A thimble is a protective covering worn over finger tips generally during sewing.
The first thimbles date back to about 30,000 years ago that were used when mammoth hunters sewed pearls onto pieces of leather. A Dutch metal worker made the first thimble as we know today in England around the year 1695. At the time, it was called a ” thumb-bell,” because it was worn on the thumb and shaped like a bell.
Thimbles are usually made from metal, leather, rubber, wood, glass, or china. Early thimbles were sometimes made from whale bone, horn, or ivory. It was common a few hundred years ago for thimble-makers to enhance thimbles with semi-precious stones and decorate the outer rim.
Originally, thimbles were used solely for protecting the finger as it pushed a needle through fabric or leather. They have since gained other uses and mythologies. According to PioneerThinking.com, in the 1800s, thimbles were used to measure spirits (hence the phrase “just a thimbleful”). Women of the night used them to tap on a window or door to announce their presence. Thimble-knocking also refers to the practice of Victorian schoolmistresses who would tap on the heads of unruly pupils with thimbles. Thimbles have also been used as love-tokens and to commemorate important events. A miniature thimble is even one of the tokens in the game of Monopoly!
After the 18th century, machines were invented to produce thimbles. Because they were no longer made by hand, the shape and the thickness of the metal changed. Early thimbles tend to be quite thick and to have a pronounced dome on the top. Later thimbles are thinner and have a flatter top.
In the 19th century many thimbles were made from silver. But because silver is such a soft metal, it was easily pierced by a steel needle. People still wanted beautiful, elegant thimbles, so Charles Horner solved the problem by using a steel core that was coated in silver. He called his thimble the Dorcas, which has now become a collector’s item.
Other valuable collectables include early American thimbles made of whale bone or tooth featuring miniature scrimshaw designs. You can find many of these rare items in museums.
During the First World War, silver thimbles were taken from the bodies of fallen soldiers and melted down to buy hospital equipment.
Thimbles today are mostly made of rubber or metal and are used to protect sewers from sharp needles and tweezers.
People who collect thimbles are known as digitabulists. If you would like to learn more about digitabulists and thimble collecting, “Thimble Pleasures: An Interview With Sewing Collector Sue Gowan” is a great article.
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