This section is from the "A Complete Dictionary of Dry Goods" book, by George S. Cole. Also available from Amazon: A complete dictionary of dry goods and history of silk, cotton, linen, wool and other fibrous substances,: Including a full explanation of the modern processes ... together with various useful tables.
Thimble. A covering for the protection of the finger in the operation of sewing, of various forms, has been in use since the time when needlework first began to develop into an art. In very early times this protection consisted of stiff, heavily-sized linen wrapped around the finger, and was called a " fingerlinge." The Dutch have always claimed the credit of having invented metal thimbles, and by tacit consent their claim was allowed up to a few years ago, when unfortunately for the credit of the Holland tailors, antiquarians about 1850, while delving in the ruins, of the buried Roman city, Herculaneum, uncovered a jeweler's shop and found several thimbles of the most approved modern pattern. Since then thimbles have been discovered in the Egyptian Catacombs in mummy cases antedating the Christian era fifteen to eighteen centuries. Consequently how old is the thimble, or by whom was it invented, are questions that can never be answered. Authentic records exist showing that thimbles were made in Nurnburg, Germany in the last quarter of the 14th century, and that in a a hundred years from the time they were invented there were twenty-four metal thimble makers in that city alone. The art was without a doubt carried from Nurnberg to Holland. The first thimble ever seen in England was made in 1695 by a Dutch metal worker named Lofting, who "by hand fashioned thimbles of brass, iron, and steel, with indentions in their surface to prevent the needle from slipping." The usefulness of the article commended it at once to all who used the needle, and Lofting acquired a large property. The implement was then called the " thumb-bell," it being worn on the thumb when in use, and its shape suggesting the rest of the name. This clumsy mode of utilizing it was soon changed, however, but the name, softened into thimble still remains. Another origin of the word is also given, it being suggested that thimble might have been derived from thymel, a. leather thumb-stall which English sail-makers formerly used to protect the thumb. In the ordinary manufacture of thimbles at the present day, thin metal plates are placed in a die and punched into the proper shape. Dies of different sizes are used. The thin plates of sheet iron are first cut into pieces about two inches in diameter. These are heated red-hot and struck with a punch into a number of holes, gradually increasing in depth to give them the correct shape. The thimble is then polished, trimmed and indented around its outer surface with a number of holes by means of a small wheel. It is then changed into steel by the cementation process, lined, scoured, tempered and brought to a blue color. Silver thimbles are usually made of solid silver, though cheap qualities are sometimes plated or washed. Celluloid and rubber thimbles are moulded. The best gold thimbles are made at Paris. These are made of a thin foundation of steel and lined with gold, which is introduced and attached to the steel by means of a mandrel. Gold leaf is then attached to the outside by great pressure, the edges of the leaf being fitted in and held by small grooves at the base of the thimble. The article is then ready for use. The gold will last for years, while the steel never wears out. A sail-makers thimble is a kind of leather ring worn on the thumb, and provided with a metal disc, with small depressions for pushing the needle through the stiff cloth or canvas.