More about Thimbles


Magdalena and William Isbister.

The Abbasid era began with the murder of Marwan ll (1), the last Umayyad Caliph of Damascus, in 656 AD. The Abbasid Caliphs ruled from Baghdad until 1258 AD and oversaw the ‘Golden Age’ of Islamic science and culture. Their empire was the largest that the world had known at the time and was bigger than the empire of Alexander the Great. The term ‘Abbasid-Levantine thimble’ seems to have been first used by von Hoelle (2) in 1986. The term describes thimbles found in the ‘Levant’, the Mediterranean lands east of Italy, including Syria and Jordan, and dating from the ninth to twelfth centuries AD. They were thought to date a little earlier than the other cast bronze thimbles of the region and were considered to be the rarest of the Islamic styles (2). According to von Hoelle, ‘it was the Abbasid-Levantine style thimble which returning Crusaders introduced to pre-Renaissance Europe’ and which was the shape adopted by ‘western European thimblers’.

In this paper we will examine the assertions made by von Hoelle and try to review the information presently available about these thimbles.

Irmgard von Traitteur described three thimbles which were found near to Kabul in Afghanistan and which were dated by the Material Science Institute of the University of Erlangen. Using ‘electron beam’ studies, the thimbles were dated to the period of Sassanid rule in Persia from 224-624 AD. Two of these thimbles were of the Hama type (3). It is not clear whether all thimbles were tested.

McConnel (4) writing in 1990 illustrated six ‘Abbasid-Levantine’ thimbles (Fig 1) and repeated von Hoelle.


                          Fig 1                                     Fig 2                                          Fig 3

According to McConnel, the ‘Abbasid-Levantine’ thimbles were smaller than the Hispano-Moresque (Fig 2) and Turko-Slavic (Fig 3) bronze thimbles with a rounder shape and a definite rim although three of the thimbles that she illustrated were rimless! Some thimbles were decorated with a chevron motif (a ‘V’-shaped pattern usually pointing upward) ‘curving from one side of the thimble to the other’ or a cross (4).

In 1997 McConnel showed four ‘Abbasid-Levantine’ thimbles in her second book (5) but only one of these had not been illustrated before.

Writing in Thimble Notes and Queries in 1991, Holmes (6) described two of 35 thimbles found in Syria and Lebanon whose ‘principal characteristic was a chevron motif separating three clusters of hand-punched indentations’. The thimbles were made of a copper alloy and had a knob on the top which stood either proud or flush. The top was decorated or plain. Holmes suggested that these thimbles dated from the 15th or the 16th centuries. Holmes was critical of ‘a writer on thimbles’ who ‘has stated on the basis of no ascertainable facts or cited no reference that these are rare thimbles, that they date from the ninth to twelfth centuries and traces them to the Abbasid dynasty’. Holmes did not think that the thimbles were unduly rare, questioned their age and wondered why no similar thimbles had been found in Nishapur, an important town on the old Silk Road.

In a later Thimble Notes and Queries (7), Holmes described the results of a Danish archaeological excavation in Hama, Syria in the early thirties when several thimbles were found.

Fig 4

Hama is a city on the banks of the Orontes River in central Syria. The ancient settlement, originally known as Hamath, was occupied from the early Neolithic to the Iron Ages, is famous for its giant irrigating water wheels (Fig 4), which it is claimed date back to 1100 BC, and is presently the fourth largest city in Syria. Between 1931 and 1938 the Danes excavated in the ancient town where the mount of the ancient citadel was situated. During the excavations several thimbles were discovered (8).


Fig 5

Two, of similar design, had never been identified before (Fig 5). For this reason they came to be known as Hama thimbles.

The records of the excavations indicated that one of these thimbles was found in a layer estimated to date from 1170-1290 AD, and the other to a layer from 1302-1401.

Burn (9) writing in 2001, paraphrases Holmes and repeats the same incorrect information given in Thimble Notes and Queries (7) relating to one of the layers. In the original Danish publication (8) four layers were excavated, A1-4, and the thimbles in question were found in layers A1 and A3. Layer A1 corresponds to a time period of 1302 to 1401 AD and layer A3 to a period 1170/91 to 1260 AD and not to the period 1260 to 1302 AD as Holmes and subsequently Burn state. The Hama thimbles were thus found in layers corresponding to a period covering 1170 to 1401 AD.

In modern day thimble parlance Hama seems to have replaced ‘Abbasid-Levantine’ to describe the thimbles discussed in this paper and this term will be used from now on in this paper.

We think that what is now known as the Hama thimble evolved as the use of steel needles moved West (Figs 6 - 8). The earliest example that we have seen was dug up in Northern Afghanistan and just has three semi lunar lines above the rim for decoration (Fig 6). The dimples are made by hand and the thimble was cast.


