Archaeologists working on domestic sites are almost sure to find at least one example of that most humble of artifacts—the sewing thimble. Whether manufactured from brass, iron, aluminum or silver, most of these thimbles are the familiar closed-top variety. But a small percentage are open-topped thimble rings.
Like a closed-top thimble, these sewing rings—as they were also called—were used to help push a needle through fabric. Thimble rings, which protected the side, rather than the top of the finger, were often used by tailors or individuals sewing heavy cloth, like canvas sails or leather (Holmes 1985).
Thimble rings would have been an everyday tool in 18th– and 19th-century Baltimore, when the city was renowned as a center for shipbuilding. By 1809, there were nine shipyards in the city, many of them located in the Fell’s Point neighborhood. Before the advent of steam engines, ships relied on the wind and sails for power. And where shipbuilding flourished, so too did the production of canvas sails. Eleven sail makers worked in Baltimore in 1809; a number that had increased to 29 in the 1822 city directory (Matchett 1822).
The size of sails made it expedient for sailmakers to work in large, open floor plan workrooms known as lofts. Although the bolts of canvas used for crafting sails were thirty-nine yards long, they were only two feet wide, necessitating the piecing together of long strips of fabric (Allan 2018). Some of the largest sails could weigh in at over a ton (Allen 2018). Standardized rules governed the profession of sailmaking and numerous treatises were published in the 19th century with guidelines for constructing different types of sails (O’Regan 2014). And sailmaking was not just a dry land activity; all sailing vessels needed the services of a sailmaker on board for at-sea repairs.
While flax linen imported from Europe had typically been used for making sails, the introduction of new spinning and weaving technology in the early 19th century brought about the transition to cotton (O’Regan 2014). Cotton duck proved to be a strong, tightly woven fabric perfect for creating sails. Cotton grown in the American South was imported to cotton mills along Baltimore’s Jones Falls and these mills found a ready market among sailmakers (Nettles 2019).
Within three decades of the 1843 development of steam-powered ships, “virtually all merchant and military ships had converted to metal hulls and steam power” (Nettles 2019). While it might seem that the advent of steam-powered vessels would have been a death knell for sailmakers, this was not the case. Mid-19th century technological advancements in food canning and preservation brought about a boom in the oyster industry, with an attendant need for sails to outfit Chesapeake oyster boats (Brewington 1970). During the Civil War, sailmakers found employment making tents for soldiers.
Today, the use of sailing vessels is more of a sport and recreational activity, rather than economic or military necessity. Technological improvements in fabric manufacture have advanced the art of sailmaking well beyond heavy canvas into a range of lighter weight polyester blends. Although Baltimore was once a center for shipbuilding and sailmaking, today that honor seems to have shifted south to Annapolis, where a search of the yellow pages reveals a number of companies specializing in sail design and production.
Allan, Philip K. 2018 Sails and the Art of the Sailmaker. Blog of Philip K. Allen, Author. Post dated July 9, 2018 at https://www.philipkallan.com/single-post/2018/07/09/Sails-and-the-Vanishing-Art-of-the-Sailmaker. Post accessed June 5, 2019.
Brewington, Marion V. 1970 Chesapeake Sailmaking. Maryland Historical Magazine Volume 65, Issue 2.
Holmes, Edwin F. 1985 A History of Thimbles. Cornwall Books, New York.
Matchett, R. J. 1822 C. Keenan’s Baltimore directory for 1822 & ’23 : together with the eastern and western precincts, never before included : a correct account of removals, new firms, and other useful information. R. J. Matchett, Baltimore.
Nettles, Dean 2019 Shipbuilding and the Rise and Fall of Sails. Baltimore Industry Tours. http://www.baltimoreindustrytours.com/shipbuilding.php
O’Regan, Deirdre 2014 New Sails for an Old Ship—Building Sails for the Charles W. Morgan. Sea History 147. Summer 2014. https://www.mysticseaport.org/voyage/restoration/new-sails-for-an-old-ship/ Website accessed June 5, 2019.