The enduring treasure of Pandora's box

Needlework cases, the standby of Victorian ladies, have soared in value. Wyn Carr reports
A century or more ago, they might have been given to young women as engagement or wedding presents. Today, sewing boxes with their needlework fittings can be worth thous- ands of pounds at auction.

The growing collectability of such ephemera led Christie's of South Kensington, the auction house, to create a new sale category earlier this summer entirely devoted to thimbles and needlework tools and to include it as a regular event in their calendar.

Christie's decision was vindicated by a bid of pounds 5,520 recently achieved for an early-19th-century fitted sewing casket, originally estimated to fetch pounds 2-3,000.

The red Morocco-bound box included not only a full set of sewing tools but also portrait miniatures of the German girl who owned the workbox and the fiance who gave it to her as an engagement present, plus a love poem painted on to a silk ribbon, a once treasured token from the young fiance, which must have helped the sale price.

In the same sale, a Piercy's Patent silver-topped tortoiseshell thimble decorated with a gold coat of arms, estimated at pounds 6-800, went for pounds 2,415, and an Art Nouveau chatelaine belt clip hung with a needlecase, retractable pencil, scissors, thimble holder and a whistle, which was expected to fetch up to pounds 300, soared to pounds 920.

Pin cushions, sewing clamps, wool winders, spool holders and novelty tape measures in a range of forms - from a brass pig to a coffee grinder - were included in the sale.

The rise in value of workboxes and their tools has been meteoric. Until the Eighties it was still possible to buy an empty Victorian workbox for pounds 20 and fit it out over time with all the tools it needed. Ivory and mother- of-pearl reel holders, old silver thimbles, needlecases and embroidery scissors with elaborately chased handles could be found on the oddment trays in antiques shops.

However, though prices have risen considerably, gradually fitting out a box is still a satisfying way to start a collection. A late Victorian box containing a modest range of tools is likely to fetch pounds 450 upwards at auction.

Today the silver items are more likely to be found in a specialist sale, or included in the auction houses' regular sales of objets de vertu.

Thimble hunting can mean competing with specialist collectors, who may be members of one of the number of thimble collecting clubs here, in the US and on the Continent.

They are the buyers who will snap up the antique gold, silver, enamelled, jewelled and commemorative examples and the graduated sets of tiny thimbles made for children, three or four nestling inside one another, the smallest one made for a five-year-old just learning to sew.

But a Victorian thimble for adding to a box rather than to a collection can still be bought for less than pounds 20 from the enormous range of silver, brass and porcelain ones which are to be found.

Thimble cases were made from a wide variety of materials: glass, metal, horn, bone, vegetable ivory, tortoiseshell, beadwork and polished wood which was often decorated with a print of a holiday resort, a castle or a cathedral.

Intricately carved or made in a wide range of shapes from the popular acorn to barrels, baskets, shells and animal heads, they were often sold as holiday souvenirs, but are not as easy to find as thimbles. Nor are needlecases, which at the turn of the last century were also made in fanciful shapes such as peapods, church spires, parasols and quivers of arrows.

Until the beginning of the l9th century tape-measures had to be handmade, the inches being carefully inked on to a length of ribbon which was wound on to a spindle and kept in a little box made of carved ivory or wood.

Silk thread was wound on to discs of ivory wood or mother-of-pearl. Matching reel holders joined by a metal or ivory pin, or small barrels with handles or disc tops for winding out the thread, held bobbins of cotton. Cakes of beeswax used for strengthening and smoothing thread were kept in tiny decorative boxes.

Even the average workbox was a Pandora's chest of ornamental trifles. There were marble eggs for cooling the hands, steel or ivory stilettos for eyelet embroidery, crochet hooks, tatting shuttles and needlework clamps shaped like birds or fishes.

`Antique Needlework Tools and Embroideries' by Nerylla Taunton will soon be published by the Antique Collectors Club at pounds 25. Christie's of South Kensington will be holding needlework sales on 22 October and 3 December.