Chicken Scratch

Why is it called chicken scratch? One theory is that the main stitch looks like a chicken’s track. One story suggests the technique started during the Great Depression when a woman wished she could add lace to her plain gingham dresses. She only had some floss, so she set about to figure out how to create a lacy look. When her husband asked what she was doing, she told him she was adding lace to her dress. His reply was said to be that it looked a whole lot like chicken scratches! You decide! Chicken scratch is also called Amish embroidery, depression lace, and snowflake embroidery all typically stitched on gingham fabric.

Very little is known about the origin of this technique. However it got started, it was a very popular technique in the 1930’s to 1950’s in the United States as evidenced by the many aprons that have remained. Our local Hjemkomst Center has an exposition going on right now with a large display of aprons and there were at least 10 with some form of chicken scratch on them. A wonderful on-line display can be seen at the Future Christian Homemaker’s Gingham Museum.

Gingham Fabric

The foundation for this technique is the gingham fabric. This is a checkered fabric that has a light, medium, and dark blocks or checks usually in 4, 8, or 16 blocks to the square inch. The 1/4" check is the most widely used size. Look closely at your fabric and you will find on some gingham fabrics that the block is not square but oblong. For example, on a 1/8" gingham you may have 8 blocks from side to side but only 7 blocks from top to bottom. This will make a big difference on the outcome of your design, so be sure to pay close attention to the fabric and designer’s directions. Also remember to take that into account when figuring how much fabric you will need, dividing by 8 from selvage to selvage and 7 from top to bottom.

Gingham fabric has been around as early as the 1600’s. It was a bit different from today, actually weaving two colors together to create a striped pattern. In fact, the name “gingham" may have originated from Indonesian, Italian, and Malay languages referring to stripes. The fabric evolved to the checkered pattern with blue and white being the most popular choice. Many New England textile mills were successful because they produced gingham fabric, even into the 1950’s. Gingham is usually made of cotton fibers, but other fibers can be used such as silk or wool. One thing that makes this fabric unique is that it does not have a right or wrong side.


You need to have an embroidery needle with a sharp point for the double cross stitch and running stitches. Use a blunt needle for the woven stitches, for example a #24 tapestry needle or a #6, #7 or #8 crewel needle. Make sure that the eye of the needle is as large as the floss so you won’t have trouble pulling the floss through the fabric.

It is recommended that you use a hoop or frame to keep your fabric taut and your stitches even. A good pair of scissors is always a must!

Floss is the traditional fiber used in stitching, especially white. There are a lot of floss options available including DMC,
Anchor, ThreadworX, Weeks Dye Works, Classic Colorworks, Dinky Dyes, and even Kreinik metallic fibers.


The simplicity of chicken scratch is part of its appeal. There are three basic stitches used to make the majority of the designs – the double cross-stitch (Smyrna cross), the straight running stitch, and the woven circle stitch. Your design is stitched in this same order: double cross-stitch, running stitch, and woven circle stitch.

Double Cross-Stitch, also known as the Smyrna Cross Stitch »

Running Stitch »

Woven Circle Stitch »

Stitching Tips

Be sure to completely read the directions included with your pattern. The designer may have created the pattern using a symmetrical fabric or the oblong block. Be sure to use the correct fabric!

Traditionally the design was worked with a single color of floss, white, monochromatic, or light on dark or dark on light. If there are two colors used, one is usually white and the other a darker shade of the gingham fabric color.

The number of strands of floss to use will vary with the size of the check or the look you want to achieve. Usually only one strand is used for a 1/16" block, two strands are used for a 1/8" block and three strands for a 1/4" block.

Use an away knot or stitch so you catch your floss on the back of the fabric so you do not make unnecessary knots on the back.

Stitching Examples

Odile Berget is one of our readers from France. She told us this embroidery technique is very popular and is called “dentelle Vichy" as it appears like a lace (dentelle) and it is done on Vichy fabric (gingham). Odile has a great tutorial that she is sharing with all of us. While it is in French, the diagrams are pretty self-explanatory. I’ve used a couple of her diagrams earlier in this newsletter. Odile’s tutorial »

Odile’s site also shows the difference between doing your stitches white floss on white blocks or white floss on the colored blocks.

Another reader, Susan McAndrew, said she signed up for a craft class when her children were little and made each child a chicken scratch picture. While the boys outgrew theirs, the unicorn she stitched for her daughter still hangs in her room. You can see Susan played with color and added some lazy daisy flowers to finish her design.

Adding Bling and Other Stitches

With so many beautiful specialty fibers available, there is no reason why you can’t add some bling to the older patterns to give them a new look. A great example of how colored and metallic fibers can be used is shown in this article by Needle ‘n Thread.

Some of the aprons at the Hjemkomst Center went beyond the three basic stitches adding needleweaving techniques. Janet McCaffrey, of Primrose Design, blogged about chicken scratch in September talking about a very unique piece of gingham embroidery she found. See the entire article and close-up photos on her blog.

See how different long cross stitches can be used to create different background patterns for this cute cat.

Are you ready to get started? Odile has graciously provided a cute cat in chicken scratch! The instructions are in French, but her pattern is easy to follow. Let your imagination go….will you try a overdyed calico cat, a white and blue Wedgewood cat, or even a black and orange Halloween cat? We’d love to see your projects!

Download Free Pattern (.pdf)

We hope this guide makes your stitching easier and more enjoyable!

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