More about Thimbles


Magdalena and William Isbister

Thimbles have been made of very many differing and variable materials.  It would be impossible to list all of them in this paper.  What is more important is that the material in large part determines the method of manufacture.  Wood, horn, stone or ivory thimbles, for example, may be turned on a lathe and ‘carved’ or engraved.  Plastic thimbles on the other hand are either cast in a mold or pressure injected into a mold.  To facilitate extraction from the mold these thimbles often have longitudinal dimples.  Glass thimbles may either be blown or molded and then decorated and clay or porcelain thimbles are shaped in a mold before firing and or decorating.  Metal thimbles were originally made from a sheet of metal curled up into a cylinder, later thimbles were cast and most recently, following the ability to purify zinc, a malleable copper and pure zinc alloy could be made and thimbles could be deep drawn (see below).  We will allude to the methods used in the manufacture of thimbles as they relate to the final appearance of the finished product.

We have chosen, for reasons of simplicity, to divide the anatomical parts of a thimble into four (Fig 1).  The top, the border, the rim and the decoration if not part of the original thimble.  The sides above the border may be decorated, dimpled or simply plain.

Fig 1

In this paper we will try to briefly describe the main methods of thimble production, the many variations that are found in relation to the anatomical parts of the thimble itself and the various methods of decoration that have been used to embellish the thimble.

Both Holmes (1) and Zalkin (2) have addressed some of the topics to be illustrated in this paper.

1.0 Thimble manufacture

The earliest thimbles were probably made from sheets of copper alloy which were dimpled with a punch before being either rolled up into a cylindrical form and left open or being similarly rolled and then soldered to form a closed cylinder (Fig 2).

Fig 2

A more common form of early manufacture was by casting the molten copper alloy into thimble shaped molds (3).  These thimbles were thick walled and heavy and often had a small notch on the rim for securing the thimble on a lathe prior to smoothing the casting irregularities (Fig 3).  Early cast thimbles had a bare ‘tonsure like’ top and some had a small hole.  Thimbles with a bare top were probably made before 1650.


Fig 3

The commonest method used for making a thimble today is ‘deep drawing’, a process which could only develop following the discovery of purified zinc which was added to the molten copper to make a more malleable alloy (3).  Flat discs of this alloy were successively pressed in a heavy press with increasingly deeper dies to gradually draw the disc out into a thimble shape.  Discs at various stages of this process become more and more ‘thimble like’ (Fig 4),

Fig 4

Deep drawn thimbles are thus thinner and lighter than cast thimbles (Fig 5).


Fig 5

All three methods of thimble making or their modifications are still in use today.  A modification of the earliest technique was to pass the sheet of metal together with a flat die through a pair of rollers in order to imprint the decoration upon the metal before shaping, cutting and rolling to form a cylinder.  This process was known as rolling mill printing.  The open cylinder was then soldered shut and a domed top was soldered to the cylinder to form a closed thimble.  These two-part thimbles were common in the 17th century in England and were most commonly made of silver (Fig 6).

Fig 6

The technique was popular in France at the turn of the 19-20th century as well (Fig 7).


Fig 7


Dimpling, indenting, or pouncing (from the French meaning to punch) are all words used to describe the same process of producing indentations on the surface of the thimble to allow better grip for the needle during sewing.  In this paper we will use the terms dimple or dimpling in relation to this process.

Originally dimples were made by hand either by using a small hand drill (Fig 8) or a fine die or punch (Fig 9).  The former technique results in much heavier and coarser dimples.


Fig 8


Fig 9

The earliest hand dimpled thimbles had dimples which passed from right to left in a spiral pattern (Fig 10).  Later in the 16th century, thimbles had spiral patterns which passed from left to right (Fig 11).  These latter thimbles are the ones most commonly found today (4).  In 1537, thimble makers in Nürnberg were required to add their maker’s mark at the beginning of the spiral (Fig 12).


                            Fig 10                               Fig 11                                Fig 12

In the late 17th century mechanical dimpling was introduced in Holland and England (Fig 13).

Fig 13

The deep drawn thimble ‘blank’ was placed on a rotating thimble shaped anvil, held in place by a leather cushion, and a rotating dimpling die was pressed against the blank as it rotated on the anvil (Fig 14).  This technique allowed various patterns of dimples to be indented and could be used for patterns and mottos and other wording too (5, 6, 7).  Bertrand has documented the many patterns used to decorate brass thimbles, and most of these patterns may be seen on other more precious metal thimbles too (8).

Fig 14 © Rund um den Fingerhut

Indentations may be round (Fig 11), oval (Fig 15), triangular (Fig 16), rhomboid (Fig 17), ‘diamond’ (Fig 18), linear (Fig 19) and ‘waffle’ (Fig 20).


                         Fig 15                                  Fig 16                                   Fig 17


                                           Fig 18                                                            Fig 19

Fig 20

Some early 17th century English thimbles had engraved patterns in lieu of definitive dimples (Fig 21).


Fig 21

2.0 Anatomy

2.1 Top


Two-part thimbles have tops that have already been indented before soldering on to the thimble cylinder.  Cast and deep drawn thimbles have either hand or mechanical dimpling applied to the top of the thimble after it has been formed. 

