A few blogs back when I wrote about hand sewing needles, I promised in the future I’d write one about thimbles. I must confess I’ve had a love/hate relationship with thimbles for a long time, and it wasn’t until the last few years I made peace with using one. Now I generally reach for it every time I pick up my hand sewing. This week we’re taking a deep dive into the world of thimbles, their history, how to use one, and how to make sure you have one that fits.
By definition, a thimble is a “small, pitted cup worn on the finger that protects it from being pricked or poked by the eye of a needle while sewing.” The Old English word for thimble is pymel. Pymel is derived from the Old English word puma – meaning “thumb.” And while today we tend to picture using thimbles on the middle finger, they were and are also used on thumbs.
Historically, the earliest thimbles closely followed the invention of what we recognize as “sewing.” Thimbles have been found in England dating back to the 10th century and by the 14th century, they were in widespread use in nearly all households. Most of these early thimbles were made of brass, although Queen Elizabeth I is rumored to have given one of her ladies-in-waiting a thimble inlaid with precious stones. These brass thimbles were either made of cast brass or from hammered sheets. Eventually the mass production of these brass thimbles moved to Nuremburg in the 15th century and then to Holland in the 17th.
But by 1693, John Lofting – a Dutch thimble manufacturer – moved things back to England. He began producing thimbles at Islington in London. His company grew quickly, and he moved his mill to Buckinghamshire to take advantage of water-powered production, eventually making over two million thimbles per year. Without getting into a lot of the manufacturing details, by the end of the 18th century he had changed production methods to produce thinner thimbles with a taller shape. In addition, by this time cheaper sources of silver were available and silver thimbles also became part of his production. These silver thimbles were very popular and sold well. Manufacturing speed also increased when a machine was invented to punch the small dimples in a thimble. Before that, all of those dimples had to be put in by hand. So, if you’re perusing antique shops for thimbles and you find one with irregular dimple patterns, chances are it was made before the 18th century.
Thimbles weren’t manufactured in America until the 1830’s. Ketcham and McDougall of New York were the first mass producer followed in 1839 by Simon Brothers in Philadelphia – who, by the way, are still making thimbles. However, a gold thimble, circa 1850, is attributed to Paul Revere, Jr. It has engraved script initials LD with a wrought domed top and it sold for a whopping $10,000.00 in 2014.
While brass was the choice for mass thimble manufacturing, thimbles were and are made of other substances: metal, leather, rubber, wood, glass, and china. Those thimbles pre-dating mass production were made of whole bone, horn, ivory, Connemara marble, bog oak, and mother of pearl. Occasionally they were adorned with diamonds, sapphires, or rubies. Today, in addition to precious and semi-precious stones, thimbles are sometimes topped with cinnabar, agate, moonstone, or amber. They’re enameled or may even use the Guilloche’ techniques advanced by Peter Carl Faberge’.
Yes, thimbles have come a long, long way since their humble beginnings. And while at the end of this blog we will discuss collecting them and some other esoteric (but fascinating facts) about them, what I want to focus on is the here and now – what most utility thimbles are made of, how to use one, and most importantly how to make sure you have one that fits correctly.
Chances are if you have either purchased or been given a beginner’s sewing or quilting kit or have looked at thimbles in the notions aisle of a store, this is what usually comes to mind:
A very generic, one-size-fits-all, silver-colored thimble. And I think the trouble begins here, because most folks assume this is the only thimble out there. If it doesn’t work, then it must be something wrong with them, not the thimble. This is how I felt for years. No matter how many of those silver thimbles I purchased, none of them worked for me. They didn’t feel right and were awkward to use. I asked my fellow quilters what kind of thimble they used, and learned today’s thimbles are made from leather, silver, gold, plastic, silicon, and pewter. Determined to find something that worked, I dropped those metal thimbles into a drawer and began my quest to find the perfect thimble.
After months of research and a handful of thimbles, I still found nothing which worked for me. While my quilting buddies were hand sewing up a storm with their thimbles, I wasn’t. It was only when I discovered thimbles came in different sizes and it had to fit correctly that I found the perfect one for me.
Thimbles work like rings — a fact not a lot of beginner sewing enthusiasts realize. Most of us think the generic one-size-fits-all silver thimble is the only one available. A thimble should fit comfortably on your finger, be snug enough it doesn’t fall off, but not so tight if feels as if it’s cutting off the circulation. You should be able to put your thimble on your middle finger, then hang your hand down by your side and it does not fall off. So, let’s talk about how to determine what size thimble you need.
If you’re purchasing a thimble made in the United States, all you need is the ring size for your middle finger. American-made thimbles use ring sizes for their measurement. This makes it pretty easy if you’re purchasing a custom-made thimble. For instance, if your ring size is seven, then you order a size seven thimble. Thimbles sold in fabric stores, on-line, or big box stores often are simply labeled small, medium, and large. These are harder to determine, because like clothing, some brands run small and some run big. Read the package to see if there is any information indicating what ring size falls into these categories. If your purchasing a thimble from another country, quite often these establishments will convert your US ring size into millimeters. You also may notice that you wear two different sizes of thimbles – if your hands tend to swell at certain times (such as in the hot summer months), you may need a larger one for a while and then when the swelling goes down (like in the winter), you need a smaller one.
If you still have a hard time finding a thimble that fits, there are a couple different thimble constructions to keep in mind. First, there are leather thimbles which fit over your middle finger.
These work great, and I’ve used one in all but the hottest of weather, when it just gets too uncomfortable temperature-wise. There are also adjustable thimbles:
You can push the bendable rings to form-fit your finger.
