Mary Corbet

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I learned to embroider when I was a kid, when everyone was really into cross stitch (remember the '80s?). Eventually, I migrated to surface embroidery, teaching myself with whatever I could get my hands on...read more

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Ode to Orts


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They’re little scraps of colorful thread.

All over my table they tend to spread.

They’re blue, they’re yellow, they’re white, they’re red.

Orts Embroidery Thread Scraps

I could pitch ’em, but I save ’em instead.

And I don’t know why.

All my orts this year so far

Fill up a jar.

The fact that I keep them is quite bizarre.

Ahhhhh, orts. What to do with them? I’ve heard of folks using them to stuff pincushions and other stuffable things. I’ve heard of decorating bushes and trees with them in the Spring, so that the birds can add them to their nests. (I’m advised this should be done with some cautions: the threads should be cut up in small lengths, and metallics should be avoided).

So, what do you do with your orts? Keep ’em? Or pitch ’em? Or something ingenious? I’m all ears! Tell me, tell me!


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(253) Comments

  1. Mary: I like to put orts from stitching Christmas stockings (lots of colorful and glittery orts!) into clear plastic fillable Christmas ornaments. Tie a little bow at the top and give them with the Christmas stocking to the recipient. The ornaments match the stocking. Janet.

  2. Hi Mary,
    I make biscornu. Lots of them. They are a tiny pincushion and need to be stuffed with something soft. I have been known to use my orts for this wonderful purpose. I usually combine them with my poly stuffing. But Shhh…..you and I are the only ones that know what is inside a biscornu!

    1. Karen, I hope you will excuse me for resurrecting this comment from 2013. Thank you for introducing me to biscornu. I had never heard of it before and was overjoyed to learn about this craft after I looked it up when I read your comment. I’m excited now to make one, and putting orts inside seems very meaningful to me.

  3. Absolutely ideal for a machine embroidery project. I use them either for couching over or just spread haphazardly over the piece.

  4. Tails! That’s what I call them. They go right onto a piece of scrap felt as I work a piece, into a Baggie as we progress, and finally they stuff a little pincushion embroidered with the date when the project is done. Poke in a needle and a few sizes of safety pins and enclose it with the gift.

  5. I don’t usually keep my orts – I tend to throw them on the fire at the end of each evening’s stitching.

    But once I bought a vintage sewing box, that dated from the 1920’s. As I lifted the lid, I found the box was still full of the stitcher’s half-finished projects, etc, as well as some crochet patterns, tatting shuttles, etc. And a cigarette tin. When I opened the lid of the tin, I found it was full of orts – silk threads, cotton, perle thread – all kinds. And they must have dated from almost 100 years ago. I was so touched that this woman had kept the reminders of everything she had stitched, that I burst into tears in the antique shop.

    The shop owner was quite bemused!!

    1. They likely came from the Great Depression, they saved EVERYTHING back then. We do not know what that needleworker did with them, but I doubt she would have thrown them away. I had (only one is left, in her 90’s, three of them lived to be in thier 90’s) 5 great-great aunts that were children during the depression. It was almost annoying how frugal they were.

    2. LOVE the sentimental thought. I would have been right there with you with teary eyes…..

    3. What a wonderful treasure to have acquired. I would have been in awe with tears in my eyes, seeing all that was inside what was bound to be a beautiful sewing box full of inspiration and history. I love things like that and am lucky enough to have a little suitcase (about an A4 in size and a spreadout handwidth deep… love my measuring tools!) with similar keepsakes and projects inside. Its something I will treasure for the rest of my life. The original owner would be very happy to hear her sewing box has gone to a loving home.

    4. What a wonderful story! Thanks for sharing it. I’m picturing this woman and what kind of life was surrounding her as she worked on her needlework. I would have puddled up too!

  6. P.S. I also had a friend whose elderly aunt kept a box labeled, “STRING TOO SHORT TO USE”

    Karen from Minnesota

    1. This cracked me up! I can’t stop giggling! I throw mine away, but that may change – they sure look pretty in Mary’s jar.

    2. Hilarious… I would have loved to have the conversation, “Then why are you keeping them?” because I know exactly the feeling of bafflement that would overcome that aunt!

