On Thimbles

In my last blog post I spoke about my intention to learn how to use a thimble. I have mentioned before that I enjoy hand-finishing my sewing projects, such as hand-worked buttonholes, inserting a lining, and even whip stitching seams to stop the edges from ravelling. This is in part because I use an old Singer 201k treadle sewing machine that can only do straight stitches, but it is also because I enjoy the act of hand-stitching.

woollen trousers, hand-picked fly

Woollen trousers with prick-stitched fly and hand-worked buttonhole

Sewing is much quicker than knitting, and many sewers that I know are amazed about the amount of hand-stitching I do, because “it takes forever!” However, compared to knitting, all this hand-stitching is done in a jiffy! Slowly but surely working my way towards having only hand-made clothes, leading to more hand-stitching, has increased my interest in tailoring, and the accompagnying hand-stitching. And even if I might never become an expert in tailoring, I can take away those bits that will work for me. So far, I’ve not used a thimble, but the drawback is that my fingertips are shredded to bits by the sewing needle, so it’s time to learn from tailors, and use a thimble.

Thimbles, needles, beeswax

Thimbles, needles, and beeswax: the traditional tailor’s tools. Shown here are two plain closed-top dressmaker’s thimbles, one closed-top souvenir thimble from Belfast, one open-topped tailor’s thimble, and at the far right, a leather quilter’s thimble

Thimbles come in many shapes, forms, and materials. The traditional tailor’s thimble is made from metal, and has an open top. Dressmakers’ thimbles normally have a closed top. I have not been able to find out why there is a difference, but I think it might have to do with the sewing technique used. The tailor’s thimble goes on your middle finger, the needle is held between thumb and forefinger, and put into the fabric. The needle is then pushed through the fabric with your thimble-covered nail. In order to do this comfortably, your middle finger is actually curled up, sitting right behind the needle. Have a look at these videos by an expert tailor. Keeping your middle finger bent is the most difficult thing when learning to use a thimble the tailor’s way, so an old apprentice trick is to put a tie on your thimble to keep your finger in the right position.

thimble padssashiko thimble

Thimble pads, popular with quilters, and a sashiko thimble

I’m keen to learn to use a tailor’s thimble, but there are many other thimbles to choose from, such as a leather thimble, shown in one of the pictures above, “thimble pads” which are small stickers to stick to your finger, and sashiko thimbles, which are shoved right down your middle finger. The metal plate at the bottom protects the palm, as traditional sashiko uses a long needle which is threaded through the fabric multiple times before pushing it through with your hand, which isn’t much different from a sailor’s or sailmaker’s sewing palm.

the history of needlework tools and accessories book

The History of NEEDLEWORK TOOLS And Accessories, by Sylvia Groves

I will finish this blog post with some background information on thimbles, from Sylvia Groves’s The History of NEEDLEWORK TOOLS And Accessories (Country Life Books, The Hamlyn Publishing Group, Feltham, second impression 1968): the word thimble is derived from the Old English thymel, meaning a thumb stall. It was originally a small bell-shaped cap of leather, made to be worn on the thumb in sewing. She goes on to say that “Although this type of primitive protection continued in use in remote and isolated districts until quite recent times, the metal thimble displaced it in more civilised countries at a very early period.” With this being my only book in my library on needlework tools and accessories, what follows is from a very European-centric viewpoint, showing exactly which countries the author deemed civilised.

Thimbles of bronze have been found on the sites of Greek and Roman cities, such as Pompeii and Herculaneum, which were destroyed in 79 CE. They can be divided into two two types: one heavy, cast, and with the indentations irregularly placed; the other finely made from sheet metal, with indentations more neatly arranged and occasionally having an open top. A cast bronze ring, about a quarter of an inch deep, with three rows of indentations arrachged diamond-wise, served a similar purpose.

thimbles from the history of needlework tools and accessories

A fine collection of thimbles, finger protectors, and thimble cases (click on the picture for a larger image)

There are very few thimbles to found that can be confidently dated to befor the 16th century. Thimbles can be made from all sorts of metal, but in general, thimbles from the 17th and 18th century were often made of brass or steel, or sometimes a combination of the two. An open-topped steel thimble might be lined with brass. Alternatively, a silver thumble with a steel top might be obtained; the top stamped with indentations, was soldered on, and the silver might be engraved, or of open filligree. These thimbles were never intended to withstand the wear and tear of daylong sewing, but were reserved for fine needlework and social occasions.

