The thimble, a small cylindrical shield that is placed over a finger, has been used for centuries in the practice of sewing. The dimples in its surface allow the thimble protects a craftsmans finger while pushing a needle through leather or fabric. A thimble is generally made out of strong metals, leather, or wood, although some older manufacturers used horns and ivory although some thimbles are made of softer materials.
The thimble has been around for centuries, the earliest being a bronze thimble discovered in Pompeii, dating around 100 CE, and a silver thimble found in China dating to the Han Dynasty, from 202 BCE – 220 CE. Early American thimbles were created primarily out of teeth and whale bone. Thimbles from early Russian times were not actually intended for sewing, but using in combat, either as weapons for grappling, or to protect an archers thumb from chafing on the bowstring. As these protective shields became more common, they found their way into the business of tradesmen. Today there is a large market for antique thimbles.
Prior to the 18th century, the dimples were hand punched, although as manufacturing grew, automated machinery allowed for the rapid casting and punching of thimbles. Over time, thimbles were made thinner and out of more malleable metals, such as silver. These metals were easily punctured, and the problem was solved by inserting a steel lining in the interior of the thimble. This style is widely used in the modern era, and is widely popular amongst collectors.
Thimble collectors, known as digitabulists, inspired the creation of many elaborately designed and ornate thimbles. Rare stones such as rubies or sapphires were cast into thimbles. Less expensive but still richly designed thimbles were created using the semi-precious stones agate or amber. As manufacturing techniques became refined, more requests poured in for engraving and personalization for thimbles.
Prices for thimbles range from several cents for modern plastics, to several hundred dollars for hand-crafted thimbles. Many thimble collectors have organized themselves into societies or community groups, sharing their hobby and collections with others. The thimble has gained other uses throughout their history.
Thimbles made from rubber or soft material, known as thimblettes, are used for grasping and searching through stacks of papers or documents. During the 19th century, thimbles were used to measure quantities of alcohol, from which the phrase just a thimbleful is derived. The thimble has developed over centuries from a crude instrument to an ornate valuable that are merited by sewers and collectors alike, due to a wide variety of materials and styles used in its creation.