And there are also these:
Which are called Thimble-It or Thimble Pads. These are small, plastic disks which have adhesive on one side, so you can press it onto the area of your middle finger which receives the most abuse from the eye-end of your needle. I love these things, and they can be used several times before the adhesive loses all its stickiness.
For those of us who have long fingernails, especially the kind you buy at a nail salon, it’s even more difficult to find a thimble we can use. I finally discovered open-topped thimbles. These are my two cherished, silver, open-topped thimbles custom made for my right hand:
My SNS nail can slide right through the opening. Tailor’s thimbles are also an option:
There is no top on these, and they fit snuggly over your fingertip, down to the first knuckle. Please note that a thimble which stops at the first knuckle is a long thimble. Personally, I like the extra length. If you decide to custom order a thimble, you can request it be made long enough to reach your first finger joint. The biggest difference between in using a tailor’s thimble and a “regular” thimble is remembering to push the needle with the side of your finger and not the fingertip.
Once you find one which works for you and fits well, it’s important to know how to sew with it. And if you’ve hand sewn for a while without a thimble, it’ll really feel like you’ve slowed down to a snail’s pace until you get used to the process. But in the long run, you’ll catch your rhythm and actually sew faster with a thimble than without it. Keep in mind the thimble is there to allow you to use more of your hand while sewing – instead of pinching the needle between your finger and thumb and then pushing the needle through the fabric, the thimble takes the brunt of the work and allows the hand to relax so you can actually sew longer with a thimble than without it.
To begin, I want you think about two things – how you hold a pencil and relaxing your fingers. First, you hold the sewing needle between your thumb and index finger and allow the eye of the needle to rest in one of the dimples of your thimble. The position of your hand should be the same as it is when you’re holding a pencil. It will be slightly different because you’re holding a needle between your index finger and thumb, but the position of the middle finger should be the same as it is when you’re holding a pen or pencil.
Another perhaps-new idea to consider at this point is how to hold your work. Hand sewing in general works better if you keep your project flat on a table. Most of us (me included) tend to hand sew with our work in our laps. If you can position it on a flat surface, not only does this make working with a thimble easier, it also makes the entire process so much faster and you don’t manhandle your work so much.
The type of stitch you take is also important. Newbies want to take what I call a “stab stitch” — you poke the needle in from the top, pull it out through the bottom, then insert it from the wrong side of the work back to the top. This will result in uneven, unstable stitches. A fine, running stitch works wonderful for hand piecing – just don’t make your stitches too big. Give yourself time to get used to the process, but once you find a thimble which fits, and you get comfortable using it, the thimble will become one of your most cherished sewing tools.
Lastly, I promised some fun facts about thimbles. Some of these made me giggle and others are just fascinating.
- Nearly 30 lots of Meissen porcelain thimbles were purchased for $189,813 on May 14, 2014. A single Meissen thimble dated circa 1730 with a landscape scene sold for $20,000.
- The precursor to the thimble dates back nearly 10,000 years.
- French and English thimbles have size markings on the band of a thimble. German thimbles have markings on the second row of indentions (knurlings) on the side of the band. American and Norwegian thimbles have their sizes on the side of the band and sometime the cap. Thimbles made in England and America during the 19th century have a domed cap, and thimbles made in the 20th century have a flat cap.
- Thimbles have served as advertising vehicles for lots of businesses and presidential campaigns — up to and including Jimmy Carter’s Presidential run. This custom began in the 1920’s.
- There is a museum in Creglingen, Germany devoted entirely to thimbles. The Fingerhut Thimble Museum opened in 1982 with 800 exhibits. Today it has over 4,000 thimbles from all over the world.
- A hand-forged brass thimble said to have belonged to Abraham Lincoln’s mother sold for $3,500 in 2008.
- The official term for a thimble collector is digitabulist.
- In the game Monopoly, first created in 1904, the thimble was one of the eight traditional metal game pieces. However this piece was replaced with newer versions of the game beginning in 2017 (boo….hiss….).
- Thimbles are given as gifts in Peter Pan, who thinks thimbles are kisses.
- In the 1992 version of Batman, Michelle Pfeiffer (who played Catwoman) used thimbles to create the base of her claw.
- The popular TV show and comic strip Popeye was originally called Thimble Theatre Starring Popeye.
- The character Elizabeth in the video game BioShock Infinite uses a thimble to cover her severed little finger.
- Video montages and series of clips are often called “thimble collections.”
- In the 2000 movie Chicken Run, Nick and Fletcher attempted to sell a couple of thimbles to Ginger as a “quality, hand crafted tea set.”
- During the World War I, silver thimbles were collected from “those who had nothing to give” by the British government and melted down to buy hospital equipment.
- An old superstition says that if you are given three thimbles, you will never be married.
- In the 18th and 19th centuries, leaving a sandalwood thimble in a fabric store was common practice for keeping moths away.
- Thimbles were used to measure alcohol and gunpower, which brought about the phrase “just a thimbleful.”
- Prostitutes used thimble-knocking as a means of attracting customers — they would tap on a window to announce their presence.
- Thimble-knocking also refers to the practice of Victorian schoolmistresses tapping on the heads of unruly students with thimbles.
- One of the first collectible thimbles was manufactured to commemorate the Great Exhibition held in the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, London.
Okay, now armed with more than just a thimbleful of knowledge, go find yourself a thimble which works for you. And hey, if you’d rather wear that thimble on your index finger instead of your middle finger, go right ahead. For some hand sewers, this works best for them. A thimble is a wonderful tool which not only protects your fingertip, but also speeds up your work and makes hand piecing so much easier and accurate. Thimbles, as a whole, are not expensive. Give yourself permission to try several before deciding which one works best for you.
Until Next Week, Level Up Your Quilting,
Love and Stitches,
Sherri and Sam