For children, nests of thimbles were made fitting one on top of another and increasing gradually in size, to allow for growth. In the early Victorian era, there arose a fashion of ornamenting the sides of thimbles with representations in relief of famous buildings, bridges, and other well-known landmarks; they were sold as souvenirs to tourists who were increasing in number owing to the developments in railway travelling.

There are a very large number of antique thimbles to be found, made from all sorts of materials. Their shape provides little indication of their date: those made during the last three or four centuries may be either short and flat topped, or long, tapering and domed, according the the fashion at the time or the whim of the maker. Mother-of-pearl thimbles came from France; glass from Bohemia or Venice. Wooden thimbles came from Germany and Austria, where they were bought as souvenirs by tourists, but they are by no means common as wood is a soft material unsuitable for practical use in sewing. Complete thimbles without indentations, fashioned from horn, ivory or tortoiseshell, may occasionally be found; they are, in fact, finger guards and were worn on the first fingers of the left hand to protect it from the continual prick of the needle’s point. When these guards were made of metal, part of the top was cut away diagonally, leaving only the rim entire.

Wish me luck in my thimble journey: I think it will take me a while to unlearn my old hand-sewing technique, and learn a new one, but I will persevere and report back, so keep an eye out for my next blog post!

24 Replies to “On Thimbles”

  1. A useful trick I learnt as a teenager who used to sew and mend a lot, was to use a firm edge to help push a reluctant needle through layers of fabric. The edge of a cotton reel, they were wooden then, was the usual edge of choice, although a plastic one would do, with care. The problem with all thimbles is, when used a great deal, they can become stressed and thin. Then there is a risk that pressure could push the eye of the needle through and into the end of the finger. They really ought to be changed regularly! So easy to say.

  2. Another possible explanation for the open top on dressmakers’ thimbles vs the closed top on those used by tailors: gender. Dressmakers are traditionally female; tailors more likely to be male. Women tend to have longer fingernails than men. Therefore….

  3. I have never been able to learn to use a thimble and have shredded fingertips because of that. I discovered you via an article on my OCA website, about darning and creative ways of mending, which I immediately put into practice. I am thinking about starting a mending group in my village in Dorset, because I enjoy it so much, and because I think there are many people who just never think of mending things. I also discovered your creative work on Kate Davies’ wonderful blog.

    1. If you want to start your own mending group, then one place to look for more information on how to go about it, is the Repair Café Foundation. They have an information pack and everything. Happy mending!

  4. Although I’m a hand quilter and patchworker I’m not really a lover of thimble wearing and by the time I’ve finished a quilt my poor fingertips need more than a soak in cold tea (something I was told ballerinas do at the end of hard day with their feet…it seems to take the heat out)…however I find wrapping a small piece of cotton cloth over my finger before tucking it into a roomy thimble makes the thimble feel a bit less odd to wear, I still end up wanting to favour the next finger along but this does seem to help a little…I shall look forward to reading about your thimbling progress with interest….

  5. I need to find a tailor’s thimble! I can’t sew without a thimble, but I don’t use the tailor technique of resten my middle finger against my palm, i use it to push. I think, lol. Need to do some hand sewing now to figure out what I do. I have a closed top thimble with a rim, which I like, as the needle stays put and don’t slide. The indentations are als rectangular, and grab the needle quite well. Then of course there’s a leather thimble by clover, which is like a glove. One side has a metal insert, the other just double layer. What I really like is that when sewing through layers where the needle tends to get stuck, I just turn it around, and grab the needle with the leather.

  6. as a confirmed hand sewer of many years(I actually prefer not to use a machine though the treddle black and gold Singer would be an exception!), I don’t wear a thimble at all, though own a handful of silver Dorcas ones, a few with the punctured holes in their tops as mentioned by Jane above- what I have found is that my middle finger develops a hard callus when sewing a lot . This mitigates some pain though doesn’t make me immune lol
    good luck with your training, the technique looks difficult to my eye, as I use the ‘dressmaker’ technique of pushing the back end of the needle with my middle finger-why is the tailor one better by the way?and what is the difference between tailor/ess and dressmaker? is it a question of standard of execution?

    1. I’m not sure whether the tailor one is better than a dressmaker’s one, i just know they’re different. The difference between tailors and dressmakers I think is about the clothes they make: tailors traditionally only make suits and overcoats (both men’s and womenswear versions) whereas dressmakers make dresses. Different types of garments, requiring different materials, techniques, and skills. As an aside, (men’s) shirts and accessories where usually made by an “outfitter.”

