What are Thimbles?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

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.

Abalone shells with mother of pearl, which can be used to make thimbles.
Abalone shells with mother of pearl, which can be used to make thimbles.

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.

Sewers use thimbles to protect their fingers from being pricked by the needle while sewing.
Sewers use thimbles to protect their fingers from being pricked by the needle while sewing.

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.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments


@Terrificli -- what is fascinating (sad?) is how useful a thimble is when one gets older. I've been known to sew on a stray button here and there and never had to use a thimble when I was younger. I sure need one now.

Why? My eyes aren't as good as they once were and a thimble has saved me from jabbing my thumb with a needle on more than one occasion.

So, let me add to your statement -- go for a metal thimble because you need something sturdy to protect you from the mistakes that come with poor eyesight. Those plastic ones aren't worth a penny.


The plastic ones in sewing kits generally aren't practical? Actually, those things are useless. But, fear not -- you can still find sewing kits that have honest-to-goodness metal thimbles in them. Spend an extra buck or two and get one of those because they are more essential than you might imagine.

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