Thimbles are small protective devices used in sewing that fit over one of the fingers. They protect the finger or thumb from accidental pokes of the finger, and they can be especially useful in pushing a needle through heavy cloth like denim or leather. The modern thimble is usually made of metal or plastic, with plastic being common in sewing kits, and usually has small round indents along the top and sides. A needle fits into one of the dents and save your finger from the hard work of pushing.
Historians know that thimbles are at least 2000 years old, having found a few in Rome that date to the 1st century. These earliest versions were bronze and didn’t feature the modern dents. Since that time construction of thimbles has been sometimes practical, and sometimes more design oriented. There are varieties made of precious metals or gems, porcelain, wood, leather, whale bone, and mother of pearl for instance. In the book Anne of Ingleside, a continuation of the Anne of Green Gables series, it is the talk of Anne’s small town that she possesses a golden thimble.
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While thimbles can be simple and practical, clearly elaborately designed ones had less utilitarian purposes. In fact, collecting thimbles became popular by the mid 19th century, inspiring designers to get creative. It is thought that the Great Exhibition in London in 1851 inspired women to collect thimbles of various designs because of a special thimble collection featured.
There were some problems with most “useful” 19th century thimbles. Some needles were made with steel, while most thimbles for home use were silver. Unfortunately steel was stronger and pushing hard on the top of the needle could pierce, dent or break the thimble. Designers of these handy sewing tools eventually came up with a design of silver coating an iron core, and thimble manufacturing got a boost when the process of making most of them was automated in the 20th century.
People from all classes might use these protective shields. The aristocratic woman would have one for fancy work, and the poor woman would probably possess at least one for regular everyday sewing tasks. They were thus a recognized symbol of women, and a standard possession. If you do any sewing at all today, even if it’s just to sew on the occasional button, having a sturdy little thimble is a good idea. The plastic ones in sewing kits are generally not practical, particularly if you have to repair anything made of denim. Instead, purchase a medium quality metal thimble for best results.