      1. I was also wondering whether one technique is better than the other or whether this might be a gender thing – that tailoring is more highly regarded because it has traditionally been a male domain. That being said, tailors (in documentaries) seem to be very effective at sewing, but then again, they usually have 60+ years of daily experience.
        I have also despised thimbles, mainly because they do not fit and make my nails hurt. However, I do rather like my leather coin thimble by Clover – the leather absorbs moisture, the thimble moulds to the finger (when in doubt, purchase the smaller size) and the coin is in the right place for tailors’ techniques as well, I think.

  7. Having had a chance to be taught how to make, as well as use a sashiko thimble, and usually using a closed top dressmakers thimble I could speculate that it is the needles that make the difference, as you have noted. I’m not sure what type of needles that tailors use, but I would assume that the type of needle or the stich making style would account for the different structure. I couldn’t believe that one type is inherently ‘better’ than the other, rather it’s a question of being fit for purpose.

    1. Tailors usually use betweens, sizes 5, 7, and 9. I read somewhere that dressmakers traditionally use sharps. These are longer, and having tried my tailor’s thimble with both sharps and betweens, I did notice that the technique used by tailors (pushing the needle through with the nail of the middle finger) is easier with the shorter needle. Perhaps that’s the answer. So enquiring minds would like to know why tailors use betweens, and dressmakers use sharps!

      1. I know when I use betweens for hand quilting it was because you stitch with a rocking motion that allows you to gather a number of stitches easily before pushing the needle through. Also the resulting stitches tend to be more even than

  8. Hi Tom,
    I’ve been hand sewing since the age of six (geeze that’s over 50 years) and have almost always used a thimble. A few years back my knitting bag was stolen when my car was broken into. My knitting kit held my favorite thimble from high school. It is the item that I have missed the most from that event.
    I’ve tried a few new thimbles, none of which fit because my hands are small. Recently I discovered my mother-in-law’s sewing basket (She has been dead 40 years) in a basement. Her thimble fits me perfect!

    While style may or may not make a huge difference in using thimbles, size does. Find one that fits snugly on your middle finger and doesn’t pop off at the drop of a hat.

  9. I too hate using thimbles, but I recently found a tip in a new book. A blob of superglue on the finger. It takes a while to dry and you have to be careful not to stick your fingers together, but it works!

  10. I do a fair bit of hand sewing, and I always use the leather quilters thimble. With a bit of use it forms to your finger and I don’t mind it at all. I use it around my middle finger, and use not the nail but the top inside of my finger to push the needle through. I learned this 20 years ago and use it always. The metal thimble I have is a bother to me. The leather has a piece of elastic at the top, to keep it snug.

  11. I inherited my Grandmothers thimble. She had made about 75 quilts in her life time, all hand quilted. The thimble is worth out, it actually has holes in it. I have never been able to wear a thimble. No matter what finger I put it on I’ll use the finger next to it. I now use the Ultra Thimble. It is metal and has tape to hold it on. I hardly know it’s there. Often I forget it’s there and walk around with it on. I tried the Thimble Pad but my needle would pierce the padding and it slowed me down. Don’t get the smooth one, I found the one with dimples works the best.

  12. Hi Tom, I could never wear a thimble no matter how hard I tried- it just wasn’t comfortable & felt completely foreign trying to sew with the thimble on my finger. In desperation, I tried a leather ‘quilter’s thimble. I can honestly say that it changed my life. I got one that was quite a snug fit & after using it for a very short time, I found I was able to easily use a thimble. I do a lot of hand sewing as I really enjoy it, but I didn’t enjoy the needle going through my fingertip. Maybe it’s something you could try?

  13. I’m doing increasing amounts of hand stitching, for embroidery, boro and visible mending but also in practice for making garments. I’ve not used a thimble until recently, but the increasing roughness of my middle finger-tip plus the puncture wounds encouraged me to ask a friend who learned to use a thimble in school, doing ‘thimble drill’! She uses the dressmakers’ thimble, and showed me how, with the needle tip in the fabric about to make a stitch and the threaded end of the needle resting in one of the dimples, the slightest tilt of the finger alters the angle at which the needle comes out of the fabric. This slightly changes the stitch length; when the stitch length is right the thimble drives the needle out. It’s hard to describe, but watching her work a straight running stitch seam with a thimble was a revelation. She recommends the ‘Clover Protect and Grip Thimble’, flexible plastic with a metal cap and it certainly fits better than any metal one I’ve tried. Although I like this one too

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