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 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?