Chicken Scratch

Chicken Scratch is a technique developed in the United States, and is a way of stitching on gingham using simple stitches in geometric patterns.

Ruth Neller talks about the technique:

I first heard about chicken scratch embroidery at a Guild event where some ladies were saying how much they had enjoyed it. After some research, I learned that it is a technique to embroider on gingham and that it goes by many names, especially in the United States, including Amish embroidery, snowflake embroidery and Depression Lace. It is very similar to Tenerife stitch and to Australian Cross Stitch. When worked in one or two strands of embroidery thread over the coloured squares of a quarter inch gingham, the result looks as though a piece of lace has been laid over the fabric. It is just one of many ways to decorate gingham using simple stitches in geometric patterns.

The term Chicken Scratch has been trade marked by an American publishing company called Pegasus Originals, Inc., of Lexington, but as that is the name by which I learned of the technique, that is how I will refer to it. Pegasus Originals has published several books of patterns using this technique and the heart flower below is one of their designs.

Before the mid-eighteenth century, gingham was a striped fabric and only later developed into the checked weave we know today. Many countries claim that it first developed there but it is certainly widespread and that probably accounts for its many names. Cotton gingham is simple to produce, easy to wash, durable and now comes in many colours. It always looks fresh.

Heart Flower stitched in the Chicken Scratch style.

In searching for gingham to practice this technique, I learned that 100% woven cotton gingham with a quarter inch check is the best to use, but surprisingly hard to find, and not all gingham checks are square. When I have to use poly-cotton, I always line it with either iron-on interfacing or with a thin piece of plain cotton or muslin. I use stranded embroidery threads and the number of strands depends on the size of the checks. Less than a quarter inch and I use one strand, with quarter inch checks I use one or two strands depending on how bold I want the embroidery to appear, and I may use three strands or more if the checks are larger. I avoid printed gingham because the lines don’t always run parallel to the edges. Chicken scratch can also be worked onto checked fabrics as well as gingham. Many men’s shirts have gingham patterns and I’ve learned that 100% cotton gingham and checked shirts from charity shops can be a bargain and offer a wide range of colours.

No matter what the colour of the gingham, the checks are in three tones – dark squares with the boldest colour, white squares and mid-tone squares. Work a double cross stitch in all the dark squares, a single straight stitch in all the mid-tone squares and leave the white squares empty. The straight stitches must “point” to the white squares. When this part of the embroidery is complete, bring the needle up by one of the straight stitches on the mid tone squares, run two circles of thread under the four stitches surrounding each white square, without catching the background fabric, take the needle back down at the starting point and move to the next white square. The pattern can be worked square by square but can also be built up element by element as illustrated below. Take care not to pull the stitches as it can gather the fabric slightly.

Chicken scratch needn’t just be worked in straight lines and designs can be worked out on graph paper. One more lesson is that because this technique uses a lot of thread, start with a longer length than you might normally use, unless you really enjoy starting and ending threads.

As is now common, there are lots of helpful websites showing how to work chicken scratch and patterns, and even kits, can be bought from, for example, many ETSY shops.

I’ve used chicken scratch to embellish a homemade handbag, on a bag-for-life, to make book covers and to make purses. It would also look charming on a child’s garment.

All pieces worked by Ruth Neller. Photographs also by Ruth Neller

Find Ruth’s project to create a Chicken Scratch Book jacket in the ThreadIT Journal

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