I once ran into a dude at the leathercraft supply shop, who was talking to his friend about all his big ideas, and telling his buddy what to get. He threw a wood handled stitching awl into the basket, and stated, "Oh, yeah, man. You definitely need this. It's like a handheld sewing machine." Not quite, overzealous and under-qualified craftsplainer. What it is is an ancient tool - more like a bulked up needle and thread than a simplified sewing machine. But it's a really big needle that allows you to poke through thick material like canvas, felt, sailcloth, and leather. It's pretty useful for all sorts of repair jobs and projects, and they only cost about $10.00, so it's a great way to get started.
Jeremy Cook from Makezine offers a great 101-style intro to using the tool. He says, "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."
Check it out, and get inspired to play with one of these things. They're fun!
Skill Builder: Using an Awl to Sew Leather and Heavy Fabrics [Makezine.com]