AskDefine | Define thimble

Dictionary Definition



1 as much as a thimble will hold [syn: thimbleful]
2 a small metal cap to protect the finger while sewing; can be used as a small container

User Contributed Dictionary



Old English þȳmel, corresponding to thumb + -le.



  1. A pitted, now usually metal, cap for the fingers, used in sewing to push the needle.
  2. A similarly shaped socket in machinery.
  3. A thimbleful.
  4. A ring of metal or rope used in a ship's rigging


a protective cap for the finger
a socket used in machinery
a thimbleful of something
rings used in a ship's rigging

Extensive Definition

A thimble is a protective shield worn on the finger or thumb generally worn during sewing.
The earliest thimble was Roman and found at Pompeii. Made of bronze, it has been dated to the first century AD. A Roman thimble was also found at Verulamium, present day St Albans, in the UK and can be seen in the museum there.
Thimbles are usually made from metal, leather, rubber, wood, glass, or china. Early thimbles were sometimes made from whale bone, horn, or ivory. Natural sources were also utilized such as Connemara marble, bog oak, or mother of pearl. Rarer works from thimble makers utilized diamonds, sapphires, or rubies.
Advanced thimblemakers enhanced thimbles with semi-precious stones to decorating the apex or along the outer rim. Carbochon-shaped adornments might be made of cinnabar, agate, moonstone, or amber. Thimble artists would also utilize enameling, or the Guilloché techniques advanced by Peter Carl Fabergé.
Originally, thimbles were used solely for pushing a needle through fabric or leather as it was being sewn. However they have since gained many other uses. In the 1800s they were used to measure spirits (hence the phrase "just a thimbleful"). Women of the night used them in the practice of thimble-knocking where they would tap on a window to announce their presence. Thimble-knocking also refers to the practice of Victorian schoolmistresses who would tap on the heads of unruly pupils with dames thimbles.
Before the 18th century the small dimples on the outside of a thimble were made by hand punching, but in the middle of that century, a machine was invented to do the job. If you find a thimble with an irregular pattern of dimples, it was probably made before the 1850s. Another consequence of the mechanisation of thimble production is that the shape and the thickness of the metal changed. Early thimbles tend to be quite thick and to have a pronounced dome on the top. The metal on later ones is thinner and the top is flatter.
Collecting thimbles became popular in the UK when many companies made special thimbles to commemorate the Great Exhibition held in the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, London.
In the 19th century many thimbles were made from silver. Because this is a soft metal, it is easily pierced by a steel needle. Charles Horner solved the problem by using a steel core covered inside and out by silver. The result was still as pretty as a traditional silver thimble but more practical and durable. He called his thimble the Dorcas and these are now popular with collectors.
Early American thimbles made of whale bone or tooth featuring miniature scrimshaw designs are considered valuable collectibles. Such rare thimbles are prominently featured in a number of New England Whaling Museums.
During the First World War silver thimbles were collected from "those who had nothing to give" by the British government and melted down to buy hospital equipment. In the 1930s and 40s red-topped thimbles were used for advertising. Leaving a sandalwood thimble in a fabric stores helps to keep moths away. Thimbles have also been used as love-tokens and to commemorate important events. A miniature thimble is one of the tokens in the game of Monopoly.
People who collect thimbles are known as digitabulists.
The English Patient makes profound use of the thimble from both literal and symbolic perspectives.

Known thimble makers

Most of these thimble makers are no longer around.
  • Wicks (Inventor USA)
  • A Feaù (French)
  • Charles Horner (UK)
  • Charles Iles (UK)
  • Gabler Bros (German)
  • Henry Griffith (USA)
  • James Fenton (UK)
  • James Swann (UK)
  • Ketcham & McDougall (USA)(Out of Business 1988)
  • Meissen (German)
  • P Lenain (French)
  • Simons Bros Co (USA)
  • Stern Bros & Co (USA)
  • Waite-Thresher (USA)
  • Webster (USA)


Around the American Civil War in the 1860's, the thimble was one of the first ideals of casing for a metal jacket bullet, rather than a lead musket ball or shell.
Corning Glass Works in New York developed a prototype thimble during the Second World War due to the shortage of metal needed for defense purposes. The thimbles were made of light blue and clear Pyrex, but were never sold commercially.
On December 3rd 1979, a London dealer bid the sum of USD 18,000 for a dentil shaped Meissen porcelain thimble, circa 1740, at Christie's auction in Geneva, Switzerland. The thimble, just over a half inch high, was painted in a rare lemon-yellow color about the band. It also had tiny harbor scene hand painted within gold trimmed cartouches. The rim was scalloped with fired gold on its bottom edge. The thimble now belongs to a meissen collector in Canada who wanted it for its lemon-yellow color.
During November 1994, Sirthey's saleroom yielded a one of a kind Meissen thimble bearing an armorial coat of arms at the massive price of GBP 26,000.
On 13 June 1995, Sotheby's sold a Meissen thimble adorned with two pugs for GBP 10,350.
thimble in Czech: Náprstek
thimble in Danish: Fingerbøl
thimble in Pennsylvania German: Fingerhut
thimble in German: Fingerhut (Nähwerkzeug)
thimble in Esperanto: Fingringo
thimble in French: Dé à coudre
thimble in Lithuanian: Antpirštis
thimble in Dutch: Vingerhoed
thimble in Japanese: 指貫
thimble in Norwegian: Fingerbøl
thimble in Polish: Naparstek
thimble in Russian: Напёрсток
thimble in Finnish: Sormustin
thimble in Swedish: Fingerborg
thimble in Ukrainian: Коуш
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