Thimbles

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Thimble

This article explores the evolution of thimbles beginning with the Etruscans and proceeding to modern times.  It discusses the changes to thimble materials and manufacturing processes.  It describes the origins of thimbles as a manufactured collectible and the state of thimble collecting today. 

Thimbles

A thimble is a cap that fits over the finger to protect it when pushing a needle during sewing.  The word, derived from Middle English, literally means “thumb shield.”  

The thimble has a long history. The oldest existing thimble is Roman, found in the ruins of Pompeii.  It is bronze.  However, the Etruscans, who pre-date the Romans, are known to have made bronze thimbles. Primitive thimbles of bone and leather probably also existed because thimbles have been used by every known culture. These thimbles did not survive the centuries. 

Through the years, thimbles have evolved in a number of ways.  Both the materials used and the means of production have changed.  Thimbles have gained new uses and become primarily decorative and collectible rather than merely practical. 

Early thimbles had to be sturdy because homespun fabric was coarse and needles were rough and unfinished.  It was difficult to push the thread through the fabric so a strong, thick bronze or iron thimble, called a “skep,” was required to prevent injury. Each thimble was shaped individually by pounding metal into a mold.  The dimples in these early thimbles were applied by hand and are uneven. These primitive, shallow thimbles were dome shaped and had no rim. Some had a hole in the top to stabilize them during the casting process. It was hard to keep them on the finger and the metal bled and colored the sewer’s hand.  

By the 15th century, fabric became more finely woven and needlework became more refined. Thimbles became thinner.  These thimbles were usually made of brass and imported from Nuremberg, a brass-making center. Simultaneously, new methods of producing thimbles were introduced. Thimbles were made from sheet metal.  The new thimbles also contained decorative motifs. The cap was separate and attached to the cylinder later. These new thimbles were taller and the top was flatter.  

Another type of thimble called a ”sewing ring” or tailors’ thimble was also produced during this time.  It was a shallow thimble with no top. This type of thimble is used when the needle is pushed through the fabric with the side of the finger rather than the tip. 

Also during this period, the lowly, utilitarian thimble began to dress up in jewels and precious metals and lead a secret life as a gift item. Wealthy women did needlework together, so it was natural for Elizabeth I to commission a jewel encrusted thimble as a gift.  

During the 16th and 17th century Holland became the new seat of thimble production.  However, in the late 17th century, John Lofting moved thimble production to Islington, England where the brass-working industry was already established. He began to produce thimbles in a scale unheard of before.  Later, he moved his factory to Great Marlow, and used water power to double production. By the early 18th century, he was producing 2 million thimbles annually.  But he too succumbed to progress and thimble making moved to Birmingham, England by 1800. 

The composition of brass also improved during this period. A new formula made it more malleable and suitable for a different manufacturing process called “deep drawing” that used less metal.  This lowered the cost. 

In the 16th century, manufacturers began to produce thimbles in silver and other precious metals. Because a silver thimble is softer than the needle it is meant to push, the cap had to be reinforced with iron.  This highly collectible type of thimble is called a “Dorcas.” 

Thimbles were also made of porcelain by companies such as  Spode and Wedgewood.  Although considered more decorative than durable, they were used to sew on silk.

 

The dawn of the Victorian era marked the start of thimble collecting. Roads had improved and people began to tour.  The Great Exhibition, a kind of world’s fair, was held in Hyde Park, London and attracted large crowds.  A commemorative thimble was issued to mark the event.  The concept of commemorative thimbles caught on with collectors. It was also at this time that advertising thimbles became popular. 

In Victorian times, a silver thimble was regarded as a highly appropriate gift especially for a man to give a woman.  Victoria women carried a chain-like device called a chatelaine, to which sewing items such as small scissors and a needle case could be attached. Thimbles were enclosed in a decorative thimble case that could be attached to this device as well. Sometimes the couple would remove the cap from a thimble so it could be used as a ring.  

We are all aware that sewing is the primary use of the thimble. But did you know that a slightly larger thimble, usually two ounces, was used to measure spirits? And did you know that 19th century prostitutes used them to tap on their clients’ windows and Victorian schoolmistresses used them to knock recalcitrant students on the head? 

Today, thimbles are still used in quilting, French hand sewing and other types of decorative needlework. As hand sewing has become less common, the practical use of thimbles has declined.  Although they have become largely decorative, collectors’ interest in modern thimbles has not waned. Thimbles originally created in silver are being reproduced in pewter thanks to new processes, developed in the 1950’s that allow more detailed design.  New series of thimbles are being issued to commemorate everything from football teams to Disney characters. Every tourist destination offers souvenir thimbles to tourists.  Many probably don’t even know how to use them.  

Thimble collecting is an extremely popular hobby worldwide.  Many thimbles are reasonably priced and readily available. Men, women and children collect them. Some collectors are interested in the history of thimbles while others collect them for their decorative value.  Collectors’ clubs have sprung up locally. The internet now connects collectors all over the world. Collectors’ societies have their own web pages.  Collecting has also spawned a booming cottage industry in display racks, cabinets and domes.  

The lowly thimble has become a star.  Some admire its humble origins and some its newfound incarnations. It is one of the most versatile and practical tools ever invented, born of necessity.