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?


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)