Table of Contents
- 1 Introduction
- 2 PAS object type(s) to be used
- 3 Terms to use in the description
- 4 Taking the dimensions
- 5 Roman thimbles
- 6 Ring-type thimbles
- 7 Domed thimbles
- 7.1 Medieval domed thimbles
- 7.2 Post-medieval domed thimbles
- 8 Palm guards
- 9 Key references
A thimble is an object used to protect the finger and push the needle through the fabric or leather when sewing. The earliest known use of the word is 15th century, but the word is Old English in origin, and related to the word for thumb.
The main division in thimbles is between the open, ring type and the domed, closed type. Domed thimbles can have a small hole in the top.
It is relatively easy to put thimbles into different types based on size, shape and style of indentations – but less easy to date them, because the different shapes and sizes may relate more to function than to date. Few have been found in dated archaeological contexts.
PAS object type(s) to be used
Use THIMBLE for both the conventional sewing thimble with domed or closed top, and the open-topped ring-type thimble or sewing ring.
Occasionally a thimble can be found filled with lead, apparently for re-use as a weight. In this case, following the normal PAS rule that objects are recorded according to their last use, use WEIGHT.
PAS classification and sub-classifications to be used
If you are recording a ring-type thimble, please add the word ‘ring’ to the classification field. For palm guards (also called palm irons) please add ‘palm guard’. Otherwise there is no need to fill the classification field in.
Terms to use in the description
A thimble consists of a rim, sides and a top (which can also be called a cap or crown). The rim can be thickened in a variety of ways (such as turned over, or with a ridge) or unthickened. Look out for decoration around the rim (such as a groove). Any notches or folds in the rim should be carefully described, as they are thought to be evidence for manufacturing processes.
A ring-type thimble will have a lower rim and an upper rim.
The sides may be straight or curved, but will usually taper towards the top.
The sides will be covered with indentations, and the size, shape and layout of these should be carefully described. There may also be decoration on the sides. The top may be made separately; it should also have the indentations carefully described, as they may be different in size, shape and layout to those on the sides.
The hardest thing to describe is probably the layout and shape of the indentations. These can be irregular, or in rows or columns, or in spirals. Spirals around the sides can either run to the right, or to the left, and are always described from the base of the thimble. When describing spirals on the top, you can use clockwise or anti-clockwise, but do not forget to explain whether this direction runs from the centre or the edge.
The indentations can be rectangular, circular, oval, square or many other shapes. The indentations on the sides may be a different shape to those on the top. If you can, describe how they were made. Do they look as if they have been individually punched, hand-drilled, or machine-made?
Decoration other than the indentations often includes grooves around the rim and between the sides and the top. More complex decoration is not common, but can include reserved areas with no indentations, sometimes outlined with engraved lines; this is often known as strapwork.
Occasionally one thimble is found jammed inside another (e.g. LANCUM-EC9C69), which obviously makes it difficult to see or describe the inner one. Read has suggested that this may in fact be a metal sleeve or liner, rather than a second functional thimble, so have this question in mind when you examine a double thimble (Read 2018, 26).
Taking the dimensions
If the thimble is circular in cross-section, please note the maximum diameter and the height in the relevant boxes. Normally the maximum diameter will be at the rim, but do confirm this in the Description field. It can also be useful to note a minimum diameter, normally at the junction of sides and top, in the Description field.
If the thimble is squashed, the length and width fields can be used to record the surviving dimensions. The thickness field is often used for the thickness of the sides of the thimble.
The only metal thimble that has been securely identified from a Roman context is a single sewing ring from an early second-century context at Ephesus, which is thought to be a Chinese import (Wilson 2016). It seems certain that the metal thimble was not in use in Roman Europe.
As it is difficult to imagine sewing a great deal without any kind of finger protector, maybe pre-medieval thimbles were made from leather. It is thought that the fine steel needle, invented in China for sewing fine silk, needed a metal thimble.
Medieval ring-type thimbles
The common use of ring-type thimbles may pre-date the common use of domed thimbles. Two ring-type thimbles are among the earliest firmly dated thimbles from Britain. One comes from a context of c. 1270-1350 in London (Egan 1998, 265-7, no. 814) and another incomplete example is from a late 13th- or early 14th-century context in York (Ottaway and Rogers 2002, 2739-40, fig. 1347).
