Thimbles Part 2

Last time we asked: But what sort of things do people make thimbles from?

Well, modernly thimbles are made of all sorts of metal, ceramics, glass, plastic, leather, wood, ivory and bone, and combinations of all of the above. Eliminating the obviously non-historically accurate items like plastic takes us back to looking for something practical, available and affordable.

When I started making fibulae in quantity I needed something to protect my thumb from the wire. I grabbed a piece of thick leather and some duct tape, and essentially made a large thimble. Modernly there are still some types of thimbles that are made of leather. Doing a web search for leather thimbles will bring up dozens of different types, some of which include a small metal plate for even more protection. The big problem with leather thimbles is that they wear out much more quickly than metal ones and the chance that they will survive archaeologically in damp climates is slim.

Wood and bone thimbles would have been almost equally easy to make as leather ones, and just as easily lost in the archaeological record.

And this was where I hit a very annoying research wall. I own three books devoted completely to thimbles, one to sewing equipment, and one to The Medieval Household (MOL), and then there are also a couple of websites. I was recently pouring through my books on thimbles, trying to see if I could gather any sort of consensus from them. And I found a picture that made me cringe. It was a picture of “Leather thimbles from Mongolia”. Now I suppose if your definition of a thimble is “anything used to protect a finger” then it would be OK (remember this would include gloves). But the picture showed leather thumb rings that are used for shooting archery. The rest of the book was all sewing related thimbles. Sigh.

And then I went looking for a picture of the Han Dynasty thimble that I see widely reported, but with no pictures. I found one picture of a “thimble” that was found in Turkey that is supposed to “look just like” the Han Dynasty thimble. It was an archer’s thumb ring. So now I am questioning the whole assessment of some of the early thimbles. The websites and the books almost all use identical words. They seem to all suffer from what I would call “academic incest”. Someone wrote something, and everyone else just copied it, without checking to see if it was correct or not.

To say that I was annoyed, was an understatement. SOMEONE out there must have done a creditable job of studying thimbles! And then I remembered that I have one other book – “Findings – The Material Culture of Needlework and Sewing” by Mary C. Beaudry. Is it perfect? No. A lot of the comments were a bit ethnocentric for my taste, but the archaeology is solid, and that is what I needed.

So let’s go back to the reason for thimbles: Needles. The first steel needles were invented by the Chinese, for sewing fine silk, and these needles arrived in the Middle East in about the first century BC. Archaeology tells us that the Chinese were using metal needle rings by at least the second century AD. Most of these “rings” were made in the flat, and not soldered. This made them easily adjustable to any size of finger (think of the expandable rings that you can buy at flea markets).

Next time: Thimble Rings

English: A group of thimbles on display in Bed...

English: A group of thimbles on display in Bedford Museum. In the middle of the group is a thimble box with its lid. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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?