I have to admit that before Purl Patchwork opened I didn't have a clue about thimbles. They seemed quaint and old fashioned but I didn't really understand their use (... and I thought that you wore them on your thumb!) Now that I hand sew and embroider regularly my thimbles have become indispensable. I have different kinds for different uses and I thought I'd share with you what they're all for in case anyone out there is similarly clueless.
The goat leather thimble is my favorite traditional thimble and thus it's a good place to start. I used to think that thimbles were primarily used as protection from the sharp end of the needle. But in the case of traditional thimbles that's not true. You wear a traditional thimble (usually on your index or middle finger) to protect your finger from the eye-end of the needle. If you use your index or middle finger to push the eye-end of a needle enough times your finger will get hurt; that's where a thimble like this comes in handy.
I use my goat leather thimble primarily for hand quilting. The rocking motion of the hand quilting stitch would be very painful without it because you are constantly pushing the end of the needle with the tip of your finger.
You can also wear a thimble for hand piecing to help push the needle through as you do the running stitch.
I prefer the goat leather thimble to a more traditional metal thimble because it's flexible and feels like an extension of my own finger, but a metal thimble works the same way.
Some people prefer the metal thimbles because they don't cover the first finger knuckle. Also their indentations are useful in catching the eye-end of the needle. Our quiltmaking teacher, Cassandra, finds the leather thimbles bulky, while I find the metal ones too rigid. It's all a mater of personal preference and what feels right to you. Make sure when you buy a traditional thimble, be it goat leather or metal, that it fits properly. It should be snug enough to not fall off your finger but not too tight that it hurts.
The Under Thimble is also primarily used for hand quilting. When I was taught to hand quilt I was told to push the needle through the quilt until it just poked my bottom finger.
I do still think this is a good way to initially learn because it helps to regulate your stitch size. However, now that I've learned the basic principle, the Under Thimble makes hand quilting much quicker, because I'm not so afraid of impaling my poor underfinger.
To use it you simply stick it on your index finger with one of the reusable stickers that come with the package. All of a sudden your under finger is invincible!
The thimble pad is something that I use for embroidery. It gives me a better grip when I'm pulling the thread through my fabric and prevents any irritation that might come from always gripping the needle in the same place. It sticks on and can be used many times. I have also heard it can be very useful in applique.
The thimble pad is a really versatile tool, there's no rules to it, it's just there to help. I was embroidering some napkins recently and I kept pricking myself over and over in the same place. I popped a thimble pad on and the problem was solved!
The Japanese Sashiko technique also has it's own Sashiko thimble, and it's worn in a very unique place on the base of the middle finger, protecting the top of the palm.
After gathering many stitches on the needle you push the needle through using the top part of your palm (protected, of course by your thimble!) For a more in depth explanation of Sashiko click here.
So... in conclusion
If you're hand sewing and your fingers are being in any way irritated, poked, pricked, or prodded, there is a thimble to help you.