Thimbles Part 7

Were there other sorts of needle pushers besides thimbles?

Yes! Sail makers, leather workers, tent makers, and probably others, used various sorts of “palm pushers” to force their needles through the thicker and more dense layers of cloth and leather. Remember, industrial sewing machines did not become available until the 1800’s.

Like this modern sailmaker’s palm, the pushers had pieces of metal, often lead, which survive archaeologically. Here is an antique sale maker’s palm from Maine. Remember, antique does NOT mean historically accurate.

And if you are wondering how they are placed onto the hand, here is another picture.

As with broken pieces of thimbles and thimble rings, the rather lumpy bits of metal that are used in the palm pushers are hard to identify. But a quick search in the Portable Antiquities scheme produces lots of metal from palm pushers. Random pieces of lead or bronze are often designated as “palm pushers”. This example is a good one, even if the shape is not typical. Most of them appear to have been cast in the bowl of a spoon, and are therefore more spoon shaped, but this one is well preserved enough to show the two depressions on the one surface. The other side (the back side) is plain.















To see how a modern sail maker’s palm is used, here is a video from a company that sells them.

And just in case you want to make your own, here is an Instructable about how to make one.

So where does this leave us as re-enactors? Well, as a re-enactor specializing in pre-1600 studies I would be tempted to just use a thimble ring. That would be “safe” for just about anywhere, except the Romans.

And what strange side trips has this line of research taken me off on? Well, probably the oddest was this one. And it is an excellent example of why we should not jump to conclusions about an item, based solely on a picture. I was searching through Google Images, and this picture popped up.

I was looking for good pictures of Hispano-Moresque thimbles, which actually look a lot like this in shape, but the decorations on these were obviously Pictish. There is no indication of size in the pictures, but fortunately the title along the bottom gave it all away. These are part of a Pictish hoard, found in Scotland, containing silver and silver gilt, and they are mounts – decorative pieces, possibly from a sword or knife handle, and they are waaay to big to be used as thimbles.

And then there was the modern Arabic thimble, that so easily could have been portrayed as something of greater antiquity. The form is modern. The dimples are too regular and the decorative band on an earlier thimble would have been engraved, rather than having raised letters. But the clincher is the meaning of the Arabic: Wrinkle Free Natural Silk Textiles. Not exactly a verse from the Koran.

And another odd bit? Seeing my own pictures of thimbles, from my collection, show up on Google images. It sure didn’t take them long to grab them!

I hope that this brief survey has been helpful to all those who enjoy sewing and the humble, but immensely useful, thimble.

Thimbles Part 6

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?

The earliest metal finger protectors that we find were in China, where steel needles originated. These took the form of split thimble rings, like the one in this picture.

The first solid thimble ring that I have been able to locate is a 2nd century BC Scythian thimble.

Thimble rings continued to be used alongside thimbles. Some were solid and some had soldered seams.

I have to admit. I was really delighted when I saw my first pictures of some of the non-European thimbles. I love the shapes and designs! The thimbles created in the Islamic empire are generally divided into three categories:  Abbasid-Levantine, Hispano-Moresque, and Turko-Slavic. This is not a hard-and-fast set of categories, there are variations within each style, but sometimes categories are useful in order to gain a general understanding of a form. You can definitely see cultural influences in the different styles.

Abbasid-Levantine Thimbles are the earliest form of closed cast thimbles that we have good documentation for, dating from the ninth through 12th centuries. They are found throughout Asia Minor, particularly in Israel, Syria, Trans-Jordan, Iraq, and Iran. Some researchers believe that it was this type of thimble that was brought back to Europe by the returning crusaders. But it took a long time for thimbles to really catch on in Europe, and even longer in England.

Hispano-Moresque thimbles date from the 10th to the 15th century. They are produced through lost wax casting and tend to be rather heavy. These thimbles are found predominantly in western north Africa and Spain, but have also been found in France and in Viking settlements as far north as Denmark. They have a pointed top and some people think that the dimples are actually carved into the wax models, rather than being hammered in after manufacture. The bands of these thimbles are often decorated with engraving or stamped geometric or floral patterns.

The Turko-Slavic thimbles are generally found in sites dating from the 13th through the 18th centuries. They are found throughout the eastern Mediterranean as well as in Bulgaria, Romania, and Hungary. Most of them were cast in bronze, using the lost wax technique. Occasionally an iron thimble is found. They are characterized by their large bulbous shape and sometimes have a hole in the top. This picture demonstrates the style. The thimble on the right is iron.

This brief journey through the world of thimbles and thimble rings has been an interesting research experience for me. Sooo much bad and out of date information, was readily available. even finding decent pictures, of anything other than my own, predominantly English, collection was a challenge.

As a re-enactor specializing in pre-1600 studies I would be tempted to just use a thimble ring. That would be “safe” for just anywhere, except the Romans.

But we can ask: Were there other sorts of needle pushers besides thimbles?

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?