Today, I shall discuss that most fascinating of topics; thimbles. Bear with me, this may be more interesting than you think…
Thimbles are tricky little beggars. They seem like a really simple concept, slip a little metal cup over your finger, prevent needle from pushing back into your flesh. Alas, it doesn’t always work out like that. Use the wrong thimble, or use it badly, and it gets in the way, falls off or invites injury.
Lets start by looking at the different kinds of thimble and what they are good for. Forget ceramic or wooden thimbles, they are just decorative.
These are what you’ll probably first think of as thimbles. Little metal cups with indents over them to catch the needle. If you do a lot of hand sewing, wearing one will stop you getting calluses on your fingers. When stitching heavy fabrics, or a lot of layers, they can help you push the needle through without it sliding back into your fingertip.
It’s important to chose the right metal thimble. It should fit snugly on your finger so it doesn’t slide off, but not be too tight or it will squish your fingertip and be uncomfortable. Alas, most modern made thimbles are packaged so you can’t try them on before buying! So silly. You can try buying old metal thimbles from markets or charity shops, but beware, corroded metal can let a needle slip through or stain your fingertip.
Don’t try grabbing your needle to pull it through with a metal thimbled finger, you won’t have enough friction between the two shiny surfaces to grip properly. You want to avoid using metal thimbles for leather sewing too, leather needles are very strong and you put a lot of pressure on them in use. I’ve had a leather needle slide back through a brand new steel thimble and into my finger. Good thing the bone stopped it.
I’m talking about the rigid ones here. They come in all shapes and sizes, most covering less of the finger than a traditional metal thimble so they are a bit more comfortable to wear. The large range of sizes available in modern haberdashers also makes them easier to purchase. They’ve largely replaced metal thimbles for embroiders and home sewers wanting to avoid calluses.
I don’t use them. I like my calluses, plastic thimbles don’t really offer anything useful to me. They don’t make it any easier to pull a needle through, as they tend to be far too smooth, and the plastic is too soft to
add extra protection when working with heavy fabrics or leather.
Rubber thimbles are made for handling paper or counting money rather than for sewing, but they can be useful. Try pushing the end of the needle wearing a rubber thimble and it will slide straight through it, but the nubby texture of the rubber grips needles really well when your pulling them through the other side. If you find yourself getting peeling skin or calluses on the pad of your forefinger, try wearing one of these.
Look for a leather thimble in a haberdashery and you’ll most likely find a horrid little suede pocket. It’s uncomfortable to wear and doesn’t offer anything over the rubber thimble. Put pressure on the end of a needle with one and it will go straight through, try gripping tightly and you’ll still get slippage. You can get clever leather thimbles with metal pads in them, but I’ve yet one come across one
you could try for fit before buying.
The best leather thimble, by far, is one you make yourself. It’s a whole different thing to badly fitting metal thimbles, sweaty plastic or cheap suede.
It’ll serve for all your general thimble needs, protecting fingertips during embroidery marathons and home mending. If you’re struggling to get a needle through several layers, it offers more than enough protection for a good shove on the end, and enough friction to grab and pull from the other side! It is a little on the bulky side, not a problem if you only wear one thimble but tricky if you want to cover multiple fingers.
Moulding one to your finger means its the best fitting thimble you can get, it won’t slip off or pinch, and being leather it gives enough that it won’t squish your fingertip or feel sweaty.
The real benefit comes when sewing leather. The thick leather over the pad of your finger will give you plenty of protection to push the needle though, and unlike the metal thimble which cracks suddenly, you’ll feel the needle backing through the leather long before it gets to your skin. The slightly rough leather surface also gives good purchase on the needle to pull through, meaning you don’t need to reach for your pliers as often. It’s easy to scour the leather surface for extra grip too, although it’ll generally develop enough pits during use without assistance.
No doubt there are ‘proper’ ways to make leather thimbles, but this is my current method. A thimble made like this generally serves me for a fair long while, usually I loose them or have them stolen by a playful kitty long before they wear out.
First off, find a scrap of vegetable tanned leather. You’ll want it fairly thick and tough, the best I’ve used was a bit of buffalo, but generally any thick scrap will serve. Try the scraps bin at Le Prevo if you don’t have any lying round.
Draw round the finger you want to make a thimble for. For me, that’s the middle finger of my right hand, but yours may be different depending on your sewing technique.
Add in two horizontal lines, one at the level of your top finger joint (this will be the bottom of your thimble) and another around about the level of the base of your fingernail. Draw a curved line about a centimetre away from your original fingertip outline, then cut out along the lines.
Try fitting the resulting shape around your finger, the legs should extend far enough to overlap comfortably without wrapping around to the front. Trim them down if needs be. Don’t worry if the the top section seems really big.
You can stop here if you want. Tie a bit of thread around the legs and you’ll have a really basic leather pad held over your fingertip. Not very comfortable or stable, but it does the job. Or…
Skive down the legs and lower part of your leather, leaving the top bulge as thick as possible. You can use a safety skiver for this but I find its easier to graduate the thickness with a small scalpel blade. Doing this will reduce the bulk around your finger, making the thimble a lot more comfortable.
Check the size of everything again, then it’s on with the wet moulding. If you want to do any extra hardening techniques on the bulged section, now is a good time. All I did with this one was dip it in a cup of boiled water and give it a few whacks with a hammer to toughen it up.
Next, wet the whole piece and let it sit for a few minutes, then wrap the legs around your finger and secure them in place. A pipe cleaner is a handy way to do this, or wrap some scrap thread around a few times.
You’ll have a big bulge of awkward leather sticking up from the front of your finger, roll this against a firm surface back against your fingertip so the top is flat, you should get little ‘ears’ forming at the sides.
Push these in and smooth them down, then roll from front to tip against your firm surface again, flattening the top and getting slightly smaller ears.
Push these in and keep repeating rolling and squishing until you get a nice dome shape. Don’t fret if you get folds or crevices in your dome, these can be quite handy for grabbing your needle.
When your thimble is mostly dry, try it on and tidy up your support. Thread wrapped neatly a few times around the base works well enough, tie it so the knot sits just next to your overlapping legs and feed the loose ends to the inside before trimming.
Let your thimble dry out completely before you use it. Try to push the needle end with the thickest part of the leather, grip with the more flexible front part.
Your thimble should get more comfortable as you use it, but if you find it’s not fitting right, it’s easily adjusted by retying the thread support or dipping it in your coffee and giving it an extra squish…. I mean carefully re-moulding it. When it does start to wear out, abandon it to your favourite pet as a fun toy and make a new one (if your cat is anything like mine, this may happen long before said thimble has worn out). It really is simple, I’ve taken a lot longer writing how to do it that I have actually doing it.