                               Fig 6                                    Fig 7                                    Fig 8

A second cast thimble found in Afghanistan has three chevrons, is hand dimpled and has an elevated top (Fig 7). The third thimble, also from Afghanistan is cast and hand dimpled but now has four chevrons and a rim. The top looks as though there is a cross because of the four plain bands separating the four chevrons (Fig 8).


                             Fig 9                               Fig 10                                Fig 11


                                                 Fig 12                                Fig 13

The most commonly seen Hama thimbles have flat tops and three hand dimpled panels (Figs 9 - 16). All thimbles are cast and the majority of tops are flat and the flat rims are decorated with grooved bands.


                         Fig 14                                   Fig 15                                    Fig 16

In additional to four (Fig 8) and three panel thimbles there are occasionally Hama thimbles with just two panels (Fig 14). Occasionally the top is raised in a decoration (Fig 15), in this instance a simple disk, but there may be a raised floral pattern (10). Sometimes the floral decoration on the top is flat (Fig 16). It seems likely that the protuberances or patterns on the tops of these thimbles are the remains of the casting process that have been either left simply smoothed over (Fig 10) or decorated in some way (Figs 11, 16). A single thimble has a decorated rim (Fig 16).

What of the disagreement between von Hoelle and Holmes? Clearly von Hoelle was not able to cite any evidence for the assertions that he made regarding his ‘Abbasid-Levantine’ thimbles but the dating evidence found by Holmes, but misinterpreted by him and copied by Burn without checking the original work, does show that the thimbles found at Hama could have been made during the late Abbasid era. Von Hoelle’s naming is thus correct but his dating was rather too early. We still prefer to use the term ‘Hama’ to describe these thimbles, however, because it relates to the site where most information regarding the thimbles has been obtained. The suggestion made by von Hoelle that the ‘Abbasid-Levantine’ thimbles were the inspiration for European thimble makers seems to be unlikely because to our knowledge no such thimble has ever been found outside of the Middle East, and if the ‘Abbasid-Levantine’ thimbles had been brought to Europe, as von Hoelle suggests, then it would be expected that some would have been discovered. Holmes further argues against the thimbles being from the Abbasid era because none were found in excavations in Nishapur, Iran. Hama thimbles have been found in Northern Afghanistan, however, indicating that they were not just limited to the eastern Mediterranean. The Afghanistan thimbles seem to be of a simpler design and we postulate that these thimbles pre date the thimbles from Hama although no actual archaeological dating information is available for them. The dating of the von Traitteur thimbles is difficult to reconcile with the Danish dating data. It seems to us that it is most unlikely that Hama-style thimbles were in use, unchanged, from the Sassanid era to the late Abbasid era, a period of some ten centuries. Without information regarding which von Traitteur thimbles were tested, how they were tested and the experimental accuracy of the testing method itself it is difficult to comment further. It does seem rather unlikely that it took thimbles one thousand years to travel from Kabul to Hama, whereas it only took a few hundred years from the invention of the first thimbles or sewing rings in China until Hama-type thimbles appeared in Kabul.

Careful perusal of the Thimble Society of London’s magazine and major thimble auction catalogues has only revealed three Hama thimbles for sale since the early eighties so the von Hoelle claim that the thimbles are rare would seem to be true.

Hama thimbles thus seem to date from the 12th century, were uniform in design, were produced in a fairly circumscribed area in the Levant over a relatively short period of time at the end of the Abbasid era, and have not been found in other parts of the world. They are relatively ‘rare’. We caution against the dangers of using information without checking the original source of the information as this can lead to serious misrepresentations.


We wish to thank Bridget McConnel for permission to use the images in Figures 11-13.


1.Al-Qu’aiti SG.  The Holy Cities, the Pilgrimage and the World of Islam.  Fons Vitae, Louisville, KY, 2007.  pp. 83.

2.von Hoelle JJ.  Thimble collector’s encyclopedia.  Illinois: Wallace-Homestead Book Company, 1986.  pp. 29.

3.von Traitteur I.  Drei Fingerhűte der Sassaniden.  Rund um den Fingerhut, 1987; 7: 2.

4.McConnel B.  Letts guide to collecting Thimbles.  Charles Letts and Company Limited, London 1991.  pp. 16.

5.McConnel B. The story of the thimble.  Atglen, PA.:  Schiffer Publishing Ltd, 1997.  pp. 18.

6.Holmes EF.     Thimble Notes and Queries 1991; 11: 7

7.Holmes EF.     Thimble Notes and Queries 1991; 12: 12

8.Plough G, et al.  Hama, Fouilles et Recherches 1931- 1938 lV3.  Copenhagen: Fondation Carlsberg, 1969.  pp. 86.

9.Pelham Burn D.  Early Thimbles.  Thimble Collectors International, 2001. pp. 19.

10. Holmes EF.     Thimble Notes and Queries 1991; 14: 18.

Holmes: na.

Researched and published in 2002/11

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Magdalena and William Isbister, Moosbach, Germany


Hama thimbles