Skill Builder: Using an Awl to Sew Leather and Heavy Fabrics

Skill Builder: Using an Awl to Sew Leather and Heavy Fabrics
"Sewing awl" by Rémi Cormier - Self-taken picture. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -
“Sewing awl” by Rémi Cormier – Self-taken picture. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.


If you think about tools that we use today that are passed down from ancient people, the knife, or possibly a modern version of the spear might come to mind. Lying somewhere between those two implements in the modern-day usefulness is the awl. Made out of bone in ancient times, the basic purpose of an awl is to pierce a piece of heavy material in order to stitch it.

I’ve repaired part of a sailboat with mine and tested it out on the cardboard box that it came in. One of those was much more useful than the other, which I’m sure you can figure out.

So how do you use one of these monster-needles?

awl-parts-illustration (public domain)

Parts of an Awl

At its most basic, an awl is just a pointed “poking” instrument with a hole through it to hold a string. There’s a good chance you have a utility knife with a thin blade and a hole through it; a very basic awl.

My awl, a “Speedy Stitcher” model, is probably closer to what is commonly used in the developed world, and contains:

  • A bobbin with heavy thread on it and a tension post that keeps pressure on the thread while stitching.

  • A needle with a groove in it to allow the thread to slide into a tight hole.

  • A threaded post that holds the needle with a chuck lock, similar to what’s used on a Dremel tool to keep the bits in place.

  • A wooden handle with a hole in it to allow the thread to go through, with an end cap for the bobbin.

Quite an improvement over “knife with hole,” but in a pinch I’m sure either would be welcome.

Getting ready to test out my awl on the cardboard package it came in.
Ready to test out my awl on the cardboard package it came in.

Set up your stitch

With the bobbin securely in the handle and the needle in its post, pull thread out of the hole and loop around the tension post then through a slot and hole in the handle leading to the threaded post. Continue up the post into a recession carved into it, and finally into the needle through a channel for the thread. Secure the chuck lock, making sure the thread is properly situated in the recession so as not to be crushed.

Once the lock is secured, you should be able to pull string out of the needle with little effort.


Start Stitching

Plunge your awl into where you’d like to begin your stitch, then pull out as much thread as the length of what you’d like to stitch plus around three inches through the needle. Hold the thread steady, then pull your awl and needle out of the hole leaving thread behind.

Push your awl into the material to create a second hole, then pull back until the thread on the awl forms a loop. Thread the entire length of the other end of thread through this loop. Pull the awl out of this hole, pulling on both ends of the thread with equal tension forming your first stitch. Continue this procedure in the following stitches, releasing thread from the awl with the end cap as needed.



One good way to finish an awl stitch, if you don’t mind the look of a knot at the end, is to tie a knot instead of looping the last stitch. Push the awl in as in a normal stitch, then pull out around three inches of thread through the needle. Cut the awl loop thread and tie this to the already-loose end with a square knot.

Another method is to stitch like normal on your last stitch, then stitch backwards with your awl, placing the needle into the second-to-last stitch and looping then the third-to-last hole and possibly another loop if you’d like to be really sure of yourself. Pull the awl out and tighten like normal, then cut each end off.

5 thoughts on “Skill Builder: Using an Awl to Sew Leather and Heavy Fabrics

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  3. Johnny Gnash says:

    I use one of those from time to time, but I learned something here by the way you’re using it. Thanks!

  4. Sachin Myneni says:

    Hi, I think this could be more useful (for me atleast) if the process of stitching was demo’d in a very short video.
    Go tigers!

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Jeremy is an engineer with 10 years experience at his full-time profession, and has a BSME from Clemson University. Outside of work he’s an avid maker and experimenter, building anything that comes into his mind!

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