved the paperwork from medieval Germany. Holland had a big history of thimble making long before it ever got to England, too. Europe was really the cradle, and mechanized thimbles were made in the 1690s by John Lofting in England.
Most of those would be bronze, brass, the base metals. The old silver thimbles are now in museums. The beautiful early English handmade thimbles are very tall. Look at your knuckles—your thimble must never go past where your knuckle ends. It should fit so that you can almost touch the end when you put your finger in it. It doesn’t really work if your finger doesn’t touch the end because you don’t have control of the tool. If you’re going to use it, the size is very important.
A tailor wouldn’t have had a top in his thimble at all; there would’ve been no apex because they sewed using the sides of their thimbles. If it was big enough, you could put your finger straight through. It’s a much quicker movement.
Collectors Weekly: Are thimbles still being manufactured?
Gowan: They are. Of all the big Victorian manufacturers, James Swann was the last English firm to fold, and that was in this decade. Charles Iles started in the 1850s and closed in 1990. He never made Sterling, only base metal, which were everyday working thimbles, but he was very innovative. I love his thimbles. He patented and registered new designs.
Another fabulous seller was a guy called Charles Horner. He was a silversmith in Halifax, England in the 1880s. He saw people paying a sixpence for all these beautiful Sterling silver thimbles that would get holes in them and then be of no use, so in 1884, he patented a new way of making them. It’s like a sandwich: he took two pieces of silver, and in the middle he had a piece of steel. Try sewing through steel! But it still looks beautiful because it’s got Sterling on the outside. He’s still in the market.
He called his thimble the Dorcas, which was a name familiar to Victorian women who sewed because the sewing circles in Victorian times were Dorcas sewing circles. They sewed for the poor. Horner put the Dorcas thimble in a box and said that it had an unconditional guarantee. I think he was just the most incredible marketer in the 1880s and he stole the market. He doubled the price. He went from one sixpence and doubled it to a shilling. And because he registered all the designs he used, no other thimble maker could make the same kind until 1921.
Horner stopped making Dorcas thimbles in 1947, but you could still find them in haberdashery stores in Australia in the 1970s. That’s how successful he was. There are collectors who will specialize in getting one of every size and every pattern. He marked his thimbles. Before Dorcas, he just called them PAT for patent.
It’s these little stories and the history that are so important to thimble collectors.
Collectors Weekly: Could you tell me a bit about the history of Australian thimbles?
Gowan: Because we were an English colony, many of our thimbles traveled with people when we had the big migration into Australia. It was only in the 1920s that Australia started its own small thimble making business, and that only lasted for 20 years. Not even 20, probably just 15.
They stopped making thimbles because of World War II. Most of the silversmiths weren’t only making thimbles. They were jewelry manufacturers, and thimbles would’ve been a small part of their output. As most of the thimble makers were in England, I don’t think Australian makers could have ever survived by making just thimbles. Charles Horner also made hatpins, for example.
A lot of plastic thimbles were made here. We can identify those, and Australian metal thimbles as well, but they never used the word “Australia.”
There are some collectors who will only collect modern china thimbles. They’re not interested in the history, but there’s nothing wrong with that. I absolutely love the Wedgewoods, the Royal Worcesters, the Royal Crown Derby, and Royal Doulton, but they stopped making them. It just wasn’t economic. Because they were making them for a collectibles market, they couldn’t be used, and for something to really exist, to keep perpetuating itself, it has to have a practical use as well.
Collectors Weekly: Who are some of the other big manufacturers well known for their thimbles?
Gowan: In the U.S., it’s a firm called Simons. They’re based in Philadelphia, and as far as I know, they’re the only major thimble company still going worldwide. The other companies are very small. There are small niche makers, but nobody with a name like Simons anymore.
In the 19th century in America, you had Ketcham & McDougall, Simons, and Webster. To me, Ketcham & McDougall made the most beautiful thimble. The American thimbles are much shorter than their equivalent in the U.K. If you put a whole lot of thimbles in front of me, say 10 of each, I could pick them out and put 10 on one side and 10 on the other. The American ones are much shorter and their marks are normally up inside the apex.
In England, they’re all hallmarked. The four major makers were Charles Horner, Henry Griffith, James Swann, and James Fenton, who is one of my favorites. In Germany, you had the Gabler brothers, who were head and shoulders above everybody else. Germany and Austria were major thimble producers, especially in the first 40 years of the 20th century. In Vienna, there was a company called Settmacher, and it only just closed in 2005 because the owner died.
Collectors Weekly: Why were German and Austrian thimble makers so successful?
Gowan: You have to have what everybody is looking for. People want something decorative, but it still has to be practical. I suppose it’s just like anything—the bigger the company, the more they turn out, the more they take the market. The smaller companies were squeezed out; family businesses died out.
Again, World War II changed so much. Before World War II, people were generally still making most of their clothing themselves, but off-the-rack clothing came in after World War II, so there wasn’t the need to sew as much. You could pick up a plastic thimble and you didn’t have to pay $20. A plastic one would do for the kind of sewing you needed.
