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Saving your threads: What are orts?

Saving your threads: What are orts?

A few years ago I reached a place in my cross stitch consciousness where I became aware of something mysteriously called orts. While my mind immediately went to Lord of the Rings (Orcs? Orts? Get it?), that couldn't be farther from the truth.

I eventually asked a stitchy friend to clue me in, and here's what I learned.

What are orts?

Orts are the leftover snips of thread that remain when you are done stitching. They may be be tiny bits clipped when you run out of thread, or longer lengths you no longer need.

The word ort reportedly comes from Middle Low German and means leftover. It was used starting in the 15th century to refer to food scraps. No word on when or why stitchers reappropriated it for leftover thread, but some say in stitching parlance ort is actually an acronym for "old ratty threads" or "odd random threads" or similar variations.

Many stitchers save these random bits of thread, often in jars appropriately named ort jars.

Save bits of embroidery thread in an ort jar

Why save your orts

The obvious question is, why save orts? Many stitchers don't. The snips and bits of thread go right into the waste bin. But for others it comes down to a few primary motivations: pride, sentimentality, and thrift.

A full ort jar is an object of pride for many stitchers. It reflects dedication and accomplishment, and is proof of the hours spent on a pursuit they cherish. Quite simply, watching your ort jar slowly fill is satisfying.

For others, orts are a sentimental reminder of special projects, the various snips calling to mind slow hours passed and stitches lovingly made.

Still others have a more practical motivation. Thread bits may be repurposed as stuffing for pincushions or other objects. Longer pieces can be used in mending, crazy quilts, or small stitching projects. 

What are orts in cross stitch and embroidery

How to save your orts

The most common method for saving orts is to use a mason jar or other glass vessel with an easy-to-remove lid. You can also use a fabric bin or basket. Make your own ort jar that has a handy built-in scissor holder with our free project.

Keep your ort jar or bin nearby when you stitch to collect all your trimmings. You can start a new ort jar at the beginning of each year, or empty it out and start fresh each time you begin a new project.

What to do with your orts

Once you have collected a jar full of thread bits, what do you do with them? Here are some suggestions.

Note: I have seen many people suggest spreading orts outside in the spring so birds can use them to build their nests, but other people strongly discourage the practice saying baby birds can become tangled in thread if it's in their nest, even if that thread is short. It may be a good idea to limit orts to indoor-only projects just in case.

What are orts and why to save them