More about Thimbles


Magdalena and William Isbister.

The origins of thimble making in England are somewhat vague.  Holmes writes that ’The earliest mention of a thimble in the English language dates from about 1412’ and this relates to a leather thimble (1).  At this time, in England, it seems that leather or some other tough material was being used for sewing in order to protect the pushing finger but few, if any, of these early thimbles have survived.  Metal thimbles are more problematic.  There was no brassware industry in England in the 15th century and consequently any brass items in use in England had to be imported (1).  Thimbles were one such item.  There is documented evidence of a Venetian galley that docked in Southampton in April 1440 and amongst the goods on board and unloaded in Southampton were 200 thimbles (2).  These thimbles had travelled overland, probably on a mule, from Nürnberg to Venice and thence by boat to England.  Port of London records for the year 1567/8 show that 65,000 thimbles were imported from Antwerp (3) and these thimbles too would most probably have originated in Nürnberg. 

Nürnberg was the centre of the European thimble making industry in the 15th and 16th centuries. There was a well-organised brass casting industry and many ‘free tradesmen’ were working as thimble makers and turned the cast blanks on a lathe and then either drilled or hammered the indentations.  The crude cast thimbles that were finished by the ‘free tradesmen’ came from the brass smith’s molds.  These free tradesmen wished to be members of a guild of their own.  Firstly in about 1530, they were incorporated with the coppersmiths, but later when casting was replaced with deep drawing they were allowed to form a guild of their own (4).  The production of simple cast (Figs 1, 2) or deep drawn (Figs 3, 4) thimbles thus depended upon a large support structure and was carefully governed.

   Fig 1                   Fig 2                      Fig 3                      Fig 4

The earliest thimbles to have been excavated in England are the so-called ‘beehive’ or ‘skep’ (old English for beehive) thimbles.  They are short and stubby and barely cover the tip of a finger.  It has been claimed that they were actually made in England from brass scraps since they are more commonly found in England than in other countries (5), but we feel that this notion is rather unlikely. Firstly, there was no brass industry in England at the time and from the Nürnberg data it is clear that quite a major infrastructure was necessary to produce a finished thimble.  Secondly it was well documented that thimbles were being imported from Nürnberg in large numbers and one would have to question why this would be if the ‘skeps’ were being made in England.  Thirdly it is impossible to understand how such an industry, casting and making ‘skeps’, could disappear without record or remains, to lie dormant, so to speak, for a further two centuries till brass founding was established in England in the 18th century.  A further argument against the manufacture of ‘skeps’ in England comes from the finding of deep drawn ‘skeps’.  Even if there were scraps of brass from broken imported items for English thimble makers to use to make their thimbles, this brass could not have been deep drawn.  The discovery of the importance of pure zinc in the production of the brass alloy which was both finer and more malleable than crude casting brass made from impure zinc ore and copper was also made in Nürnberg, where the ability to deep draw thimbles was one of the factors which led to the formation of a thimble makers’ guild in about 1537.  It thus seems unlikely to us that the deep drawn ‘skeps’, also said to have been made in England and found in English excavations, were actually made in England either.


Fig 5                        Fig 6

The crudely indented brass cylinder (Fig 5) was found in the fields in Suffolk.  It may well be an early, homemade, attempt to copy a leather thimble (Fig 6), but it is impossible to date.  The leather thimble is thought to have been made in the 17th century.


  Fig 7                       Fig 8                        Fig 9

The first truly English metal thimbles seem to have been made, by hand, in two parts in the late 16th and early 17th centuries (5).  They were made in both brass (Figs 7-12) and silver (Figs 13-15) and are sometimes called ‘Jacobean thimbles’ (6).  Open-ended thimbles were also made at this time (Fig 16).  An oblong sheet of metal is decorated, rolled up into a cylinder and soldered into a tube.  A round top is indented or decorated and then soldered on to the top of the cylinder.  The resulting thimble has much the same shape as the more commonly used leather thimbles.  Only a few of the leather thimbles, however, seem to have survived.


Fig 10                          Fig 11                             Fig 12

The side decoration is known as ‘strap work’ and comprises ‘straps’ or bands in various configurations between which there are other decorative indentations or patterns (waffle, basket weave, spot work). 

Fig 13                 Fig 14                   Fig 15                      Fig 16

The thimbles seldom have maker’s marks but may often have short messages (‘a posy’) around the rim or below the top.  The posy on the brass thimble in Figures 11 and 12 reads “If you love me” and “Lende me not”.  The posy on the thimble in figure 14 reads "Love and live” above strap work and "Pray and Prosper” below the strap work.  The earliest thimbles of this type had almost flat tops (Fig 7) but soon the craftsmen learnt to hammer the top so that it became curved (Fig 9).  Tops may be plain or decorated.  A Tudor rose was popular at the time of Elizabeth l.  Later the posy became more Puritanical and religious.  When Charles ll was restored to the throne the thimbles became less religious and more decorative.


     Fig 17                      Fig 18                    Fig 19               Fig 20

As the 17th century progressed the thimbles became shorter (Figs 17 - 20) and the indentations were made by milling (7).  The discovery of the Americas and the increasing prosperity in England led to an even greater demand for silver and even gold thimbles.  A sheet of silver could be milled between an engraved roller and a plain roller and then supplied to a silversmith who cut it to size, formed and soldered a cylinder and then added a domed top.  Complex designs could be engraved on the roller and thus commemorative designs could be made and reproduced.  One such thimble was the thimble made to commemorate the wedding of Charles l and Henrietta Maria in 1625 (Fig 21, 22).  Another similar ‘medallion’ thimble depicts Charles ll and Catherine of Braganza (Fig 23, 24) and may have been another wedding thimble.

Fig 21                    Fig 22                   Fig 23                     Fig 24

During this period, and as the thimble making capacity of Nürnberg declined more and more thimbles were imported from Holland.  In 1694, a fire engine maker, who also made thimbles, came to England from Holland.  He changed his name from John Loftinck to John Lofting and began to produce thimbles in England on a commercial scale. 


Fig 25                              Fig 26

An early John Lofting type, Holmes type ll (8), thimble which was made between 1690 and 1730 is shown in figure 25 and a later, ‘Lofting’ type, Holmes type lll, mass-produced thimble from between 1730 and 1800 is to be seen in figure 26.

Fig 27

Soon Lofting (Fig 27) had many competitors and the mass production of thimbles in England had begun.

Bridgett McConnel, TSL, kindly gave permission for the use of the images in Figures 6, 21 and 24.


1. Holmes EF.  A history of thimbles.  London:  Cornwall Books, 1985. pp. 37.

2. Holmes EF.     Thimble Notes and Queries 1990; 6: 2.

3. Holmes EF.     Thimble Notes and Queries 1990; 8: 2.

4. Greif H.  Talks about thimbles. Universitatsverlag Carinthia.  1984.  pp. 27

5. Warrington R.  Early English Thimbles.  TSL Magazine 2004; 9 (6): 4

6. Pelham Burn D.  Early Thimbles.  Thimble Collectors International, 2001. pp. 43.

7. du Quesne Bird N.  The commemorative thimbles if the 1660s.  TSL Magazine 1995; 5 (6): 3

8. Holmes EF.  Sewing Thimbles.  1988, Finds Research Group 700-1700, Datasheet 9

TCI Bulletin Winter 2011

Holmes: ‘Early Thimbles’ pp. 15 and ‘Thimbles in England’ pp. 37.

Researched and published in 2002/11

Copyright@2011. All Rights Reserved

Magdalena and William Isbister, Moosbach, Germany


Early english thimbles