More about Thimbles


Magdalena and William Isbister

2.2 Border

Thimble borders may be decorated in a variety of ways although some thimbles are not decorated at all (Fig 51).  Patterns, flowers, leaves, scrolls, mottos, advertising slogans, pictures, and simple dimples may all be used to decorate a thimble border.

  Fig 51

Several techniques are used to decorate the border.  The pattern or slogan may be imprinted with a roller in the same way as the thimble is dimpled (Fig 52).


Fig 52

Many of the older English silver thimbles with buildings (the so called ‘castle’ thimbles) or Royal portraits were made by applying a milled band to a mechanically dimpled thimble.  It is often very difficult to see the solder lines (Fig 53).


Fig 53

The thimble may be cast, the design being sculptured in wax, the wax design being embedded in clay and then heating the clay melts out the wax leaving space for the thimble to be cast (Fig 54).  This process is called the lost wax process.

Fig 54

The design along with the dimpling may be milled onto a flat piece of metal and then the thimble is made up as described above.  Embossing is a similar technique but the mould/die is usually much deeper so a more plastic design results (Fig 55). 

Fig 55

Repoussé, in which the metal is beaten into the desired design from the reverse side, can only be used in two-part construction, as the formed thimble cannot be beaten from the inside!  The repoussé design can be further refined by chasing which is the opposite to repoussé, in that refinements to the design are made by beating parts back from the outside (Fig 56).  This process is sometimes called embossing too.


Fig 56

Engraving is the technique of creating a design by cutting grooves into the thimble border with sharp fine gravers (Fig 57).  Rounded tools are commonly used on silver to create bright cuts (bright-cut engraving) (Fig 58).


                                                Fig 57                                 Fig 58

If an engraved pattern is filled with a mixture of copper, lead and silver sulphides and then baked the design is enhanced and a niello thimble results (Fig 59).  This process was, and still is, popular in Russia, Iraq and some parts of the Middle East.


Fig 59

The Navajo Indians decorated their silver with hand-punched patterns using steel dies (Fig 60).

Fig 60

A border or decoration of a similar (Fig 61) or a different material may be applied to the thimble, a so-called ‘applied’ border. 



Fig 61

Precious and semi-precious stones are often applied, as decoration, to the borders of thimbles (Fig 62)


Fig 62        

Less expensive thimbles may be decorated with a resin containing fragments of semi-precious stones (Fig 63)

Fig 63

In some thimbles the border and rim merge so that no separate rim can be seen (Fig 64).  The combined border/rim is usually applied.



Fig 64

Another method of decorating the border of the thimble was to apply an enamel band (Fig 65). 


Fig 65

Early 18th century Staffordshire thimbles and some Iranian thimbles were entirely enamelled rendering them pretty unsuitable for sewing and thus were most probably made as ‘keepsakes’ (Fig 66).


Fig 66


Fig 67

Although extensively enamelled, Scandinavian enamel thimbles do have either stone or metal tops rendering them useful for needle work, to some extent, but in all probability they were ‘keepsake’ thimbles too (Fig 67).

Filigree enamel (Fig 68) was a type of decoration most famously used in Imperial Russia (9).  Less expensive forms are still available today (Fig 69).


                                             Fig 68                                    Fig 69

2.3 Rim

The simplest form of rim is a plain flat rim (Fig 70).  Sometimes these rims were decorated with patterns but they were still flat (Fig 71).


                                  Fig 70                                                             Fig 71

Plain flat rims were sometimes everted at the base (Fig 72).


Fig 72

Sometimes an additional ring or band is applied to the base of the thimble resulting in an applied rim (Fig 73).


Fig 73

Many Indian thimbles had ‘wavy’ rims (Fig 74).  They were applied to the border of the repoussé thimble.

Fig 74

Turning the lowest edge of the thimble back upon itself results in a turnover rim.  This is probably the commonest type of rim seen by collectors.  The simplest form of turnover rim is a flat turnover rim (Fig 75).  The turnover process may result in a rounded rim the so-called round turnover rim (Fig 76) and sometimes this turnover rim may itself be decorated, a decorated round turnover rim (Fig 77).


                                  Fig 75                                                             Fig 76


Fig 77

A turnover band may be faceted, the so-called faceted rim (Fig 78).

Fig 78

Rarely rims may be decorated with precious or semi precious stones (Fig 79).


Fig 79

Two Royal rims have been made on different sides of the Atlantic Ocean.  The Louis XV rim is to be found on some American thimbles (Fig 80), and the embossed Louis rim was invented by Charles Horner of Halifax (Fig 81).

                                  Fig 80                                                            Fig 81

3.0 Marking

Porcelain thimbles often have details of the maker and country of manufacture stamped on the inside of the thimble (Fig 82).  The artists of hand painted thimbles often sign their work (Fig 83) and makers of inexpensive metal thimbles may stamp their names or marks on the border or rim of the thimble (Fig 84).