Most tops are dimpled with one of the techniques and styles detailed above (Figs 11, 15-20), however, some tops are patterned and not dimpled (Fig 22).


Fig 22

Some tops are plain and not dimpled and it is thought that these thimbles may have been used for sewing very fine materials (Fig 23).

Fig 23

Indian silver thimbles often have very ornate tops and may not be very suitable for sewing (Fig 24).

Fig 24

In 1880 William Pursall of Birmingham created a series of brass thimbles with ‘peeps’ in the tops.  The peep photographs were by McKee of Dublin and made in France (Fig 25).  Many modern ‘peep’ thimbles have been made since Pursall’s first peep thimble.

Fig 25


Often early porcelain thimbles had matt unglazed (bisque or biscuit) tops and the dimples were made by hand (Fig 26).


Fig 26

Inserted tops

Many thimbles have tops that are dimpled and then inserted into the top of the thimble.  These tops may be made of plastic (Fig 27), stone (Fig 28), glass (Fig 29), steel (Fig 30), magnetized steel (Fig 31), silver (Fig 32) or ‘petite point’ (Fig 33).



                Fig 27                         Fig 28                            Fig 29                         Fig 30


                       Fig 31                                Fig 32                                    Fig 33

English thimbles made in this way do not have a metallic ‘backing’ beneath the stone so that it is possible to trans illuminate the stone from inside the thimble (Fig 34).  Thimbles made in other countries all have backed stones so that it is impossible to view the stone from the inside of the thimble (Fig 35).


                                      Fig 34                                                      Fig 35

Some early silver German 16th century thimbles had crystal or glass tops below which was a family crest or picture (Fig 36).  The top was protected by a dimpled cap but often the cap is missing.


Fig 36

A modern version of this style of top was made in 1986 by James Swann and Sons of Birmingham (Fig 37).


Fig 37

Metal tops

In order to increase the longevity of the thimble top some silver and gold thimbles were made with added steel tops.  Usually the thimbles were dimpled after the addition of the top so that the indentations are in line all over the thimble (Fig 38).  Sometimes a steel top or cap was added to the top of the thimble (Fig 39) and occasionally it was inserted into the top of the thimble itself (Fig 40).


                          Fig 38                                   Fig 39                                 Fig 40  

Brass tops were added to some 18th century Staffordshire enamel thimbles (Fig 41) and also to modern enamel or Ivorine thimbles (Fig 42).


                                              Fig 41                                                            Fig 42

Some post ‘cold war’ Russian thimbles had ‘button’ tops (Fig 43) as a form of decoration.


Fig 43

Top marking

Italian thimbles often have the assay and makers mark on the top (Fig 44).  German thimbles may have a maker’s mark (Fig 45) or more commonly an eight or six pointed star which former usually indicated that the thimble was made by Gebrüder Gabler GmbH. of Schorndorf (Fig 46) although this was not always the case.  The six-pointed star usually signified that the thimble was made by Lotthammer – Stützel of Pforzheim (Fig 47) but six pointed stars may also be seen on thimbles from Portugal and Italy.  A five-pointed rosette was found on the top of a modern Italian ‘keepsake’ thimble but the maker is unknown (Fig 48).


                                     Fig 44                                                       Fig 45



                                     Fig 46                                                         Fig 47


Fig 48

A Dutch maker - Drost Gz B (Pako Metalwarenfabriek) Rhenen, 1955-93  (Pako = Paardekooper) – made this inexpensive enamel thimble and stamped his mark and the Dutch silver assay mark on the top of the thimble (Fig 49).


Fig 49

Occasionally the entire makers name is marked on the top (Fig 50).


Fig 50


1.Holmes EF.  A history of thimbles.  London:  Cornwall Books, 1985. pp. 21.

2.Zalkin E.  Zalkin’s Handbook of Thimbles & Sewing Implements, 1st edn. Willow Grove:  Warman Publishing Co., Inc., 1985.  pp. 16.

3.Isbister M, Isbister W.  The Evolution of the Thimble - from Jiangling to Nürnberg.  At:

4.Boon-Langedijk C.  In den Niederlanden verwendete Messing- und Silberfingerhüte von Spätmittelalter bis 1900.  Rund um den Fingerhut 2004; 38/39: 4.

5.Jungbludt P.  Ein Jahresfingerhut entsteht.  Rund um den Fingerhut, 1992; 16: 8.

6.Jungbludt P.  Ein Jahresfingerhut entsteht – Teil 2.  Rund um den Fingerhut, 1993; 17: 21.

7.Mohr G, Mohr G.  Fingerhutwerkzeuge und Musterwalzen der Firma Rump, Altena.  Rund um den Fingerhut, 2009; 49: 4.

8.Bertrand C.  Brass Thimbles.  Thimble Coillectors International, 1986. pp. 49.

Holmes: 'Early Thimbles' pp. 15.

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Researched and published in 2002/11

Copyright@2011. All Rights Reserved

Magdalena and William Isbister, Moosbach, Germany


the anatomy of the thimble 1