  7. I’m a spinner so these get added to my yarns, or used to make colourful tufts in weaving. I have even tied them together and crocheted with them, or couched them down. One persons orts are a highly prized treasure to another craftsperson!

    1. I am also a spinner and would be interested to learn when and how to add orts. As you spin or when you ply.

    2. I spin too–and clicked in here after my shameful months-long absence to point out the fun of bits and pieces in spinning! 🙂

      Generally, I add them when I card or when I spin–when plying, they just don’t seem to hold well, and the yarn will shed. 🙁 I know there’s a way–thinking ‘tailspinning’? But not that great a spinner, still a novice, so….

      Might ask Abby Franquemont, if anyone would know it would be her.

  8. Dear Mary

    One I keep a pillow inner which I have made and all my scraps of fluff (batting, fabric thread go into it). Once full I sew it up, make a cover with durable fabric, then donate to the Humane society for the dogs as beds. It also gets used to stuff door/draftstoppers. I try to recycle as much as I can, use what I have, my way of reducing my carbon footprint in the world.


    1. Very cool!! Think I might do that with all the feedsack string I have around here…whack it up and stuff something with it.

  9. I think I began saving orts in the 80’s, when I was part of a girlfriends’ stitching group; I was attending Spirit of Cross Stitch festivals; was in EGA, ANG, and a sampler guild; and stitched at home every spare moment I had. I was visiting Cape Cod and in a shop there, found a clear lamp base. I brought this lamp home, and took my couple QUARTS of orts and put them in the glass base. It is my favorite lamp in the entire house! I’ve slowed down in my stitching productivity, but still have a fabric basket with me at all times to collect my orts. I need to buy another lamp base!!!

  10. If you or someone you knew did quilting…I would use it for the embroidery stitches on a crazy quilt. I used up some little pieces of material and threads to make center pieces for a log cabin block. A small crazy quilt square could make an ornament or pincushion.

  11. Does the term orts derive from shorts? I should add that before I stuff the little felt pincushion I cut them up so there won’t be lumps.

  12. Hi Mary,
    I keep mine and use them in creating an ort pic. Browns and yellow for tree trunks, varied colors for flowers, varied greens for pasture or lawn, greys and blues for buildings/sea/mountains and so on. They are stuck on with fabric glue which is painted on canvas or thickish linen which you have made a sketch of what you want and lightly pressed by finger tips. Left to dry and it ends up as an almost 3D pic. Very arty and people cannot believe it is all just bits of thread. I do not have a pic of one that I have done. I shall have to ask the person I gave it to, to take a pic. Great fun, even for kiddies to do! Glad to hear I am not the only one that keeps her odds and sods for a rainy day! 🙂

  13. I pitch mine. But, I have a friend who puts hers into clear Christmas ornaments and then gives them as gifts. I’m just not that organized.

  14. Each Christmas I purchase a clear ball, write next year’s numbers on it and fill it up with my orts for the year. I can identify the layers of threads that belonged to a certasin project. It is a fun way to remember the year in sttiching and looks colorfu on a tree.
    One EGA chapter created a raffle piece by purchsing a lamp base tht was meant to be filled and had members bering intheir orts to fill it.

  15. Birds don’t like to use bright, colourful thread to make their nests because then the nests aren’t as hidden from their predators.
    Some people use Orts to make scarves and fabric with solvy and I’ve used them in ATC backgrounds under a layer of organza.

  16. I use all my leftover pets to make Barrerts and ponytail holders. Wish I had one right now to show. But if you can imagine making a clear plastic bow and filling with colorful threads. I wonder too if a person has enough for an easter basket.

  17. I roll Appleton any any other wool thread leftovers into little balls and felt them, making them into colourful felted beads for necklaces. I suspect silks can be incorporated into such beads for extra texture/shine.

  18. Use the orts in free-form embroidery. Arrange them in loose clumps on fabric, then couch them down. Sew the resulting piece into a pillow cover. I haven’t actually done this yet, but I keep thinking it would be fun to do.

  19. Maybe not very original but I use my orts to stuff the raised sections in stumpwork. They squeeze easily into tiny spaces. If the raised bits are in needlelace, the orts add a nice haze of colour thru the stitches.