Sterling thimbles had a different purpose in prim-and-proper Victorian times. Back then, you could not just go out with a girl without a chaperone. The thimble became a part of dating. If a young man offered a girl a gift of a silver thimble and she accepted it, he knew that his feelings were reciprocated. If he gave her a utilitarian, base-metal thimble, he was expecting her to be a housewife, but if he gave her a beautiful jeweled gold thimble, he was expecting her to be the lady of the manor.
Collectors Weekly: If the thimble has jewels or gold, is it harder to use?
Gowan: It depends how they’ve been set. Some look like a ring that’s got a ruby or diamond, but they can be recessed flat enough. You just need a very good jeweler, someone who knows how it’s going to be used. There’s a gold thimble that’s studded with diamonds and rubies and sapphires that has changed hands several times and is worth a lot of money now, but it’s useless for sewing.
There’s a whole subset called gadget thimbles which help you cut your thread. You know how on the back of a sewing machine you’ve got a little cutter? Well, there are dozens of different thimble makers who have patented designs to help you thread a needle and cut the thread just by using your thimble.
I do lots of thimble talks, and I go to conferences all the time. I love talking about them. If people want to see my collection, I bring it with me. I know that they’re overwhelmed just to see the size of the collection. If they wanted to see my German thimbles or my Dorcas thimbles or my hand-painted ones, that’s no problem at all, but normally the general public isn’t interested in such things.
Collectors Weekly: What are some of the different materials that thimbles have been made of?
Gowan: I have a wooden thimble that my mother used to make my wedding dress. She bought it in 1930. That’s my most treasured possession because she used it.
That was the era when wood was what was available. In the 19th century, it would’ve been brass and silver. They would never have made them in the modern materials. Plastic only came into use at the turn of the 20th century. We take it for granted because a plastic thimble is one of the most comfortable to use.
Collectors Weekly: Were all thimbles marked with a maker’s mark or a hallmark?
Gowan: Each country had their own law. In England, they changed the law in 1884. It went on the weight of the silver. Before 1884, it wasn’t a legal requirement, so there weren’t any marks on any of the English silver, probably with an exception of 20 thimbles. Horner was starting to use hallmarks at that time, but after 1884, his thimbles had to bear a hallmark because it had to show that it was made of 925 parts out of a thousand of silver. It was an honesty thing. If you’re only using 900 parts and selling it as Sterling silver, you’re committing fraud, so that’s why they have the hallmarking system.
For the base-metal thimble, there’s no requirement whatsoever, but a thimble says “Made in England,” it was made after the 1890s. It’s all to do with governments and lawmakers, just to get more money.
In America, they marked the size of thimbles from the 1890s. Simons, Ketcham & McDougall also used a maker’s mark, S or KMD. Some just used a symbol such as a star. They would have to register it, so we can go back through the registrations and find out who registered the symbol, what they made, and when the registration took place.
That’s why I’ve got such a big section devoted to marks on my website. The books written on thimbles are so general. There isn’t a book just written on Royal Worcester thimbles, but there are millions of books on Royal Worcester. There are millions of books on Wedgwood, but there’s nothing on Wedgwood thimbles. That’s why I’ve got all these little topics on my website, because I know there isn’t information on specific makers. And thimble collectors are so generous. They share and share and share. I get daily e-mails from collectors saying, “This is some information you didn’t know about,” or “Can you help me?” and we share back and forth. I’ve learned heaps and they’ve learned heaps. It’s just great. Thimble collectors are amazing people and they share enormously.
Collectors Weekly: In England, did they ever make thimbles out of bone or porcelain, or was it mainly silver?
Gowan: Up until 1900, everything was made of metal. They had to be strong and sturdy to use, so if they were making for the everyday market, they would’ve been making them out of brass or steel (iron is too harsh). If they used Sterling, it had to be pure 925 Sterling silver. Anything other than metals was after the 20th century.
You can divide the 19th century into three parts thimble-wise. Up until about 1820, everything was in ivory, beautiful and old. The mother of pearl thimbles came from France. They were called Palais Royal, and to own a thimble made out of that, you needed a very deep pocket. They were also made out of tortoise shell, but we’re talking about the high end, the Rolls Royce of thimbles.
After that, you moved to mother of pearl proper. There are lots of beautiful sewing boxes from the middle of the 19th century, and all the tools have handles of mother of pearl. In the third part of the 19th century, they went to bone. Materials like tortoise shell and mother of pearl became too exotic and too expensive to work with.
Collectors Weekly: What about more recent thimble trends?
Gowan: I think there’s a big divide between thimbles made before and after 1970. That’s when people started to seriously collect thimbles. In the late 1970s, china manufacturers got on the bandwagon and started producing china thimbles. They’re not practical. You can’t use them because if you drop it, it’ll break. It’s for the collectibles market.
The heyday of china thimbles was the 1980s. Every cup manufacturer who made anything out of china started to make thimbles—Royal Worcester, Wedgwood, Spode, Royal Doulton. Then of course Lady Diana married Prince Charles, and I think there were a minimum of 50 different manufacturers all over the world who made thimbles for that occasion. When the Queen turned 80, there were probably three thimbles issued for that. It’s just supply and demand. So these are some of the trends that I’ve seen.
