A thimble is a small hard pitted cup worn for protection on the finger that pushes the needle in sewing. Usually, thimbles with a closed top are used by dressmakers but special thimbles with an opening at the end are used by tailors as this allows them to manipulate the cloth more easily. Finger guards differ from tailors' thimbles in that they often have a top but are open on one side. Some finger guards are little more than a finger shield attached to a ring to maintain the guard in place.
According to the United Kingdom Detector Finds Database, thimbles dating to the 10th century have been found in England, and thimbles were in widespread use there by the 14th century.
In 1693, a Dutch thimble manufacturer named John Lofting established a thimble manufactory in Islington, in London, England, expanding British thimble production to new heights. He later moved his mill to Buckinghamshire to take advantage of water-powered production, resulting in a capacity to produce more than two million thimbles per year. By the end of the 18th century, thimble making had moved to Birmingham, and shifted to the "deep drawing" method of manufacture, which alternated hammering of sheet metals with annealing, and produced a thinner-skinned thimble with a taller shape. At the same time, cheaper sources of silver from the Americas made silver thimbles a popular item for the first time.
Early Meissen porcelain and elaborate, decorated gold thimbles were also given as 'keepsakes' and were usually quite unsuitable for sewing. This tradition has continued to the present day. In the early modern period, thimbles were used to measure spirits, and gunpowder, which brought rise to the phrase "just a thimbleful". Prostitutes 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.
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; however, it was found that silver is too soft a metal and can be easily punctured by most needles. Charles Horner solved the problem by creating thimbles consisting of a steel core covered inside and out by silver, so that they retained their aesthetics but were now more practical and durable. He called his thimble the Dorcas, and these are now popular with collectors. There is a small display of his work in Bankfield Museum, Halifax, England.
Thimblettes (also known as rubber finger, rubber thimbles and finger cones) are soft thimbles, made predominately of rubber, used primarily for leafing through or counting documents, bank notes, tickets, or forms. They also protect against paper cuts as a secondary function. Unlike thimbles, the softer thimblettes become worn over time. They are considered disposable and sold in boxes. The surface is dimpled with the dimples inverted to provide better grip. Thimblettes are sized from 00 through to 3.
A variation on the thimble used by sailmakers and leather workers is the sewing palm, known by various others names such as seaming palm, sail palm, sailmaker's palm or roping palm. This item consists of a pitted hard plate set into a stiff leather band that is worn around the palm of the hand, with the plate resting against the first joint of the thumb. It is used by grasping a needle between the thumb and indexing finger, with the eye end of the needle against the pitted plate, and pushing the needle with the entire arm. This design permits the sewer to exert a great amount of force when pushing thick needles through very tough materials such as sail cloth, canvas or leather.
On December 3, 1979, a London dealer bid the sum of $18,000 USD 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.