    1. Hi PatsyAnn,
      I love this Idea! I’m new to stumpwork and I need all the help I can get. Never thought to use my little leftovers. Thank you so much.

  20. I use my rots to add color and texture to my felting projects. I also use them for stuffing projects. I tried pleasing the birds for their nest Devore, but I don’t know if the wind lew them away.

  21. Mary, 1st of all – you should never throw them outside, leaving on trees or anything like that! I’m sorry, but you really scare me by this “advice” from someone else. Threads get entangled in bird’s feet and fingers very easily and cause serious injury! Even hair represents danger for them, so as a bird lover, I felt alarmed. We should always think before disposing of anything (even seemingly harmless) in this way. It’s plain littering.

    About orts. Is that a term? 🙂 I don’t think I’ve heard it before. I simply can’t bring myself to throw away any scrap longer than 5cm 😀 And although I do use even such short ones at times, I have accumulated so many that it worries me. Of course, I have much longer ones too and I keep them in a little sachet. They do come in handy when you remember you have them… There’s really lots of ways to use them if you think about it. Not in embroidery perhaps, but in many crafty projects.

    1. Easy fix! Run them through a drum carder, or use a couple of the file-cleaning brushes they sell at hardware stores to split the threads, cut to about a quarter inch long, into fluffly clouds of fiber. Then take a dollar-store scrubbie thing and un-ball it–it’s a tubular net. Stuff the fiber loosely in there with the holes large enough for birds to pull fiber through and they get little puffs and tufts instead of strings, and you don’t have multicolored confetti everywhere.

      Dog slicker brushes work pretty well too–don’t be kind or gentle, but use it as an outlet for all the frustrations of Getting The Darn Sewing Right. The idea is to totally de-spin the strings into short fuzzy bits.

  22. If you do any machine enbroidery, you can stitch over them. They can also be stabilized by ironing them on to fusible webbing, then used in art quilts. –jackie

  23. You could spread them out on top of Sulky wash away stabilizer and mix them up real good…then sew with your machine all over to create a net. Then wash away the stabilizer and you would have a scarf or shawl to wear! These are very pretty!

  24. Oh – lol! I thought I was the only one who did this.
    I gather them, and gather them. Until they are in a big pile. Then I throw them into the recycling.

  25. Hello Mary,

    I keep mine for stuffing things. My orts are not only thread but also ends of wool as I also knit.


  26. I have odd skeins of thread, manufacturers that I don’t use, floss that have lost their labels etc., in a quart jar, with a gadget you can buy on top, it has a light bulb fixture, voila a lamp like no other! Pat in SNJ

  27. I love Joyce’s idea of using a clear based lamp to store orts. I keep my thread tails as well….occasionally they come in handy when just a bit of thread is needed. I have also made tassels with my threads and often the more diverse the threads the prettier the tassels are.I have also hung them in trees hoping the birds would use them, but they seem to be ignored. I have found my dog’s fur used in birds nests after I have given her a much needed haircut.

  28. I pitch mine.. along with the snippets of wool from my hooking. Used to collect for pincushions and realized that wasn’t going to happen often enough.. LOL

  29. you cant dump it. you take iron-on-vilene spread it over eventley take thin seethrow material like organza, iron it, you can work lovely stiches over it to strenthen it. jou can make a collar and pockets for a jacket or lovely placemates ect

  30. Spread them out in between two pieces of greaseproof paper, iron, and you have instant original gift wrapping paper! Great with rose petals too.

    1. Oh I really like this idea Janet must remember this for birthdays and Christmas.

      Regards Anita Simmance

  31. I draw a flower with a narrow sharpie onto washable stabilizer. i layer another piece of stabilizer on top of it and stitch one side of the stem plus one side of each petal. Next, I lay all the greens I can into the stem area and push them between the drawn lines and stitch around them. After that. I pack the flower. If I have plenty of yellow, I put the darkest ones in the flower center, then lighten as I stuff each petal and stitch around it to capture it. Repeat as needed.
    Once all is stuffed, I thread my machine with pretty thread and stitch over all the threads until it looks good and can hold together well following the washing away of the stabilizer.
    Wash, allow to dry, stitch it to the center of a small quilt and donate it to my grand child’s school auction, a cancer group or a small museum which is trying to raise money. The flowers are beautiful. The last one I completed was an iris.

