An awl is a simple tool: it's basically a metal shaft with a sharpened point at one end and a handle at the other. Awls have been used to punch holes in all kinds of materials for centuries. Anyone who has threaded yarn through a sewing card or a strip of leather through a piece of pre-punched leather has benefited from work done with an awl.
Awls can be used not just to punch holes but also to sew thread through the holes. Sailors may have contributed to the invention of the sewing awl because of the need to mend heavy canvas sails. Craftsmen wrestling with good ways to sew pieces of leather together securely may have contributed as well.
A sewing awl differs from one used by a carpenter in that it has a hole for thread in its tip. (Ordinary sewing needles have a sharp end and an "eye" end for thread. Sewing awls, like sewing machine needles, have both the point and the eye at the same end.) This construction makes it possible to make a "lock-stitch" by hand. A lock-stitch has thread on both sides of the material being sewn; by pushing one thread though a loop in the other each time a stitch is made, you can "lock" the stitching together.
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How Do You Use a Sewing Awl?
To use a sewing awl, you must be able to reach both sides of the material you are sewing. Even if you have to work blind, make sure you can reach both sides; if you can't, you will not be able to "lock" your stitches in place. For purposes of this description, we will assume that you sew with your right hand--that means your right hand will operate the awl and your left hand will move the bottom thread.
Measure out twice the thread you will need to sew your project--be generous so that you will have extra thread to tie off your work. Thread the eye on your sewing awl, and push the awl through your material. On this first stitch, anchor thread on the top side of your material by pressing the thread between the handle and your thumb. Reach under, loosen the thread at the eye and pull the unanchored end of the thread through the hole you made with the awl. Pull that thread as taut as the one on top and secure it gently with your free hand.
You are now ready to begin lock-stitching. Insert the awl a stitch-width from your first hole (usually 1/8-inch away from the first hole). Use your left thumb to pull a small loop in the thread next to the eye, then use your left hand to push the bottom thread through the loop. Ease the awl back with your right hand to tighten the loop and pull down gently with your left hand to lock the stitch. Do it again--and again--that's all there is to it!
Where Can You Use a Sewing Awl?
First of all, practice your lock-stitching on a piece of cardboard or heavy fabric, until your stitches begin to look the same, are an even size and go the direction you want (at first, between the punching and the looping and the pulling, it's harder to go in a straight line than you imagine!).
Ready to go? Almost. Many sewing awls come pre-threaded, but you may not want beige stitches on a black belt. Heavy cotton is usually made of linen, is often waxed, and may be marked as "carpet," "button" or "canvas" thread. Your stitches will show, so you need to plan how they will look.
Ready! Bring on the leather-goods, deckchair cover, bedroom-slipper or torn rugs. Strong fabric needs strong thread--and vice versa. If you are trying to join materials of two different weights (repairing the lining in a leather jacket, for example), get advice on the best way to do this when you buy your thread.
Once you get good at this, you'll look hard for all kinds of projects you can do. It's said many an old salt could mend a torn sail in the middle of a storm--good to know, but please start your sewing awl career safely on the dock!