Sewing Solution: Use an Awl for Thick Fabrics

I’m in the midst of a new project, a heavy-duty sewing-related project that, for the first time, is too heavy duty for my little sewing machine. My little workaround involves using my very own stitching awl, which is commonly used for sewing through leather goods but actually good for any heavy but penetrable material (and not to be confused with the woodworker’s scratching awl).

Using an awl is a new DIY effort for me, so this tool and I took a little time getting to know each other with a piece of scrap fabric. An awl is essentially a manual sewing machine, with the point and the thread hole on the same end of the needle. The technique allows lock stitches to form on both sides of the fabric, creating a very strong series of knots. Practicing the art of the awl and its subsequent lock-stitching technique first was really worthwhile, because it’s a process that took a little coordination and getting used to. And it makes me really appreciate an electric sewing machine.

Learn how to use an awl to sew.

It may be a little slower going than working with a common needle and thread, but it allows the user to use a heavier thread, which means a sturdier and stronger finished pieces. That’s why it’s such a good tool for leather-working, and it’s also used by sailors who are repairing canvases and masts on their boats.


Step 1

 Open GalleryGather materials for awl stitching. I’m demonstrating here on a piece of scrap fabric, using the awl and a piece of nylon cord. Unlike sewing with a needle, I trimmed a length of cord twice as long as I needed for the project, because half of the cord will form the top lock stitches, and half will form the bottom lock stitches.

Step 2

 Open GalleryAnchor the cord to the awl pin.Knot one end of your cord to the pin in the side of the awl. This will help with tension as you sew.

Step 3

 Open GalleryThread your awl.Thread the other end of the cord through the needle.

Step 4

 Open GalleryPoke the awl needle through the material to start the lock stitch.For the sake of demonstration, I folded my pink scrap fabric in half to lock stitch both sides together. Poke the awl through both pieces of fabric.

Step 5

 Open GalleryPull the cord through both layers of fabric.Pull the loose cord through to the backside of the fabric.

Step 6

 Open GalleryRetract the awl, make sure the length of cord is split between both sides of fabric.Retract on the awl until the cord is an even length on both sides of the fabric. One end will serve as the bottom of the lock stitch row, and one will serve as the top.

Step 7

 Open GalleryBegin your first lock-stitch.Insert the awl again, this time a centimeter or half-inch away from the initial puncture. Use your judgement based on how far you want the stitches to be placed apart in your project.

Step 8

 Open GalleryRetract to loosen the cord through the needle. Thread the loose tail through that loop.Retract on the awl just a little bit — look for the cord that is through the needle to loosen and open up. You will want to manually thread the loose end of the cord through that loop, creating the first lock stitch.

Step 9

 Open GalleryRetract the awl while pinching the loose end of cord in place (so that it doesn't pull through).While pinching that top loose thread firmly in place (so that it doesn’t pull through the hole with the awl), extract the awl and pull back on it until the thread that is tied to the pin is taut again. Your first stitch is complete!

Step 10

 Open GalleryContinue stitching with the awl to form a chain of lock-stitches.Lather, rinse, repeat. Continue inserting the awl down the edge of your fabric, manually threading the loose end of the cord through the hoop made in the needle tip of the awl, and pulling back on it to tighten.

Step 11

 Open GalleryFinish your lock stitch off with a double square knot.Finish off your series of stitches by inserting the awl and pulling the remaining loose end through to the backside of the fabric (this is the end that was previously attached to the pin). Tie them together with a square knot (or double square knot). Check back soon to see how I used this technique to create my own home decor!


  • Heavy-duty fabric
  • Thread (heavy waxed thread is common, as is leather thread and thinly braided rope)


  • Sewing awl
  • Scissors
About Emily Fazio 


I caught the home improvement bug at an early age, and now I'm a full-time DIYer living in Rochester, NY. The projects I cover on my blog Merrypad range ...

More About Emily Fazio

12 Responses

  1. Haberdashery says:

    I think this is one of the must have tools for sewers, we will surely need one of these for our future projects or even with the current sewing projects we are doing.

  2. Bob Cochran says:

    I appreciate the photos, explanation, and kountykobbler's further discussion. Now I can search for a 'speed awl' or 'closed eye needle awl' and find one to purchase, along with thick waxed thread. Hopefully this will help me punch through hiking shoes which seem to be more fabric and plastic than leather construction now.

  3. Dusty Meyer says:

    I do search first on this site for any kind of information. I Love DIY Network. They guys are very good at sharing best information. Thanks

  4. e-forex says:

    Regular visits here are the best way to thank you for your effort, which is the reason why I'm visiting the site everyday, looking for new, interesting info. Many, many thanks!

  5. diane says:

    could i use this tool to replace a garden swing seat with a hammock style canvas fabric would the stiching be strong enough

  6. kountykobbler says:

    this type of awl is called a speed awi or a closed eye needle awl and is good for lots of repair work in leather its best used to sew in Orignal stitch holes to keep spacing even and avoid weakening leather by setting stitches too close together and acting like a postage stamp rip line. a classic plain awl like a scratch awl is used in with two needles you punch the new hole with the awl thru both layers of leather and as you pull out the awl insert the needle with one end of the thread from the opposing side as you have the needle half way thru the leather you start the threaded needle from the OTHER end of the thread in oppostion in the same hole and pull both taught make next hole with awl and repeat this is the strongest stitch you can use to assemble leather and is how it was done for centuries to attach a welt to a shoe upper. I have rebuilt shoes for over 30 years. lock stitch is commonly used to hold uppers and the welt of a shoe to the sole in a Goodyear Welted shoe Chain stitch or more commonly known as the flour sack stitch is intended as a basting sttitch and can be done with a speed awl you stab through the materals layers s and keep a loop of the thread on the side opposit where your stabbing from stab again put the loop over the needle tip and capture the new loop and repeat when you want to remove the stitch you pull on the thread and you still have the holes yet the thread is released as it is all slip knots. A standard awl haft (handle) that can be used with true awls and their are several styles it also can be used with some variety of Machine needles Mc kay has a knife tip to cut holes as you sew and they are Open eye needles or hook style use it with waxed threads for smooth even stitches (bees wax is best for this fricton appily it to the thread simply pull the thread over a piece of bees wax two or three times and that coats and stiffens the thread binding the twist to help cut down on thread breakage. American Streight needle is a machine needle that is best used with original holes in leather to keep it stronger in hand stitch open eye or hook needles are better for leather work as they can catch in cloth sewing.

  7. Dressmaking fabrics says:

    Perfect tool to use for my next crafting project for I will be using a thick fabric for it and ordinary needles always break.

  8. Patl says:

    Thanks for your lesson on the awl. I have broken a sewing machine more than once trying to sew something too thick. I like your sense of humor (lather, rinse, repeat).

  9. Cecelia Beyer says:

    Thank you! I just came across my Dad's awl! He used it to stitch up work boots too. He repaired everything he could to keep all five of his children in private schools! I want to fix my BBQ cover!

    • Kelly Smith Trimble says:

      Hey Cecelia, That's a great idea to use an awl to fix a grill cover. Let us know how that goes! And take pics and use the #maderemade on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook!

  10. Marian says:

    I had no idea that this existed. I am going out to get one. I love my boots but I needed to sew up a couple of seam areas. Also, thank you so much for the lesson.

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