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A stitching awl is a simple tool with which holes can be punctured in a variety of materials, or existing holes can be enlarged. It is also used for sewing heavy materials, such as leather or canvas. It is a thin, tapered metal shaft, coming to a sharp point, either straight or slightly bent. These shafts are often in the form of interchangeable needles. They usually have an eye piercing in it at the pointed end (as opposed to normal sewing needles) to aid in drawing thread through holes for the purpose of manual lockstitch sewing, in which case it is also called a sewing awl. Stitching awls are frequently used by cobblers (shoe repairers) and other leatherworkers. Sewing awls are useful for making lock stitches. The needle, with the thread in the eye is pushed through the material. The thread is then pulled through the eye to extend it. As the needle is pushed through the material, the extra thread from the first stitch is then threaded through the loops of successive stitches creating a lock stitch. The action is likened to that of a "miniature sewing machine". Styles may vary, as they are adapted to specific trades, such as making shoes or saddles. They are also used in the printing trades to aid in setting movable type and in bookbinding.
Shoemakers consider sewing awls to mean for sewing leather, i.e. what archaeologists call "edge-flesh stitching"; while stitching awls are meant for stabbing through leather.
The English disparaging term “cobblers”, usually meaning “nonsense”, is Cockney rhyming slang for “balls” from the phrase “cobblers’ awls”. For shoemakers, "Cobblers" are people who repair shoes, not those who make shoes. This differentiation is ancient in the English language.
Awls in history
When he was a child, Louis Braille gouged his eye with an awl by accident. The one eye was destroyed instantly, and the resulting infection claimed the other eye, making him blind by the time he was four. The accident spurred Braille to the invention of the famous Braille alphabet. Ironically, Braille created the raised-dot system by using an awl.
Pictured to the right, this case was meant to hold an awl and was collected by Dr. Nathan Sturges Jarvis, a military surgeon stationed at Fort Snelling, Minnesota, between 1833 and 1836. Most items like this case, were made by the Eastern and Middle Dakota (Sioux) or by the peoples of the Red River region, including the Red River Métis, Anishinabe, Plains Cree, and Salteaux. Unfortunatley, by the early nineteenth century, much of the game on which the Dakota and Red River peoples depended upon were greatly diminished by the growing numbers of white settlers and military personnel because of decades of fur trading.
A small copper awl from a Tel Tsaf grave in Israel is currently the oldest metal object discovered in the Middle East.
Paleolithic stitching awl (bone)