Other very early thimbles include a fragmentary ring-type thimble from an early 13th-century context in Amsterdam (Read 2018, 3, citing Langedijk and Boon 1999, cat. no. 292).
Six other ring-type thimbles are known from late 14th- or early 15th-century contexts in London (Egan 1998, 265-7, nos. 815-20). Read has confirmed that several of the London examples have longitudinal soldered seams (Read 2018, 7).
Read also suggests (2018, 7) that some similar thimbles may have had simple overlapped seams with no solder, allowing for some size adjustment, so check carefully to see whether solder is present.
Far more ring-type thimbles are made without a seam. Five examples in Read 2018 (nos. 6-10) strongly resemble the type with overlapping seam, with small, irregular, hand-made indentations. These are likely to be of similar date to those with seams (c. 1200-1450 AD).
Late medieval and early post-medieval ring-type thimbles
Short, stouter types of ring thimble, which look more as if they have been cast, appear to start in the 15th century and continue throughout the 16th. Read dates those with horizontal, concentric rows or left-hand spirals to the 15th century (2018, 7) and those with right-hand spirals from about 1550 (2018, 12); during the early 16th century it seems either could be used (Read 2018, 30).
Makers’ marks can appear on 16th-century ring-type thimbles, and Read illustrates a selection (2018, 26).
Later post-medieval ring-type thimbles
Ring-type thimbles continued to be made in small numbers into the 17th and 18th centuries; they tend to have heavy, thickened lower rims and machine-made interlocking indentations (Read 2018, 17-20).
Medieval domed thimbles
The earliest medieval domed thimbles
The earliest domed thimbles are imports. HAMP-598DC8 is a ‘Hispanic-Moresque’ thimble, probably made in Spain, and the only one to be recorded on the PAS database so far. It has a distinctive conical shape, and probably dates to the 12th to 15th centuries.
Read also illustrates a ‘Turko-Slavic’ thimble, not apparently recorded on the PAS database (2018, 23, no. 69), which may be as early as the 13th century.
14th-century domed thimbles
Domed thimbles come into common use in Europe in the 14th century; the first reference to a Nuremberg thimble-maker is from 1373 (Read 2018, 31).
14th-century thimbles are generally short and wide. They can either have straight tapered sides and pointed tops, or curved sides and top (often almost hemispherical). A few are faceted. They tend to have grooves around the rim, and small, often widely spaced circular indentations in irregular vertical rows on the sides and in concentric rings or a spiral on the top.
The centre of the top may be bare of indentations, and may also have a small central hole, possibly to help hold the thimble still while punching the indentations. Pierced thimbles come from contexts of 1330-1400 AD in London (Egan 1998, 821-825), and a thimble with a pointed top bare of indentations comes from a context of c. 1275-1400 in Norwich (Margeson 1993, no. 1457).
Apart from the grooves around the rim, decoration is not common, but can include grooves or bands bare of indentations which divide the indentations into panels; this is sometimes known as strapwork.
14th-century thimbles appear to have been made by hammering, and can be of quite thin sheet; they often do not survive well in the soil.
During the 15th century, thimbles appear to become taller, heavier and thicker, with straighter sides and rounded tops. They can still have grooved decoration.
The central hole seems to have gone out of use by 1400, at least in London (Egan 1998, 266-7), although the top with centre bare of indentations is still found.
During the 15th century, thimbles can still have indentations in vertical rows on the sides, but they also start to have indentations in a spiral running upwards towards the left.
Spirals are hard to describe, as they run one way when described top to bottom and the other way when described bottom to top. We follow Read in describing from the bottom up, so a left-hand spiral runs upwards to the left and a right-hand spiral runs upwards to the right.
Left-hand spirals start in the 15th century (Read 2018, 7), but right-hand spirals do not appear to be used until a few decades into the 16th century (Read 2018, 12). During the early 16th century, it seems spirals could turn in either direction (Read 2018, 30).
Many 15th-century thimbles look at first sight as if their indentations are in concentric horizontal rows, but close inspection usually shows that they are in a left-hand spiral. Good examples of thimbles with left-hand spirals from excavated contexts include three from early 15th-century contexts in London (Egan 1998, nos. 829-831), and one from a mid to late 15th-century context in York (Ottaway and Rogers 2002, 2739-40, no. 14186).