I think Sutherland still makes china thimbles in England today, but there are very few companies now. In this century, they just can’t turn a profit. Initially, they would make 10,000 of a particular china thimble. Now you’re lucky if they make a run of 50. It’s just changing demand.
Collectors Weekly: Some thimbles have little paintings on them, flowers, birds, vases. Were those hand-painted or machine-made?
Gowan: Very rarely hand-painted. They’re transfers put on by machines. Someone has to design them first, and often they would’ve been hand-painted designs, and then from the hand painting it became a transfer. Then those transfers become common property. There are some designs that you’ll see every manufacturer use. They’ll make the basic china thimble and then just apply generic patterns.
Some people will want to try and collect every kind of violet that has ever appeared on a thimble and it doesn’t matter who the manufacturer was. Sometimes someone like Royal Albert will have four or five different patterns because they match their tea services. They’re not going to create these patterns just for thimbles.
So there are people who collect only modern thimbles, and some of them spend hundreds of dollars. That’s definitely a trend. If you were collecting before 1970, there were only the earlier thimbles to collect—plastic, brass, steel, Sterling silver, and then the earlier ivory, mother of pearl, et cetera. Nowadays, most thimble collectors just collect china.
Collectors Weekly: What about sets?
Gowan: Sets are a modern phenomenon. Originally, thimbles were made to be used, but if they could incorporate a beautiful design, they would. It’s a marketing thing. Sets are from the 1980s and onwards. I’ve never collected sets. I don’t want 25 thimbles with just a different flower on each.
The thimble collecting phenomenon that we know today certainly did not exist until recently. There used to be little aluminum advertising thimbles for Ford and General Motors. There were plastic thimbles that said “Vote for Nixon” or “Vote for Gerald Ford.” There were giveaways. For every washing powder or cup of tea in the 1920s, there was a free thimble available. They were very smart because they were targeting the person who bought: the housewife. They would give her a free thimble which she could use. There were millions doing that, and today that’s a huge collecting field.
So thimbles were meant to be used, but they were also made for advertising. Plastic and aluminum were so cheap to produce, so that phenomenon really took off.
In Australia, there are probably 25 brands that appeared on aluminum advertising thimbles. We didn’t make them—they were made in Germany and England, but they were for Australian products. Yours would’ve been the same. You would have had a lot of advertising thimbles in America, but most of them would’ve been made in Germany and Austria.
Collectors Weekly: What are the most collectible, sought-after thimbles?
Gowan: I’ve got several friends who are passionate about their thimbles, and most of them collect hand-painted Royal Worcester thimbles. They started making them in the 1870s, and stopped in 1986, so that’s 100 years worth of thimbles. Sterling silver thimbles are also very collectible.
Collectors Weekly: Do all thimbles come in boxes or was that something special?
Gowan: Most of the modern china or porcelain ones come in boxes. If you want to resell them, keep the boxes.
The Dorcas all came in beautiful little cases. Those are the ones with steel in them. That’s a whole new collecting world. Little cardboard boxes were the norm, but if you look at the bottom of my Royal Albert page, it shows all the modern boxes that we’ve been able to track.
The boxes often weren’t made for a particular thimble, but they were thimble boxes. So if you were buying a present, you could buy a thimble box to put it in. Some people think I’m crazy. I’ve got all these boxes of boxes, but to me if I can pass on a gift that comes in the original packaging, it’s very nice.
Collectors Weekly: What advice do you have for new collectors?
Gowan: You have to follow your interest, for a start. So if you’re a very outdoorsy person, you follow a theme. If you know a lot about trees, there must be 300 different thimbles with a picture of a tree on it, and if you can identify it as an oak tree or bamboo, that can become a very beautiful collection because it’s very specific to you. If you only love things to actually sew with because you do beautiful embroidery, then you’re probably going to be attracted to thimbles that that you can wear. If you are that sort of collector, your choice of thimbles will be guided by the size of your fingers.
It’s really hard. It’s like saying what kind of cake should I buy. It depends on your taste. I don’t think you can ever impose your own preferences on someone else.
Collectors Weekly: How many sizes do thimbles usually come in?
Gowan: A standard English thimble tends to be a size 7 if you’re buying Charles Horner. If you’re buying Henry Griffith, it’s a 16 because he used millimeter sizes on an inside measurement. So there’s no one sizing standard, although each manufacturer will use the same standard. I always tell people to find a plastic thimble that fits them and then they can tell me the size in millimeters. I can find one for them from there.
They even made small silver childrens’ thimbles. I’ve seen them made by Fenton, Charles Horner, Griffith, hallmarked English Sterling silver, 1904, 1907. But what child with a finger that small can sew? The truth is, they can’t. By the time you can sew, your fingers are almost adult sized.
Collectors Weekly: Is there anything else you would like to say about collecting thimbles?
Gowan: You would not become a collector of anything if there is not a collector inside you. There are only two types in the world: you’re either a collector or you’re not. There’s no half collector or half non-collector. We’ve all got our own silly things. Mine happened to be thimbles.
(All images in this article courtesy Sue Gowan of Thimbleselect of Australia).