                                             Fig 82                                           Fig 83


Fig 84


Silver and gold thimbles may have a maker’s mark, a mark for fineness, a mark for the assay office and a date code.  Not all thimbles have all these marks and many thimbles have none because small items such as thimbles were often exempted from the marking process.  There seem to be so many exceptions to the rules governing the marking of thimbles in every country that we feel that no strict rules may be given regarding times that obligatory marking was introduced or where and which items were exempted.  English thimbles were usually marked on the border (Fig 85), Scandinavian thimbles were usually marked inside the top (Fig 35) and Russian thimbles were often marked on the rim (Fig 86).


                              Fig 85                                                                 Fig 86


4.0 Steel lined thimbles

Thimbles made of silver and gold were relatively soft so that constant needle pressure caused damage and often punctured the thimble wounding the wearer.  This problem was solved by Charles Horner in England who, in 1884, patented a steel lined thimble (10).  He called it the ‘Dorcas’ thimble (Fig 87).  Other thimble makers soon copied Horner’s idea and made steel lined thimbles of their own (Figs 88-90).  These thimbles were also named, ‘Dreema’ (Henry Griffith and Sons, Birmingham), Dura (Walker and Hall, London) and Doris (Charles Iles and Company, Birmingham).


               Fig 87                         Fig 88                          Fig 89                           Fig 90

5.0 Tailor’s thimbles

Thimbles with deliberately open tops are known as tailors’ thimbles and with the exception of the section regarding tops, all the other features of closed thimbles apply to tailors thimbles (Fig 91).


Fig 91

6.0 Finger guards

Finger guards differ from tailors’ thimbles in that they often have a top but are open on one side (Fig 92).  Some finger guards are little more that a finger shield attached to a ring to maintain the guard in place (Fig 93).


                                                Fig 92                               Fig 93

7.0 Miscellaneous terms

7.1 Alpaca

Sometimes called ‘German silver’, frequently used for Mexican thimbles, is an alloy of copper, nickel and zinc (Fig 94).

Fig 94

7.2 Cartouche

A cartouche is a rounded, convex surface; it may be surrounded with decorative ornamentation, and is often blank.  Frequently it is shield shaped, oval or rectangular and often contains sets of initials (Fig 95).


Fig 95

7.3 Cloisonné (9)

Wire partitions are applied to the ground shape.  The partitions are not twisted. Glass, crushed to a powder, in a water-based paste is then painted into the partitions and then fired in an oven (Fig 96).

Fig 96

7.4 ‘Coin’ silver

Silver of a low quality (harder than ‘sterling’ silver) and used for American thimbles before the 1860s.  The thimbles made of such silver were marked ‘coin’ (Fig 97).

Fig 97

7.5 Damascene (10)

Damascening is the art of inlaying gold or silver into a darkly oxidized steel background (Fig 98).

Fig 98

7.6 Gold-filled

Gold ‘filling’ is a technique similar to the one used by Horner for making the Dorcas thimble.  An inner and an outer layer of gold are bonded to a central layer of brass or other less valuable metal.  The tri-layer sheet is then used for making the thimble.  Thimbles made in this way may be marked GF and will test as ‘gold’ according to the purity of gold sheets used for the laminate.

7.7 Silver gilt (gold plated, vermeil)

A thin layer of gold is electroplated onto a silver base.  Thimbles made in this way will look like gold but bear a silver fineness mark (Fig 99).


Fig 99

7.8 Guilloche

The term guilloche refers to the machined pattern made to facilitate the adherence of enamel to the metallic surface (Fig 100).


Fig 100

7.9 Gutta Percha

Gutta Percha is a tough, rubber like, gum made from various Malaysian trees of the sapodilla family.  It has been used to make thimbles (Fig 101).

Fig 101

7.10 Vegetable Ivory

Vegetable ivory is a hard whitish material obtained from the endosperm of the ivory nut and has been used to make thimbles (Fig 102).  Ivory palm endosperm is often used as a substitute for elephant ivory and when it has dried out, it can be carved like elephant ivory.  It is traded as vegetable ivory, palm ivory, corozo or tagua.

Fig 102

8.0 Conclusion

Careful examination of a thimble with a magnifying lens (loupe) may give the owner information about the material and method of manufacture, when the thimble was made, where it was made and who made the thimble.  Descriptions of thimbles vary somewhat but a knowledge of the anatomy of a thimble enables a systematic examination and evaluation of the thimble.  This is important for recording purposes but also in order to determine the value of the item.


9.Isbister M, Isbister W.  Filigree Thimbles.  TCI Bulletin 2008; Summer: 1.

10.Isbister M, Isbister W, Scholz W-D. Eisen – und Stahl - Fingerhüte.  Rund um den Fingerhut, 2012; 54: 4.

Holmes: 'Early Thimbles' pp. 15.

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Researched and published in 2002/11

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Magdalena and William Isbister, Moosbach, Germany


the anatomy of the thimble 2