Chicken Scratch Embroidery 101: My preferred gingham fabric

Chicken Scratch embroidery has been around for many many years. If you aren’t sure what I’m talking about, it is a simple series of embroidery stitches that are stitched exclusively on gingham fabric, using the grid of the gingham pattern itself to stitch the design. The finished pattern, which is a lot like traditional cross stitch, enhances the gingham fabric in a pretty way, and is a technique often used to embellish gingham aprons, clothing, curtains, etc. You may have seen vintage gingham aprons with this sort of stitching on them. Each country seems to have their own version of this simple stitching technique, as well as their own name for it- Amish lace, snowflake embroidery, Broderie Suisse, Australian cross stitch, depression lace, etc.

I have a collection of vintage Chicken Scratch pieces that I’ve collected as I’ve become more interested in this type of embroidery. I’ve been able to take a close look at those, as well as stitching on all sorts of different types of gingham that are available today. What I have found is that the size of the gingham grid, as well as the fabric quality, is important to the both the look of the finished piece, and the enjoyment of stitching it.

But first, which gingham fabric to use?

All ginghams are not created equal!


Without going into a big explanation about the history and evolution of gingham fabric, it is patterned fabric that is usually yarndyed (meaning that the pattern of the gingham is woven into the fabric and not printed on top of the fabric). A patterned grid of squares- white, color, and a mix of white and color- that make up the pattern itself. Chicken Scratch embroidery uses the grid of the gingham, and a series of embroidery stitches (which have been described as resembling chicken feet- hence the name), to create the pattern. An easy-to-learn, beautiful technique for adding hand stitching details to any sort of gingham fabric.


But there are many different sizes and looks of gingham, and some will show off this technique better than others. My preferred type of gingham for chicken scratch embroidery is always yarn dyed over printed. (Printed ginghams have no pattern on the back of the fabric. Yarn dyed ginghams look almost the same on the front and the back.) There are very nice printed ginghams on the market today and they will certainly work, but I personally find the quality of yarn dyed gingham is almost always better. And because its yarn dyed, the gingham pattern is also always on grain, because it’s woven in, which gives better results.


I also prefer 100% cotton gingham. Some yarn dyed gingham is cotton/polyester blended. It may not be something you can detect or immediately feel as being different than 100% cotton. But I have found this blended fabric to have an overall lighter feel, and the embroidery threads tend to shadow through from the back. Because I like the stitches to show up on my work, I almost always use contrast thread colors, so they would definitely show from the back if the fabric is too thin.

Which SIZE of gingham to use?

It’s exciting to see all the different gingham sizes available to use these days. But just like the base cloth, I have some gingham size recommendations that work better for Chicken Scratch embroidery.


Gingham is categorized by the size of the individual squares, and all of the squares are usually the same size throughout the patterning. But from there, they go off in different directions size-wise. There are tiny, micro ginghams, and there are more modern, very large ginghams (see below). In the photo on the left, tiny gingham, which is made of silk has individual squares that are about 1/6″ of an inch. Super teensy, right? The large 100% cotton gingham has squares that measure 1 1/8″. So, a large different between these two ginghams.


Notice how different the embroidery stitches look between them.

Above left is a large gingham with squares measuring 1 1/8″. On the right is a tiny gingham, with squares measuring about 1/6″.

Here are the same 2 ginghams, each stitched with a classic Chicken Scratch motif, the Smyrna cross. Each using 3 strands of 6 strand embroidery floss. The left is huge, and you could easily pull or snag the threads. The one on the right is so tiny you can’t really make out the motif.

Here’s another side by side gingham comparison-

Here is a star design done in Chicken Scratch, on a 20″ square of tiny gingham. The result is a motif that is very small.

And the same star, this time on large gingham. It’s now too large to fit the 20″ panel, and stitches would have quite a bit loose thread across the front and the back of the fabric. (Plus you’d be rethreading your needle with more thread almost constantly.)

My favorite size is 1/4″ squares

Here is that Chicken Scratch star motif, 1/4″ size gingham, on a 20″ square panel.

Quiltcon Gingham Embroidered Star

1/4″ gingham with the Chicken Scratch star motif on a 20″ square.

1/4″ gingham is ideal for chicken scratch embroidery

Both for my own stitching projects, and my students, I recommend 1/4″ gingham. Meaning each of the squares measure 1/4″. This shows off any chicken scratch pattern beautifully, is easy on your eyes, and does not create excess stranding of loose thread on the front or back of the fabric.


If you are unconvinced, I encourage you try out different sizes of ginghams and see what you think. It’s not at all impossible to do chicken scratch embroidery on smaller or larger gingham, but as saying goes “results may vary”.

What about upcycling something like a gingham shirt?

I am all for upcycling when it makes sense, and gingham clothing is no exception. Alot of the gingham pieces I see in the thrift store are unique colorways that would look great with chicken scratch patterning stitched on them. The same rules apply though- its its close to 1/4″ square grid, try it out. If its significantly larger or smaller, you likely won’t enjoy stitching it, or the finished project. 

Where can I find the gingham you recommend?

Once I had stitched enough Chicken Scratch embroidery to have a strong preference for a specific kind of fabric, I sourced it and now carry it in my own shop.

I encourage anyone who is interested to try this method (it’s fun!). I teach several online classes on Chicken Scratch Embroidery, both in my own online school and on Creativebug.

Where can I learn Chicken Scratch embroidery?

I have classes available in my online school.

I encourage anyone who is interested to try this method (it’s fun!). I teach several online classes on Chicken Scratch Embroidery, both in my own online school and on Creativebug.

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