Thimbles Part 5

And last time we asked: How can we tell a pre-1600’s thimble from a later thimble? Well, as with most things historical, there is not a fool proof test. But knowing the facts about when thimbles are likely to have arrived in an area and the appropriate form of the thimble does help.

If you are in the market for historical thimbles, usually found by metal detectors, and someone tells you that they have an absolutely lovely Roman thimble that was found outside of London, don’t buy it. Their information is not correct. That doesn’t mean that it might not be a nice Medieval thimble, but the general consensus, repeated by the Museum of London, says that thimbles were first used in England in the 1300’s. There is also no good archaeological evidence that the Romans used thimbles. Earlier reports of thimbles in Pompeii are incorrect.

Now of course, we are talking about metal thimbles. and could this analysis change at a future date due to better quality analysis of well-dated archaeological sites? Yes, of course, but currently that is our best guess.

Another problem that we have is that thimbles continued to be made, by hand, using the same techniques that were used during the Middle Ages, right down to modern times. So especially in places, like the eastern European countries, where there is a tradition of local metal workers, thimbles could be made as part of their wares.

Probably the most noticeable sign that a thimble was made post 1600, is what I call a “waffle top”. If you look at most modern steel thimbles, which are created in large presses, the top of the thimble is covered with a perfect grid, almost like a waffle. This picture shows exactly the sort of patterns that I mean.

The outsides of these thimbles are also covered with a perfectly symmetrical set of complex dimples or textures, just like in these examples.

Steel needles may have appeared, in China, before the first century BC, but that doesn’t mean that iron or steel was being used to make thimbles. The vast majority of pre-1600 thimbles were made from pewter, a copper alloy (bronze, brass, or latten), or silver (mostly late 1500’s). Iron thimbles began to be produced in about  the 1400’s in the Middle East, but they were fairly uncommon in England until the 1700’s.

The first thing I do when I buy a “batch” of thimbles is to check the tops for a “waffle” top, and the second thing I do is whip out a kitchen magnet. Anything with a “waffle” top, or that sticks to a magnet goes in the “modern” bucket. Now obviously there are lots of really gorgeous modern thimbles, but generally that is not what I am looking for.

So now we have an idea of what was going on in Europe, but what about the areas of Middle Eastern and Slavic influence, that were actually closer to the source of silk?

Thimbles Part 4

Last time we asked: What other sorts of details can we find on thimbles?

Well the most obvious thing about thimbles, other than the basic shape, is the dimples. They come in a moderately extensive selection of sizes and shapes, although the most common shape is “sort of round”. Now that may sound a bit vague, but you need to realize that the shape and size of the dimples is dependent on three things: the shape of the punch used to make the dimple, the amount of force used to hammer the punch, and the softness of the metal that the thimble form is made of. As a punch is used over and over it may deform to “less than round” or it may never have been completely round in the first place. Here is a picture showing some examples of the variations in size and shape of dimples that I have in my own thimble collection.

From left to right we have: “sort of round” that is placed so closely that there is almost no space between dimples, chisel lines that are placed in relatively neat lines, random small dimples, small dimples that are applied in sections to create a pattern, and triangular dimples that progress in a spiral around the thimble.

We can also look at the top of these thimbles to see how the dimples are arranged. This picture shows exactly the same thimbles in the same order across the page. They all have a spiraled top, except for the “random” pattern thimble, which continues to be random on the top, and the shaped patterned thimble, which is tonsured and has a hole.

Over time the complexity of the European thimble form increased. The ridge at the bottom of the thimble, which was an occasional accidental result of the manufacturing process in early thimbles, became a purposeful feature. A decorative band also began to be added, and especially in silver thimbles, this area was often elaborately engraved.

At the very end of the 1500’s the bottom ridge became a location for maker’s marks, and this tradition has continued into the modern era. Entire books have been written about the various makers of thimbles and where they were from.

The main source of thimbles in Europe was Germany. This was due largely to a readily available source of bronze. By 1373 Nuremberg had become the center of this thimble production and there were large numbers of workshops in the city. They developed a specialized form of metal called latten, which was an alloy of copper and calamine, and was very easy to form. In some countries the guild systems had separate guilds for thimble makers who worked in latten, and those who worked with other metals. There are several pictures demonstrating the production of thimbles in Germany. This woodcut is from a book of trades that was printed in 1568 in Frankfurt, Germany (owned by the British Museum).















Next Time: How can we tell a pre-1600’s thimble from a later thimble?

Thimbles Part 3

Last time we said next time: Thimble Rings

Persia had thimble rings before the 7th century and Byzantium before the 9th century AD. It appears that the earliest thimbles in the Middle East were made of camel bone – two camel bone ring-type thimbles have been found in Ctesiphon, near Baghdad, Iraq. This city was destroyed in the 7th century AD, and never reoccupied.

The most common surviving form of historical thimble in Europe is one made of metal. The oldest thimbles that were actually manufactured in Europe were most likely actually rings with no top, like these from my personal collection.

Number 1 and 3 are made from thin sheet, without a solder line and numbers 2 and four are cast bronze. Numbers 1, 2 and 4 are all metal detector finds from England. And number 3 is a metal detector find from Bulgaria. Number 1 is partially squashed. This form of thimble continues down to this day. And can sometimes be elaborately decorated.

Thimble rings could be cast in bronze or lead alloy, or made from some sort of copper alloy sheet (bronze or brass). The thimble rings that were made of sheet could either be a strip that was soldered to form a ring, or a donut, that was stretched and hammered to form a ring.

Now, if you learned how to sew with a closed end thimble, and especially if you are self taught, you may be wondering how a “thimble ring” could possibly work. Well, if you watch this YouTube video, by a professional tailor, on how to properly use a regular thimble, you will see that his technique does not require a thimble with an end.

Thimbles actually come in an amazing selection of shapes and sizes. This picture is more of my personal collection, all relatively early thimbles from England.

You will notice the variation in profile, dimple size and dimple shape. The thimble that is 3rd from the left, and a bit squashed is characteristic of most of the earliest thimbles that we see in England. They are relatively shallow round topped thimbles. Over time we see increasingly deeper thimbles with steeper sides.

Here is a picture of the same thimbles from the top.

This picture shows some very important information about the thimbles. First, you will note that a couple of the thimbles have holes in the top. This is part of the manufacturing process and generally disappears as the thimble making techniques become more developed. Some of the thimbles have an “un-dimpled” section on the top. This is called a tonsure (think of a monk’s haircut), and is also generally a sign of an earlier thimble. You will also notice that the patterns of dimples on the individual thimbles can be very different. Some spiral down from the top, while others are divided into sections, and still others are in neat rows.

Next Time: What other sorts of details can we find on thimbles?