A History of Thimbles Through Time

Archaeologist believe that cave dwellers developed the needle about 12,000 years ago. The thimble's predecessor, the needle pusher, followed shortly after that. But wait! I'm getting ahead of myself...

I was going through my grandma's magazines about quilting, and I found some incredible and fascinating articles about behind the scenes of the quilting world. The first article that I would like to share with you is about thimbles through time. The publication is from the magazine American Patchwork and quilting from February 2000. I’m going to do a direct quote from the article because I don’t dare mess anything up. You are going to enjoy this article!

"The first needle pushers bore little resemblance to today’s thimbles. Scientists speculate that flat grooved stones, unearthed during excavations at Stone Age sites in Europe and Africa, were held in the palm of the hand and use to force primitive needles through animal hides.

This simple tool was so effective, it survived into the Bronze Age. Similar tools, cast in bronze and dated 4,000 to 5,000 years old, are thought to have been used to turn animal skins into sails, tents, and footwear.

By the end of the Bronze Age, both weavings in sharper metal needles had been invented. Because sewing woven fabrics require less force than lacing animal skins, it is thought leather finger wrappings evolved. A few literature references support this, include 14th-century poet Thomas Occleve, who tells of a lady's purse containing “needel and threde, and themel of leather.” None of these primitive leather thimbles survive to the present day, however.

Chinese Rings

In the Bronze and Iron ages, European weavers worked with flax, cotton, and wool fibers. At the same time, the most abundant fiber in China was silk. As the Chinese perfected weaving of fine silk fabric, they became dissatisfied with the large holes left by coarse bronze needles as they passed through the fabrics. The Chinese produced a new alloy, iron, and carbon, known today as steel, which made finer, sharper needles.

Though better suited to sewing fine seems in silk, steel needles quickly war sore spots on stitchers fingers. By the first century, dimpled surface rings of bronze, brass, or silver were being used to push needles. With their open tips they look amazingly like today’s tailor’s thimbles. The use of thimble rings spread to the middle east with the silk trade.


Thimbles from the Middle East

In the Islamic world of the Middle East, thimble rings were given a more decorative form. Cast in bronze, they were shaped like caps, some pointed and minaretlike.

These closed-tip thimbles made their way to Europe with warriors returning from the Crusades and Moorish wars. As malleable metal alloys were discovered, it made easier to produce lighter, slimmer thimbles with a hammering process rather than casting.


Common Thimbles

By the 16th century, every day thimbles were made from hammered steel, brass, or a combination of the two. Mass production of thimbles began in 1696 when John Lofting, a Dutchman, patented an “Engine for Making Thimbles,” which could produce more than 10,000,000 thimbles per year.

Because the sewing machine had not yet been invented, every item made of cloth-from linens to clothing to curtains – was sewn by hand. Thimbles actually wore out, ensuring a burgeoning market for mass-produced needle pushers.


Parlor Thimbles

By the reign of Elizabeth I of England (1558-1603), silver and gold thimbles were available to women of high nobility. The 18th and 19th centuries gave rise to ornate parlor thimbles made of gold, silver, porcelain, enamel, mother-of-pearl, ivory, tortoiseshell, wood, bone, horn, glass, and jewels that were more for show then sewing. Elaborate Victorian sewing boxes, filled with matching tools, always included a fancy thimble.

Parlor thimbles also became part of the 19t- century American courting ritual. In many parts of the country, a young woman was expected to have 12 quilts in her hope chest before she could become engaged; a 13th quilt needed to be completed before she was married. Because it was inappropriate for a young man to give a young lady personal items, such as clothing or jewelry, prior to engagement, thimbles and other sewing tools were popular gifts. Suitors frequently chose to give sterling silver symbols, but they wore out quickly would put to use. By the early part of the 20th century, steel lined silver thimbles had become the standard for elegant everyday sewing.

Collectible Thimbles

Sometime in the 17th century, commemorative thimbles were first produced. The earliest ones marked royal events and were cast of gold and silver.

As technology permitted, thimbles became-and remain- a popular tourist souvenir as well. Almost from the beginning, both vacation and historical mementos range in quality from printed or stamped inexpensive aluminum, celluloid, and plastic, to sculpted or enabled fine metal.

The advertising thimbles is an American-born product with a large family tree. Thimbles bearing names of products from animal feed to insurance began appearing in the early 1900s. Made of brass, aluminum, celluloid, and plastic, they were giving out en masse in a variety of ways. For example, door to door sales representatives used them as a means of introduction while millers enclosed them in sacks of flour.

A few silver advertising thimbles were produced, but they were more often given as premiums – rewards for multiple purchases. In England, jewelers often presented a silver thimble to a couple purchasing a wedding ring.

Political thimbles are a special and prolific branch of advertising thimble's family tree. They appeared after the 1920 ratification of the 19th amendment, women’s suffrage. Warren G. Harding almost immediately began handing out thimbles to newly enfranchised voters. The practice became popular with candidates at all levels.

A Decline and a Revival

Between Elias Howe’s home sewing machine and the rise of the commercial garment industry, hand sewing waned dramatically in the first half of the 20th century. So did the need for thimbles.

Then in the 1970s, quilts resurfaced with the new energy, recalling old fashion sewing items such as thimbles. While previous generations quoted for practical reasons, quilting’s new popularity was recreational. The new wave brought hundreds of creative ideas for producing quilts on the sewing machine.

Still, many quilters found enjoyment in piecing, appliquéing, and quilting by hand and a whole new generation of thimbles emerged. Today quilt shops and sewing stores offer a range of metal, leather, and plastic them balls, and even finger protectors that attached temporary adhesives.

Interest in beautiful thimbles also has grown, making thimble collecting a major hobby. Collectors can gather all types or limit their choices to antique, reproduction, or collectible thimbles.

Andere, Mary Old Needlework Boxes and Tools, Drake Publishers Ltd., 1971
Groves, Sylvia, The History of Needlework Tools and Accessories, Country Life Books, 1968.
Homes, Edwin F., A History of Thimbles, Cornwall Books, 1895.
Rodgers, Gay Ann, An Illustrated History of Needlework Tools, The Book Press, 1983.
Von Hoelle, John J., Thimble Collector's Encylopedia, Wallace Homestead Book Company, 1986.
Zalkin, Estelle, Thimbles & Sewing Implements, Warman Publishing Co., 1988.

The article was excerpted from American Patchwork & Quilting, February 2000.

Do you have a favorite thimble? Do you have thimbles passed on down from your mother or grandmother?