Thimbles Part 1

A thimble. Such a simple, useful, and un-amazing item in today’s world. But to anyone who does a lot of hand sewing, including embroidery, it can be a very important tool. There is nothing like shoving the eye end of a needle into your finger to remind you that you really should be using a thimble.

But how long have thimbles been in use? And did they always look like they do today?

Well, I would love to give you a simple answer to that first question, but the experts don’t seem to be able to agree on exactly how long thimbles have been in use. Part of the problem is that to accurately date a small item like a thimble, it really needs to be excavated from an undisturbed archaeological site. A significant percentage of the thimbles that are found are “occasional finds” – that means that they just show up on the surface or in a search with a metal detector.  Add to that the fact that small bits of non-precious metal would not have been valued or studied by most early archaeologists, and we find ourselves with a lack of data. Later excavations have noted the presence of needles in graves, and we are seeing more and more interest, modernly in “domestic artifacts”. And that brings up another major issue. We don’t need thimbles unless we have needles.

We know that needles, originally made of bone, date back at least to the time of the Denisovians (about 50,000 BC). Needles are a major breakthrough in the pre-human and human ability to produced clothing. By about 7,000 BC we see the development of copper needles in Armenia. And somewhere around 2,500 years ago bronze needles appear.  But do you need thimbles, or any other finger protectors for bone needles? Bone needles, and possibly even copper needles, probably relied on an awl to poke a hole in leather, and push aside threads so that a needle could slide through fabric easily.

Now needles, being as small as they are, are very subject to corrosion by contact with acid soil. They are tiny and easily overlooked. I remember working on a Civil War era site in Texas when I was in grad school. We were excavating a trash pit behind a home. The excavation was done very carefully, using hand trowels. But we still washed a bunch of the dirt on window screens. And what did we find? Dozens of tiny pins and glass seed beads. Until that Texas clay was washed off you couldn’t tell a seed bead from a tiny pebble. I have read many archaeological reports that essentially stated “We would probably find a lot more tiny stuff if we screened the materials, but we don’t”. How much has been missed? How much has oxidized to dust? And how much has not been recognized for what it is?

Here is a picture of some of my current modern arsenal of “finger protectors”.

Modern Thimbles

Next Time: But what sort of things do people make thimbles from?

My Casting Process Up Close – No It Is Not Instant! Part 2

So last time we talked about casting pewter. Even though it is a fairly simple process it is definitely not instant. But what about casting bronze?

Casting pewter involves a simple mold, either soapstone or a modern material like silicone. But casting bronze is often done as a lost wax process. If you want to see more detail about the lost wax process itself I suggest that you read my six part blog series The Way That I Cast – Lost Wax.

But this blog is not about the casting process, it is about what happens when a cast piece comes out of the flask. This picture shows the beginning of the process.

Button Process

On the left we see a freshly cast set of buttons, still covered with investment (the white layer). The next piece has the investment cleaned off, by scrubbing it with a brush in water. And then a fan of individual buttons has been cut off of the sprue button with the hacksaw (shown at the bottom of the picture). Then the individual buttons are cut off of the fan with the sprue cutters (at the top of the picture). What is left is a pile of buttons and a pile of sprue pieces.

The buttons have been cut from the small branches of the fan, and now they need to have the spot where they were cut off rounded and smoothed out.

wet sander

And this is what I use to do that job, a wet sander. The sanding belts are made of wet-dry sandpaper. Water drips down onto the belts and cools the piece that is being sanded, while controlling the dust. Once the button sprue area has been shaped it is time to smooth it a bit more.

Cratex Wheel

This set of Cratex wheels does a more delicate job of smoothing the area and removing scratches. There is a small pile of bodkins, crosses, Thor’s hammers, and dress hooks in process on the bench.

And once the general smoothing has been accomplished, the pieces are put into the vibratory tumblers to remove the oxides and further smooth the surfaces.

wet vibratory tumblers

And this is what the vibratory tumbler bench looks like. There are two tumblers, each with their own source of circulating water. Each tumbler is filled with a different polishing material. The one on the right is the courser material and the one on the left is the finer material. The white bucket with the sieve on top shows the contents of the left tumbler being sorted to remove the pieces of cast metal. The cast pieces spend at least three hours in each of the tumblers, with a rinse in between to avoid transferring grit from one process to another.

And now what? Well, at this point I turn on a bright light, and check each piece to see how it is progressing. If it looks good I will set it aside for the next step in the process. If there are any issues, it will either be rejected if there are “fatal flaws” that can’t be cleaned up, or get a trip back to the Cratex wheels for some additional polishing.

Next Time: Are we done yet?

Carrying Coals to Newcastle!

“Carrying Coals to Newcastle.” Exactly what do I mean by that? Well, it may be a slightly obscure reference for many, but Newcastle was a major coal producing area of England. Therefore trying to import and sell coal there would have been a futile effort. But back to that in a moment.

For those who have known me for a while, my interest in the accurate reproduction of pieces of period jewelry and accessories comes as no great surprise. I have always been interested in history, and with a Masters in Anthropology with a specialization in Archaeology, accuracy seemed like a natural thing. I know that my art teachers were often confounded by my unusual questions and projects. Fortunately for me they were mostly concerned with me learning specific techniques and not with what I actually made. And many years later I am still working on adding new, and very interesting, items to my shop collection.

Since I actually make my living making historically accurate items that people want, I obviously listen to my customers about what they would like to see in my shop. Sometimes that feedback is very direct, emails, and people who actually walk into my shop and make requests. Other times people “vote” with their wallets, and I have to admit some of those “votes” over the years have really made me smile.

And some of that “voting with their wallets” is why hubby and I have discussed “Carrying Coals to Newcastle”. It would never have occurred to either of us that the items that I sell might not be available in the countries in which they were originally made. One of the first of those sales was the lady from Sweden who purchased my reproduction of a key from the Swedish National Museum. As a reenactor she wanted a key that was as close as possible to the original one in the museum. All she could find in Sweden was “charm” sized keys. Mine is within a millimeter of the size of the original.

Etsy 29

And then there was the gentleman from Norway who bought one of my plain cast silver Thor’s hammers. He wanted a plain, solid silver Thor’s hammer, and had not been able to find one.

And the lady from Greece who purchased a batch of my brass fibulae and was totally delighted when she received them – Carrying Fibulae to Athens?

And the dozens of batches of dress pins that I have shipped all over Europe, including to a British TV production studio. Really? No one there makes these?

At Potrero War, a gentleman that I see at several events every year informed me that he loves my stuff, but that he is always amazed at how little stock I have in my shop. Really? I will admit, it is not your typical crowded and cluttered shop, but that made me wonder. Just how many separate items do I usually have in my shop (not counting backstock)? And because it was a new shop layout, and I had taken good pictures, I was able to count! Over 523 separate items, with a pair counted as one, and ranging in size from individual bronze buttons to knights chains, and Viking swags to Medieval spindle whorls, and with absolutely no attempt made to count the hundreds of glass topped veil pins. That will just have to be good enough…for now.