|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.|
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
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.