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A thimble
Der Fingerhueter (Thimblemakers) from Das Ständebuch by Jost Amman, 1568

A thimble is a protective shield worn on the finger or thumb. It is generally used for sewing.

The earliest known thimble was Roman and was found at Pompeii. Made of bronze, its creation has been dated to the first century AD. A second Roman thimble was found at Verulamium, present day St Albans, in the UK and can be viewed in the museum there.

The first thimble ever seen in England was made in 1695 by a Dutch metal worker named Lofting, who "by hand fashioned thimbles of brass, iron, and steel, with indentions in their surface to prevent the needle from slipping." The usefulness of such a device became immediately apparent to many people who often used needles. At the time, the implement was called the "thumb-bell"; it was to be worn on the thumb, and its shape was similar to that of a bell. Thimbles nowadays are commonly worn on a finger rather than the thumb, but the name thimble still remains as a softened form of the original.

Thimbles are usually made from metal, leather, rubber, and wood, and even glass or china. Early thimbles were sometimes made from whale bone, horn, or ivory. Natural sources were also utilized such as Connemara marble, bog oak, or mother of pearl. Rarer works from thimble makers utilized diamonds, sapphires, or rubies.

Advanced thimblemakers enhanced thimbles with semi-precious stones to decorating the apex or along the outer rim. Cabochon adornments are sometimes made of cinnabar, agate, moonstone, or amber. Thimble artists would also utilize enameling, or the Guilloché techniques advanced by Peter Carl Fabergé.

Originally, thimbles were used solely for pushing a needle through fabric or leather as it was being sewn. Since then, however, they have gained many other uses. In the 1800s they were used to measure spirits, which brought rise to the phrase "just a thimbleful". Prostitutes used them in the practice of thimble-knocking where they would tap on a window to announce their presence. Thimble-knocking also refers to the practice of Victorian schoolmistresses who would tap on the heads of unruly pupils with dames thimbles.

Before the 18th century the small dimples on the outside of a thimble were made by hand punching, but in the middle of that century, a machine was invented to do the job. If one finds a thimble with an irregular pattern of dimples, it was likely made before the 1850s. Another consequence of the mechanization of thimble production is that 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. The metal on later ones is thinner and the top is flatter.

Collecting thimbles became popular in the UK when many companies made special thimbles to commemorate the Great Exhibition held in the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, London.

In the 19th century, many thimbles were made from silver; however, it was found that silver is too soft a metal and can be easily punctured by most needles. Charles Horner solved the problem by creating thimbles consisting of a steel core covered inside and out by silver, so that they retained their aesthetics but were now more practical and durable. He called his thimble the Dorcas, and these are now popular with collectors. There is a small display of his work in Bankfield Museum, Halifax, England.

Early American thimbles made of whale bone or tooth featuring miniature scrimshaw designs are considered valuable collectibles. Such rare thimbles are prominently featured in a number of New England Whaling Museums.

During the First World War, silver thimbles were collected from "those who had nothing to give" by the British government and melted down to buy hospital equipment. In the 1930s and 40s red-topped thimbles were used for advertising. Leaving a sandalwood thimble in a fabric store was a common practice for keeping moths away. Thimbles have also been used as love-tokens and to commemorate important events. A miniature thimble is one of the tokens in the game of Monopoly. People who collect thimbles are known as digitabulists.

Known thimble makers

Most of these thimble makers are no longer in existence.

  • Avon Fashion Thimbles
  • Wicks (Inventor USA)
  • A Feaù (French)
  • Charles Horner (UK) (1837 - 1896)
  • Charles Iles (UK)
  • Gabler Bros (German)
  • Henry Griffith (USA)
  • James Fenton (UK)
  • James Swann (UK)
  • Ketcham & McDougall (USA) (Out of Business 1988)
  • Meissen (German)
  • P Lenain (French)

[1]* [Simons Bros Co (USA)]

  • Stern Bros & Co (USA)
  • Waite-Thresher (USA)
  • Webster (USA)


Around the American Civil War in the 1860s, the thimble was one of the first conceived casings for bullets, rather than a lead musket ball or shell.

Corning Glass Works in New York developed a prototype thimble during the Second World War due to the shortage of metal needed for defense purposes. The thimbles were made of light blue and clear Pyrex, but were never sold commercially.

On December 3, 1979, a London dealer bid the sum of $18,000 USD for a dentil shaped Meissen porcelain thimble, circa 1740, at Christie's auction in Geneva, Switzerland. The thimble, just over a half inch high, was painted in a rare lemon-yellow color about the band. It also had tiny harbor scene hand painted within gold-trimmed cartouches. The rim was scalloped with fired gold on its bottom edge. The thimble now belongs to a meissen collector in Canada who wanted it for its lemon-yellow color.

During November 1994, Sirthey's saleroom yielded a one of a kind Meissen thimble bearing an armorial coat of arms at the massive price of GBP 26,000.

On 13 June 1995, Sotheby's sold a Meissen thimble adorned with two pugs for GBP 10,350.

See also

1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

THIMBLE, an implement for use in sewing, serving as a protective covering for the finger in pushing the needle through the material worked upon. For ordinary purposes the thimble is a bell-shaped cap reaching to the first joint and is usually worn on the middle finger. It is made of silver or other metal, sometimes of horn, ivory or bone. The sail-maker's thimble or "thummel" is a heavy ring, worn on the thumb, with a disc attached which is the part used to press against the needle. The O.E. thymel, from which the word descends, is formed, with the ,suffix -el, from Hama, the thumb, the protective covering having been formerly worn on that digit. The thumb by etymology means the "thick" finger, and is to be referred to the root tum, to swell up, become thick, seen in Lat. tumere, " tumid," &c. The term "thimble" is used of many mechanical appliances, especially of various forms of sleeve, bushing or joining for the ends of pipes, or shaftings, or as covering for an axle, &c. In nautical usage the "thimble" is a metal ring concave on the outside in which a rope runs; it is a protection against chafing.

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