What is the thimble’s history? You may have seen your grandma or your great grandma wear something on her finger as she was sewing. So you ask, “what’s that on your finger, grandma?” Grandma replied,” it’s a thimble”. Curious still you ask, “what’s a thimble?”
A thimble is a small metal cup with pits, its worn to protect the finger when pushing a needle through fabric while sewing. Who likes to be pricked with a needle? For the most part a closed top thimble was something only dressmakers used, tailors on the other hand used a thimble that had an open top. It allowed the tailor to work with the material with ease. They also had finger guards that had an open side and a top with a ring to hold it in place.
If you look up the word thimble, you’ll find comes from the Old English word pӯmel, which comes from its ancestor for the word thumb, pūma. The history of the thimble is very interesting.
The first thimble ever known dates back to the Han Dynasty in ancient China, which looked like a simple ring, it was discovered during the Cultural Revolution of PRC, (People’s Republic of China) in a lesser tomb in Jiangling.
It does seem as though the Greeks and the Romans didn’t use metal thimbles. They may have used a cloth or leather finger guard which may have worked effectively enough for them. Although, they do have what the call Roman thimbles in museum collections, but the exact origin of these metal thimbles was uncertain and have since been take from the display.
There isn’t any known archeological document that can link the metal thimble to the Romans. It has been shown that the thimbles were widely used throughout England during the 10th century and on through the 14th century.
Most of the thimbles made were cast from brass, starting in Nuremberg in the 15th century and moving on to the 17th century in Holland, though there are some cases were precious metals were used as well. It is said somewhere that Queen Elizabeth the 1st, gave a lady-in-waiting a thimble that may have been set with precious stones.
There’s also evidence that thimbles were also made from rubber, wood, glass, china or leather. And earlier may have even have been made from horn, ivory or whale bone. What about Connemara marble? Or mother of pearl or bog oak? Or even rarer, sapphires, rubies or even diamonds?
It seems the sources of making thimbles were pretty limitless. Who know something that was made to protect the finger while sewing could be made from so many different materials! It’s very interesting to see what how this little thumb protector came about, what they looked like before today’s version.
Early thimbles had a pronounced dome on top and were thick, unlike today’s where they are thinner and have a flatter top.
Thimbles were originally designed to aid in sewing, pushing the needle through whatever material that needed sewn. However, the use of the thimble has gained quite a few more jobs to perform. Starting in the 16th century, ladies were given silver thimbles as an ideal gift.
Porcelain thimbles, decorated with gold bands, from the early Meissen’s, were considered elaborate and were given as “keepsakes”, these were never used for sewing. This is a tradition that has been used for centuries and is still a tradition used in this generation.
19th century thimbles were first made of silver, however, silver was considered too soft a metal that sometimes got punctured with the needle. Ouch! Can’t have that, can we? The problem was then solved by Charles Horner, he created the thimble with a more steel core on the inside with silver on the outside. (Smart man!) It then could retain its aesthetics and was durable and practical. They were named Dorcas thimbles and are a very popular thimble collector’s item.
Another popular, and considered valuable, with the thimble collectors are thimbles made from whale bone or tooth with tiny scrimshaw designs as these are rare.
Then, when the First World War started, hospitals needed to buy equipment, so, the thimble found a different job, silver thimbles were collected by those who had nothing else to give, thimbles were melted down and used for money, by the British government.
Later on in the 1930’s to the 1940’s, the glass topped thimbles were used for advertising. If you had a thimble made of sandalwood, put it in with whatever fabric was being stored or even in your clothes, to keep the moths away.