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A stitching awl is a hand tool shaped much like a screwdriver. Such awls, also called sewing awls, are used most often for hand-sewing leather, canvas, and other heavy materials. The tool is simple in its design, with a wood or composite handle and a single metal shaft with a hole or eye for thread. The shaft of a stitching awl is narrow, tapering to a sharp point at the end to better punch through thick layers. Modern awl handles are frequently designed to accommodate interchangeable shafts, which allow the user options for smaller points, shafts with slight bends at the end, and other augmentations designed for specific projects.
Shoemakers, cobblers, and other leather craftsman are the typical users of leather stitching awls. The combination of a sharp point and an eye at the end of the shaft act much like a needle and thread for leather crafts. A heavy-duty handle allows the craftsman the ability to punch through sturdy material while simultaneously pushing thread through the resulting hole. As such, the craftsman can then complete a series of lock stitches to attach pieces of leather or canvas together that would otherwise bend a standard heavy-gauge sewing needle.
In terms of appearance, a stitching awl resembles a scratch awl or a bradawl. Both scratch awls and bradawls feature the same wood or composite handle and long pointed shaft. Unlike stitching awls, scratch awls and bradawls do not have bends at the end, nor eyes for thread, as they are not used as hand sewing equipment. Instead, scratch and bradawls are used to mark wood or create starter points for nails and screws. Therefore, the easiest way to tell the difference between a stitching awl and other awls is by looking for an eye or slight bends at the tip of the awl shaft.
The use of stitching awls dates back centuries, with awls made of bone found in archeological digs from the Paleolithic period, also known as the Old Stone Age, being the oldest. Likewise, stitching awls made of iron have been found in digs dating to the time of the ancient Romans. Contemporary sewing awl designs vary little from these early examples, with the primary difference being the metal used for the shaft and various manufacturing improvements.
While using such a simple tool as a stitching awl for leather sewing and similar tasks seems easy, it is not without dangers. Applying pressure to the handle incorrectly or using an underarm technique can cause the awl to slip, resulting in injury to the face or eyes. In fact, the famous Louis Braille, inventor of the Braille alphabet system for the blind, lost his sight as a child from an accident involving a stitching awl.