  32. I keep them and wee ends of ribbon and put them between sheer fabric or fine tulle and crazy stitch it all together like a sandwich. I then use the “fabric” I’ve made in my doll making…for wings etc:)

  33. Mary,

    I love your little ode.
    I keep my orts and use them for stuffing little presents (pincushions etc).
    They also look very pretty displayed in a suitable glass pot or jar. My daughter, who has 5 children and is into needle crafting in a big way, uses them in a similar way.


  34. You keep them and make “fabric scarfs” with them – sew with washable stablizer and invisible thread – wash away the stablizer and you have a new “fabric” – seen on an Episode of Fons and Porter

  35. I recommend not giving the orts to the birds for nests. The threads are in colors that would not exist naturally for these birds and may attract predators to the nest of baby birds. I just throw them out – I save enough stuff as it is!
    Judy C

  36. ORTS! what does it stand for; anybody know? Until a few months ago, I’d never even heard of ORTS collecting but it seems to be a very popular phenomenom. I’ve been working on getting together an inventory for a craft show I’m doing this weekend and made these nifty little jars and when I showed them to a friend of mine who owns a cross stitch LNS she got excited and said….ooooohhhh ORT jars. Well, i was kinda taken aback, because I’d thought of them as holding little snacks like kisses or jelly beans or something to put on one’s desk at work. Anyway, she really like them so I gave her a few to try to sell in her shop. If you’re intrested in seeing them, check out my blog: http://cibsplace.blogspot.com/


  37. Marta Green, a crazy quilt artist from Oklahoma City, uses these snippets to stuff clear plastic dolls. I made one of these dolls in a class with Martha, and I loved how it turned out. I added some sequin stars in the stuffing, and made her hair of longer snips of thread. I put a cocktail glass in her hand and she was quite festive.


  38. Machine embroidery uses them for a type of free standing lace project. They are sandwiched between two layers of wash away stabilizer and than an ornament/bookmark is stitched out over top. The design uses multiple layers of open stitches in the same directions as an asterisk and than uses a satin/column stitch around the perimeter to catch/secure the edges. When complete we wash out the stabilizer. Hand embroidery could use organza layers and decorative stitching to keep the threads from shifting…

  39. I have a small basket on my table I collect them in. From time to time my boyfriend hides love notes in them. When it becomes full and I empty it, I find these notes. It’s also fun to see the different layers of fibers and colors. It reminds me and brings back to life the projects I’ve stitched.

  40. For me, I keep them in a repurposed mint tin in my grab and go box. You know, the metal tins that come in a couple of sizes. I use a little one for space in my box considerations. I don’t care for the mints, but the tins are great! You can also use plastic flip top (tic-tac) containers, I used to use one before I discovered the metal tins. I also have a tin with a few “spot” bandages and an alcohol wipe as a first aid kit in my box. Then, when the ort tin is full, I stick the orts into (similar to Janet)into a plastic christmas ornament, and it takes the entire year to fill (100% full) one of the larger ones, and then I hot glue the lid onto the top. Then I use it on the christmas tree, at the bottom, so that if my cats knock them off while goofing off under the tree (like they always do) It won’t break and they can play kitty-kick-it all night and I can pick it up and put it back later. The kitties love them for some reason. I have two of them already, and a third partially full. I believe the ornaments I fill are 4 inchers, though the labels don’t have the size on them, and I have no idea whether it is circumference or diameter that they measure it by. I just used to throw the orts away when the tin got full, but when I saw the plastic ornaments on sale after christmas,a couple of years ago, I bought a few, and have been filling them ever since. Killing the need for lovely unbreakable ornaments and ort control (two birds) with one stone. I don’t do anything fancy, it is just DMC 6 strand inside.

  41. It is true about birds getting the thread caught in their feet. I had a bluejay in my yard with a piece of string caught arounds his leg and the string somehow got wrapped about my bush. The bird was frantic. I went out with my scissors and talked gently to the bird and cut him free from the bush. I have hear to cut the threads really small so they don’t get caught. I have never tried that. I love all the uses here for orts so many I never would’ve thought of. Mary I look forward to your articles and seeing all your beautiful work. You are such an inspiration to me! Thank you. Theresa