I was a kid when my father first introduced me to the Speedy Stitcher, a small, cheap-feeling awl that sews with a waxy polyester thread. I was too young too appreciate it; I had not the patience for such a tool, and the small calfskin pouches he showed me, by way of example, seemed like another wearisome manifestation of his larger obsession with bags and compartments of all sorts. It was years before I came to appreciate the simple beauty of this tool, the near-limitless possibilities its user can realize.
The Speedy Stitcher comes standard with one straight needle, one curved needle and a spool of thick waxed thread with a 52-pound tensile strength. It creates a lock-stitch like that of a sewing machine, and is primarily designed for sewing thick materials: webbing, leather, canvas, etc. A smaller needle and thread are also available from Stewart Manufacturing, who has been making the Speedy Stitcher in the US since 1909.
My first major project with the Speedy Stitcher was a strap for a new digital SLR. I was 19 years old, and I rather disliked that Nikon prints all its camera straps with both “Nikon” and the model number of your camera, presumably so you and others can assess the relative place on the Nikon pecking order as you snap photos of the same beaches or stupas. A cut of 11mm Dyneema sling fit perfectly through the camera’s fixtures, and I sewed on two-inch tubular webbing to complete my unbranded strap.
My success with the camera strap opened a world of possibilities. What couldn’t my Speedy Stitcher do? At first it was just repairs. When the odd little plastic piece that anchored the bungee waistband of my hard-shell pants detached, a few stitches locked the waistband back in place. When the bottom carabiners in my Screamers were flipping upside down every damn time, a few stitches made the hole smaller and locked their orientation. When I wanted to mount Petzl Ice Flutes to my harness for quick access to my screws on steep leads, a bit of 9/16″ webbing and my Speedy Stitcher were all I needed. And when a favorite pair of old jeans developed holes in the crotch, my Speedy Stitcher kept everything G-rated.
In 2010 I found myself in Yosemite with big-wall aspirations and no money: six feet of webbing off my slackline and a couple hours with the Speedy Stitcher yielded a two-sided gear sling. Not satisfied with my first effort, I decided to make to make another, this time with two-inch tubular for the shoulder, 9/16″ for the gear, and an adjustable chest fastener, in the brightest colors I could find (an auxiliary benefit of making your own gear). Meanwhile, my friend Alex decided we needed to test the stitching of my first draft, which was stitched with a simple box pattern and was only intended only to hold 20 pounds of pro. With a nest of gear backing it up, Alex took five or six big whippers on that ratty old slackline-cum-gear-sling. Not one stitch pulled.
Now I have started making my own slings which–I realize–may not be for everyone. But 11mm Dyneema webbing only costs about 90 cents a foot, an enormous savings relative to pre-sewn slings.
The Speedy Stitcher, it should be noted, is not perfect. Achieving proper stitch tension takes some practice: the simple wrap-to-add-friction method of tensioning the thread works poorly, and generally every stitch must be tightened carefully and individually. Sometimes the bobbin gets jammed within the body of the awl, and it can be a little tricky to remove.
Yet the Speedy Stitcher is a light and nearly foolproof piece of kit. I rarely find a backpacking or climbing equipment problem that cannot be solved with intelligent application of webbing and Speedy Stitcher. And because its potential is limited only by your imagination, it’s easily the best $21.99 of gear you will ever buy. I never go on an expedition without one.
Pros: Light; inexpensive; simple; durable; will fix just about anything.
Cons: Slow; stitch-tensioning takes some practice.