Thimbles – Small in size but versatile and immensely useful

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Milica Sterjova
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The thimble, the small protective cup that is used to protect the finger when sewing, has been around for ages. The word thimble comes from the medieval English word thymel or thuma meaning thumb. It is believed that the oldest ones date from about 30,000 years ago when mammoth hunters sewed pearls onto leather garments. These were made from mammoth bone or stone. Throughout history thimbles have been made from a variety of materials including animal bones, leather, stone, ceramic, metal, ivory or even glass.

Early thimbles were discovered in Pompeii, dated to the 1st century BC and made of bronze. A thimble in the form of a ring was discovered in China during the Cultural Revolution, dating back to the Han Dynasty (206BC-220AD). Early thimble production centers in Europe were places known for brass-working such as Nürnberg, Germany, in the 15th century. After Nürnberg’s decline in the 17th century, Holland became the main thimble production center.

Thimbles have changed through the years along with the fabrics and needles used in sewing. The earliest models were made by hammering bronze or iron into a mold and they had thicker walls in order to resist when working with rough materials. While the early thimbles had a characteristic dome on the top, the later versions had a flat top. The dimples on the thimbles were handmade and uneven up until the 19th century when a machine was invented to punch the dimples using a regular pattern.

Der Fingerhüter (Thimblemaker) from Das Ständebuch by Jost Amman, 1568.

Medieval thimbles were usually sand-casted, many of them having a small hole on the top in order to facilitate the process. A very small number of them were decorated. The nickname acorn-tops or skeps was due to their shape of a shallow cup. Sand-casting was predominantly used until the 16th century when Nürnberg metal smiths discovered a new technique to refine zinc from calamite.

14th century Nurnberg thimble. Author: Llangefni. CC BY-SA 3.0

This was rolled into sheet metal which would be easier to hammer into the shape of a thimble. From the 16th to the 18th century, Nürnberg thimbles had a distinctive shape. They were longer, with dimples that started at the top of the band and continued to the top. This is when the flat top was introduced. The distinctive style of longer thimbles gave the opportunity for decoration applied to the band.

Deep drawn Nürnberg thimble. 16th century. Author: Llangefni. CC BY-SA 3.0

The new Nürnberg technique wasn’t used in other countries across Europe until the beginning of the 18th century. During the next two centuries the deep-drawn method was adopted by all major thimble manufacturers in Europe.

17th century English silver thimble. Author: Llangefni. CC BY-SA 3.0

British thimble production expanded when in 1693 a Dutch metal worker called John Lofting established his manufactory in London. The first thimbles produced by Lofting were called “thumb-bells” because of their shape. The shape was changed in later production but their name remained. Lofting moved his workshop to Buckinghamshire after a while because he could use water for powering the production which allowed him to be able to produce more than two million pieces per year.

18th-century French gold thimble. Author: Llangefni. CC BY-SA 3.0

Thimbles were also produced in silver and other precious metals beginning with the 16th century. The problem with silver was that it was too soft and the thimble could be easily punctured by the needle. An English jeweler called Charles Horner solved this problem in the 19th century by introducing steel thimbles, called Dorcas, covered with silver inside and out.

Palais Royal, French, mother of pearl thimble. Author: Llangefni. CC BY-SA 3.0

 This allowed them to keep the aesthetic appearance while doing the task they were created for – protecting the finger from the needle.

Dorcas thimble. Author: Llangefni. CC BY-SA 3.0

Although initially used for protection, through the centuries thimbles found many other uses. In the early 19th century they were used for measuring spirits or gun powder, hence the expression “just a thimbleful”. Women of the night would use them to announce their presence by tapping on a window or a door. Disobedient students would be tapped on their heads by their schoolmistresses and this practice was called thimble-knocking.

Silver thimble commemorating the ‘Great Exhibition’ in 1851. Author: Llangefni. CC BY-SA 3.0

Collecting thimbles became popular in the United Kingdom after the 1851 Great Exhibition held in London, when a significant number of companies made exclusive thimbles to commemorate the event.

Meissen ‘keepsake’ thimble. 18th century. Author: Llangefni. CC BY-SA 3.0

During World War I, the British government would collect silver thimbles from people who had nothing else to give, and melt them in order to buy hospital equipment.

20th century Norwegian enamel (basse-taille). Author: Llangefni. CC BY-SA 3.0

Meissen porcelain thimbles, decorated with gold and unsuitable for sewing, are known to be very expensive. In 1979 at an auction held in Geneva, a sum of $18,000 was bid for one such small item. Another auction offered a king thimble bearing an armorial coat of arms, which was sold for an amazing price of $34,000.