Getting to Know Your Bodkin: Hamlet to Today

know your bodkinIntroduction

Have you ever come across a name of a sewing tool and had absolutely no idea what it is?  Well, for me, when I was learning how to sew, it was the word “bodkin”.  What a strange word I thought back then and I imagine many new sewists today think the same thing.  So here's a little background about the wonderful history of the word and the sewing tool known as the bodkin.

The term bodkin is really quite old and it became very popular in the late 1500 and early 1600's when William Shakespeare used it in his famous play Hamlet (Act 3, Scene 1, Page 3) to refer to a dagger or knife:

That patient merit of th' unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,

Bodkin is actually a Renaissance term that was used to refer to different sharp instruments and in this phrase, Shakespeare was obviously referring to a dagger. So for many avid readers, a bodkin is an old term that refers to Shakespeare's dagger.

know your bodkin

 A Hair Pin Shaped Like a Stiletto

Later, the term bodkin referred to ornamental hairpins that were shaped and looked like daggers.  While an ornamental hairpin that is shaped like a stiletto is not necessarily a must have item in your sewing kit, it can be quite useful if you like to make garments with drawstrings or casings on them or you could just use it in your hair..

know your bodkin

 Three Styles of Bodkins Used in Sewing Today

In today's sewing language, however, a bodkin can refer to three different things. It could mean a sharp, slender and pointed instrument that is very useful in making holes in fabric or leather. It could also mean a large-eyed blunt needle used for drawing tape or ribbon through a hem or loop.  Lastly, a bodkin can be a sewing tool that looks a lot like a large pair of tweezers usually with a metal ring that is used to keep the tweezers closed while holding on to a piece of ribbon or tape.

A Sharp and Slender Instrument

For a lot of sewists who regularly work with thick materials like leather and thick fabrics, a bodkin is most useful for creating holes in such materials. After using this tool, you can then confidently hand sew your lacing or thread through the holes that you made with your bodkin.

know your bodkin

Oversized Tweezers with an O-Ring

Another popular form of a bodkin used as a sewing tool resembles something like a large set of tweezers.  The jaws of the tweezers clamp down on a piece of tape or ribbon while a metal ring can be slid down to hold the tension while gripping the fabric.  The instrument can then be pulled through a casing or hem without losing hold of the tape.

Truth be told, this type of bodkin has gotten me out of a jam on more than one occasion. Please see the article linked below that looks at a more modern style of this trusty bodkin design.

A Giant Sewing Needle

You must realize by now that when we say bodkin, we could refer to a number of things.  But for sewists today, I find that it usually means something like a giant sewing needle designed to assist in pulling items like tape or ribbons through hems or casings. And if you do not have a bodkin yet in your sewing kit, you should get one of these useful sewing tools during your next visit to your favorite quilt shop or buy it online.  Some suggestions are shown below. And next time somebody talks about a bodkin, you already know what they are talking about!

Here are some of the most common bodkins sold today:

For more information on bodkins, please check out our article Tool Tips article called Budget or Quality: The Bodkin

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23 Responses to Getting to Know Your Bodkin: Hamlet to Today

  1. Jim says:

    It is an incorrect interpretation to have “bodkin” refer to a dagger in Hamlet’s soliloquy. A bare bodkin means a mere [large dull pointed] needle. Had Shakespeare intended “dagger” he would have used “dagger” particularly since both “dagger” and “bodkin” would be correct iambically. Large dull pointed needle does not fit the verse. Unfortunately, the dagger reference has grown to bolster the suicidal ideation interpretation of this soliloquy as it allows for the ominous stage prop of glistening steel. Hamlet is not contemplating suicide. He is pondering the chasm between resolution and action. What keeps us all fighting the good fight, suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, taking arms against a sea of troubles. It isn’t because we are impervious to harm; that we can laugh at death and be thus unaffected. Quite the contrary. Human life is fragile. It can be easily forfeited by something as mere as a bodkin. It can be lost only once. So the native hue of resolution is rightly tempered with the pale cast of thought.

  2. Karen says:

    I “thought” I had been using bodkins for years 🙂 In a way I was — a large plastic needle that I use to finish ends in knitting and crocheting was also used to pull elastic or cord through sewing projects. Then I discovered the (in my view) REAL bodkin — the metal one that has the split in it and the ring to secure the ribbon or cord firmly — a real treasure. I also have a set of “bodkins” (according to the package label) — a series of 4 plastic strips with 2 vertical rough slots for pulling through different widths of elastic or ribbon. These are great for various widths, 1/4 to 1 in. wide elastic/ribbon. I can’t find them anymore so I’m glad I was lucky enough to find these years ago, they are very handy to have. I can’t quite get my head about the bodkin that looks like a pair of scissors, guess I would have to use one to understand it! I have been sewing for over 60 years, there is so much to learn and so many adventures to have in this pursuit 🙂

    Karen

    • So Sew Easy says:

      Hi Karen, thanks so much for sharing. I agree the term bodkin seems to be used pretty broadly and can mean lots of different things. Happy sewing!

  3. Hallie says:

    Thanks for the history! I use my bodkin to pull elastic thru the casing and cords thru hoodies.

  4. Patricia says:

    I had this term on my look it up list to figure out what it is. I bought the tweezer type a while back for a workshop, but we never used it. I always wondered what it was used for and why it was called a Bodkin. Now I know. Thanks for the follow Ducati on all journey!

  5. Thank you that was of interest, I must have to admit that I have always called a
    tool used for making holes in leather and such an awl. Again thank you for the information.

  6. Rose Dinges says:

    My locker hook is my favorite bodkin substitute. The metal is smooth enough to pass through a casing from any fabric without snag or drag, the hook end is blunt enough to not get caught on an inside seam, and the eye end can easily accommodate a shoestring diameter cord. I love multipurpose tools, keeps my space uncluttered.

  7. karen says:

    First connection I have to the word was from the 70’s. Rae Foley’s “suffer not a Witch” to be precise. In that instance the crazy serial killer useda bodkin to bring out the witchmark on the victims. Sometimes you have a senior’s moment and sometimes you don’t.
    The next time I heard the word was when my sister asked me to pick up a bodkin, plastic mesh, and pretty wool to start to teach her granddaughter how to sew by hand with a blunt needle. The only problem is that little Snooks makes mistakes and gets her mom to fix them and then do it properly. A little young yet I think. But using blunt needles are a good start for the stitching process I think.

  8. Denise says:

    Intersting info, partly cause my married name is Botkin and partly cause I like historical info. Thanks

  9. Patti P says:

    I’ve had the giant needle bodkin for years, but didn’t know it was called a bodkin until I got the tweezers/o-ring-style one a couple years ago. Thanks for the history lesson!

  10. I also have my grandmother’s (the tweezer type) in my crochet needle case. II have used it hundreds of times so I am delighted to know what it is called and the history behind it. Thank you for the tidbits of information and fantastic patterns. Keep up the good work.

  11. Marty says:

    I have an antique bone bodkin with a rectangular hole to one side instead of centered; love it!

  12. twemyss says:

    Knew about bodkins since I was small as my grandmother used it to replace knicker elastic in her bloomers. Still got hers in my sewing basket. Nothing fancy, just looks like a big needle with a big eye but is very handy

  13. How fascinating! I didn’t know that’s were the term bodkin had come from. I always wondered. Thanks for this interesting info.

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