Dating a medieval thimble
There may be a tendency to date those with thin walls and smaller, more irregularly spaced indentations to the 14th century and those with thick walls and larger, more neatly spaced indentations to the 15th century, but the two types may in fact be contemporary and used for different purposes (as pointed out by Biddle 1990, 805). Many medieval thimbles will not be datable more precisely than c. 1300-1500 AD.
Post-medieval domed thimbles
16th- and early 17th-century thimbles
16th-century thimbles continue the trend towards sturdy, tall thimbles with straight wall and fairly flat conical or rounded tops and large indentations. Indentations can be a larger variety of shapes and are again in a spiral, but the direction of the spiral switches from left-hand to right-hand at some point. Read puts this at c. 1550 (2018, 12) but as the three domed thimbles from the Mary Rose all appear to have right-hand spirals, and the Mary Rose sank in 1545, it might be safer to date right-hand spirals to the century from c. 1520 AD (Gardiner and Allen 2005, fig. 8.30).
Many thimbles that can be dated to the 16th century are relatively heavy-duty, but there are also lightweight thimbles. One type of lightweight thimble has a right-hand spiral of small indentations above a zone of stamped decoration. An example was found on the Mary Rose, which sank in 1545 (Gardiner and Allen 2005, 329-40, no. 81 A0807), and Read illustrates several more (2018, 41-43). Some examples on the PAS database are shown below.
Although many thimbles are thought to have been imported from Nuremberg, it is possible that some may have been made in England.
The same traditions of thimble-making seem to have continued into the 17th century, as thimbles from 17th-century contexts in London (Egan 2005, 132-3, nos. 638-647) are not immediately distinguishable from those from 16th-century contexts (Egan 2005, 131-2, nos. 621-637). At the moment, their end date is uncertain, but it seems sensible to give a rounded century to thimbles with right-hand spirals, so c. 1520-c. 1620.
It is helpful to add the sub-period ‘early’ when recording an early post-medieval thimble.
Makers’ marks on early post-medieval thimbles
The spiral of indentations often starts at the bottom with a maker’s mark, common from about 1520 to about 1620 (Read 2018, 12). The Nuremberg Guild of Thimblemakers, set up in 1537, required all thimbles to carry the mark of the master that made them (Holmes 1988, 3; Read 2018, 31) but this does not mean than none were marked before this and all were marked afterwards.
The state of knowledge about Nuremberg makers’ marks is summarised by Read (2018, 30-34). Although it is often assumed that all were imported from Nuremberg, this has not been proved. Read illustrates several (2018, 16; 39-43) and, as they often do not photograph well, if you can establish a parallel in Read 2018 it would be very helpful. Close-ups of the marks, as below, also help.
In London, thimbles from 17th-century contexts (Egan 2005, 132-3, nos. 638-647) are not immediately distinguishable from those from 16th-century contexts (Egan 2005, 131-2, nos. 621-637), and it seems that the type with indentations in a right-hand spiral continued to be made until at least c. 1620 AD.
In the Netherlands, a new type of thimble was developed around 1600, made in two pieces with a longitudinal seam joining the sides and a second seam around the top; these have machine-made indentations in an interlocking pattern.
The mechanical ‘knurling wheel’ used in their manufacture was not apparently invented until 1609 (Read 2018, 61), and examples from early excavations in Amsterdam, are all from contexts of 1600-1650 (Baart 1977, 145-7). Langedijk and Boon (1999, 75-77) suggest an earlier date, with parallels from 16th-century contexts in Amsterdam (quoted by Read 2018, 61; the Langedijk and Boon reference has not been checked).
The new Dutch thimbles seem to have influenced the development of hand-made two-piece thimbles, which Read sees as English products (2018, 49-50, nos. 197-234). These can be made from silver or copper alloy, and often have decoration, perhaps of strapwork (reserved strips outlined with grooves) or engraved lines in a brickwork pattern (as on IOW-27BDA2). They also feature new shapes of indentation, notably annulets (where circular indentations have a raised rim).
Late 17th- and early 18th-century thimbles
From about 1650, Dutch thimbles were made in one piece, and this technology was brought to England when John Lofting, a Dutch immigrant, was granted an English patent for a thimble-making machine in 1693. Despite the one-piece construction, thimbles of c. 1650-1750 retain ridges between the sides and the top where the seam would have been.
