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 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, 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 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, 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.
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!