Birchcroft China

A Brief History of Thimble-Making

Birchcroft China, which makes collectors' thimbles in Longton, Stoke-on-Trent, has the distinction of having two of Britain's listed bottle ovens on site. Few of these ovens remain, but of the Six Towns comprising Stoke-on-Trent Longton has the largest number and the finest. Thousands of pounds have been spent on renovation, and visitors can now step inside the cavernous relics, many of which have been adapted as museums and showrooms.

The days of using ovens - which took an age to fire - in production have long gone. At Birchcroft they have been replaced by much smaller and more economic quick-fire kilns using off-peak power and very precise automated systems. But the actual process of making the company's fine bone china thimbles differs little from when the great Josiah Spode introduced porcelain at the beginning of the 19th century.

"Although some mechanisation has been forthcoming, the pottery industry as a whole seems not to have noticeably changed," says Keith Forbes who manages the production side of the famlily-run business. "The thimbles we produce are made by a process known as slip casting, which does not involve mechanisation at all as every stage is carried out by hand.

Clay arrives at the factory in slab form, known as cake clay. It is then made into liquid clay or slip by way of a blunger - a large mixer where the clay is broken down and - with the addition of water and silica - made up into specific recipes. This is an important stage in the production process, as the attained density or pint weight is very much a matter of individual mixing.

At the casting benches the slip is poured into moulds made from plaster of Paris which form the basic thimble shape. At Birchcroft the moulds produce six thimbles at a time, the caster seemingly having an infinite number of them at his disposal. Being absorbent, the plaster soaks up the liquid clay and allows a shell to form, which the caster leaves in the mould until dry, the surplus liquid clay having been poured back into a slip bucket. The thickness of the thimbles is controlled by the length of time the slip is left in the mould - the shorter the period - the finer the finished thimble will be.

When the thimbles have been removed from the moulds, they are in what is known as a "green" state. Although a recognisable shape, they are fragile, larger than the finished product and rough around the edges. Spongers, as the name suggests, wipe them smooth for their first firing.

Any rejects at this stage can be reconstituted into slip and reused for casting. The thimbles are placed by the spongers onto batts incorporating specially made formers to retain the product's shape during firing and they are carefully placed in kilns for the biscuit firing.

Fired at temperatures in excess of 1200°C for about eight hours, a biscuit thimble is strong white, translucent, but still rough to the touch. It has to be dipped in glaze, have any surplus solution removed from its foot to prevent it sticking in the kiln, and then be placed in a glost kiln for a second firing. The finished thimble is a white glazed blank which can be gilded and transfer-printed, the kiln having been placed and fired on four separate occasions in order to produce this tiny artifact, the humble thimble.

"Thimbles have been in continuous use throughout the world since well before the birth of Christ," says Tony Forbes, head of the Birchcroft business. 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 Lime 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.

Over a century later, Birchcroft have targeted tourist meccas throughout the world in much the same way, from the Tower of London and the Kennedy Space Centre to the Sydney Opera House, as well as developing an impressive collectors' market. The firm uses several freelance artists to produce new designs, printing is done in-house, and all the production stages for an original set of thimbles can be handled from start to finish under one roof. Compact and flexible, the company has a reputation for being able to manufacture thimbles bearing any transfer-printed design quickly and in relatively small runs.

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

Today Birchcroft make a million thimbles a year, exporting them all over the world.