Holmes quotes Lofting’s production figures as two million per year (1988, 3), and Read illustrates several (2018, nos. 257-271), but there are few definite examples on the PAS database; two are shown below.
Read points out that Lofting’s products cannot be distinguished from Dutch thimbles, and that probably both were in use in England in the 18th century (Read 2018, 63). Lofting’s mill continued to produce thimbles at least until his death in 1742.
There are also several one-piece silver thimbles that might date to c. 1650-1750 AD, and a selection is shown below. It seems intuitively likely that there should be variants in copper alloy, but these are difficult to find on the PAS database.
Later 18th- and 19th-century thimbles
From c. 1750 onwards, production seems to have shifted to Birmingham (Beaudry 2006, 96). Later 18th- and 19th-century thimbles have no ridge or other division between the top and the sides, and the top has a distinctive square ‘waffle’ pattern.
As time goes on, they can become very flimsy, but most have rims that have been turned out, giving extra strength to the base. They can occasionally have inscriptions; FORGET ME NOT is one of the commoner ones. Children’s sizes become popular in the 19th century.
These thimbles are very common, and are less than 300 years old. They should only be recorded on the PAS database if they are of unusual interest.
Copper alloy or iron palm guards
They are often called ‘palm irons’, firstly because some were made from iron and secondly because they were fixed to a leather sailmaker’s palm, or protective glove.
As almost all of the PAS’s examples are made from copper alloy, we use the more general term ‘palm guard’. This term is not available in the mda thesaurus, and so in the Object Type field we use THIMBLE. Please add ‘palm guard’ to the classification field.
Copper alloy palm guards on the PAS database so far are circular, with large square or circular indentations, and with holes, pierced lugs or unpierced lugs for attachment. Not all have been found near the coast or a port, and Read points out that those working on the canvas sails of windmills (or indeed any other heavy canvas items such as tents, tarpaulins, sacks and awnings) would also have found palm guards useful (2018, 77).
Read concludes (from documentary and shipwreck evidence) that iron or copper-alloy palm guards were in use from at least c. 1650, and they are still in use today. Read has classified them into six main types (2018, 77-82), but as we record so few it is not absolutely necessary to define the type.
Lead palm guards
Far more common than copper-alloy palm guards are what Read calls ‘so-called palm guards’ made from lead (Read 2018, 83). These come in a variety of sizes and shapes, but are usually more or less oval, with one flatter and one more convex face. There are two main types.
The first type often has one or two neat flat-based circular depressions, about 10-16mm across, on one face (usually the convex face). These objects tend to be about 80 x 60mm, and relatively thin. Several have one more or less straight edge, and many appear to have been cast in a shell (perhaps swan mussel, oyster, scallop or crab).
We currently record these as THIMBLE with ‘palm guard’ in the classification field, but their use is very uncertain. Despite the early confidence of Bailey (1993, 64-5), Brian Read points out that there is no evidence to confirm their use as palm guards in any maritime or land-based industry (2018, 83). Chronological evidence is also lacking, but Read suggests a post-medieval date (2018, 83) and most of those recorded on the PAS database are given a date-range of 17th to 19th century.
It is surprising that the deliberately cast circular depressions are normally found on the convex face, as this is thought to be the part that fits against the hand. DOR-E5AEC6 is unusual in having smaller indentations within a single large circular depression, adding weight to an interpretation as a palm guard, but again these are on the convex face.
It is also uncertain why they seem to have been cast in shells. IOW-A9A877 and SUR-BF7905 show that casting lead in oyster shells was certainly done from time to time, but whether IOW-A9A877 and SUR-BF7905 themselves are palm guards, or not, is uncertain.
There are occasional examples with circular depressions but of different shapes, not oval.
The second type is again plano-convex, but thicker and more regular in shape. These are usually drop-shaped, but can also be circular or oval. They usually have no marks at all on them, but can sometimes have an irregular dimple on the flat face, perhaps caused by the lead shrinking as it solidified. For these, it might be worth considering a function as a weight or ingot instead.
There is little evidence for any function for these items, but PUBLIC-6F2F9B appears to have been cast in a textile-lined mould, SUSS-3D9994 has marks apparently caused by use, and PUBLIC-A83CEF is marked with the initials EB. KENT-F0560B is drop-shaped but with two circular depressions, suggesting that the two types may be related.