Monday, February 20, 2012

Remembrances of Thimbles Past

"Oh, Aunt Beatrice," exclaimed Beezus, as she opened her first package. It was a real grown-up sewing box. It had two sizes of scissors, a fat red pincushion that looked like a tomato, an emery bag that looked like a ripe strawberry, and a tape measure that pulled out of a shiny box. When Beezus pushed the button on the box, the tape measure snapped back inside. The box also had needles, pins, and a thimble. Beezus never wore a thimble, but she thought it would be nice to have one in case she ever wanted to use one."  -- From Beezus and Ramona by Beverly Cleary, 1955.

I started sewing as a child about the same time as Beezus did. And like Beezus,  I never wore a thimble. Neither did my mother who sewed everything from curtains to maternity clothes to dresses for her daughters. She felt thimbles were too cumbersome.

I can't remember when I first learned to use a needle, but one of my favorite childhood memories involves a sewing bee. I was in second grade, and we lived at the end of a cul de sac in Anaheim, California. There were little girls living in the house on the other side of the street, and I remember one special summer when we would meet on the curved green lawn between the two houses and sit there all morning sewing clothes for our dolls. (Mine was an official Gerber baby!) No thimble was needed as we pushed and pulled our needles in and out of our fabric, our little tongues wagging as womens' always do when they are gathered together over needlework.

When I was in third grade (in Norfolk, Virginia), I learned to embroider. My mother taught me how to do cross stitches, an outline stitch, and French knots. I can't remember my first project, though I'm certain that Aunt Martha's iron-on transfer patterns were involved. But I do recall that I was so thrilled with my finished work that I started a new, more ambitious project -- a depiction of The First Sorrowful Mystery: The Agony in the Garden, which I traced onto fabric from a coloring page I'd gotten at catechism class. I still didn't use a thimble. My fingers were probably still too small. When I began to read Beverly Cleary's books, I sympathized with Beezus who was embroidering a potholder for her favorite aunt, especially as she struggled to follow her grandmother's dictum, "Conceal a knot as you would a secret." (I still think of that line whenever I embroider.)

By this time I was also beginning to use a sewing machine. My first garment was a Mother's Day gift, an apron for my mom. I thought it was gorgeous -- I'd even trimmed it with lace that was shot through with gold thread. I was very proud that my mother kept it in her cedar chest because it was "too nice" to use for everyday cooking. (It wasn't until I was much, much older that I realized my apron was much too frail to actually use.)

I finally got my first thimble when I took home-ec in junior high school. It was a mandatory component of our official sewing box. I still didn't use it though. It never fit right, it made me feel clumsy, and when I tried to push the needle with it, the needle slid right off. But I could manage to whip stitch my hems without a thimble.

But many years later, when I first began to quilt, I finally had to come to terms with thimbles.
Because unless you're quilting with a stab stitch, you need a thimble for that rocking motion that allows you to load several stitches onto the tip of your needle before you pull it through.

At first I attempted to use an ordinary metal thimble. But I had the same problems with it that I'd had in junior high. Then I tried using a long, white, leather thimble that seemed to cover about half of my finger. It too was very awkward, and the eye of the needle was soon poking through the leather and into my skin.

Fits like a glove!

I finally had some success with a smaller, black, leather thimble called the "Nimble." It has a little metal disk inside that protects you fingertip, and it's supposed to stretch and conform itself to your finger. And it did feel like a second skin to me. An opening at the tip left room for my fingernail and provided ventilation. But instead of putting it on my middle finger, I wore it on my thumb. I'm not sure why; maybe I'd accidentally bought a size too large. But it worked pretty well. I quilted away from myself, turning the hoop as needed. My thumb was stronger than my middle finger, and using it didn't require a cramped hand position which could irritate my old elbow injury.

Had to put this on my left had so I could click the camera with my right.
Eventually, as my fingers grew stronger and my hands more relaxed, I also learned to use one of those cheapo, pink, plastic thimbles. It's adjustable and, like my Nimble, has an opening for your finger nail which also lets your finger breathe. It has lots of little indentations on both the sides and the top which are deep enough to give the needle purchase when you're trying to push it through your quilt. It calls for a different hand movement than I use with the Nimble, but that's actually a good thing. "A change is as good as a rest," as they say. And being able to change hand position while quilting helps me to avoid strain.

Nowadays, using a thimble seems natural. I couldn't possibly blind stitch a binding without one! And sometimes, when my quilting is interrupted, I'll go off to deal with things forgetting that I'm even wearing a thimble. I guess we've finally bonded.

N.B. Bonnie Hunter is hosting a Thimbles Up! Linky Party today. Go see what she (and many other quilters) have to say about thimbles.


Bonnie K Hunter said...

Oh I loved reading this whole post!! Thanks for lInkIng up!

Cathy said...

I love your post! The memories and the literary connections make it a very very pleasurable read.

vtquilter said...

I love you post! Thanks for hooking up. Makes me want to pull out my little wall hanging that is just waiting for some hand quilting.

Rebekah said...

My mother did some hand quilting and left me a fair sized collection of metal and leather thimbles. I gave hand quilting a go a couple years ago and found out that none of the thimbles fit me and the leather ones were too worn to use. Sigh. This nimble you mentioned, however, sounds just perfect for me! Thanks for sharing!

Kathy ... aka Nana said...

I use a Nimble Thimble ... which are getting more difficult to find. I started sewing and embroidering as a child before I first started sewing (when I turned 30). I didn't (and still don't) use a thimble when sewing by hand/embroidering ... now the only hand sewing I do is tacking down binding ... I may have to try it with my thimble. ;-)

marcella said...

Oh how I loved those Beverly Cleary books! I had forgotten about the sewing box. Thanks for the great memories.

sunshineannie said...

I too inherited my mothers sewing box, and it had a couple dozen thimbles in it. It looked like the most used one was an off white plastic. It was worn thru! She hand quilted many quilts in her later years.
I've used the Nimble thimbles in the past to the point of actually wearing them out! But not quilting, I used them making rag dolls. You have to be patient enough to let the leather form to your finger. At first it's stiff, but once it takes on the shape of your finger it's great.
I don't really plan on doing a lot of hand quilting. I enjoy the piecing more. I still do a large amount of hand sewing on dolls/snowmen/scarecrows/etc.

YankeeQuilter said...

Great post! I quilt with my thumb when I am quilting away from me...not sure where I learned it but it works for me!

Linda (Petey) said...

Anyone who proves a point with good children's lit wins me over! Thank you for sharing your memories. I'll keep trying the thimble...after my finger becomes sore :).

Jan Hatchett said...

Thanks for posting! It is really nice to read posts by other hand quilters.