To Buy or Not to Buy? Criteria for Thrift-Store Clothes Shopping

By Marla Walters on 28 January 2010 (Updated 6 August 2012) 30 comments
Photo: Orin Zebest

It's a lot of fun to shop at a thrift store. There are a lot of clothes that are almost great. Here are my tips for separating the "buy it" from the "leave it" items. It doesn’t matter if it is the bargain of the century, if it’s just going to sit in your closet because it needs some type of mending that you'll never get to. Here are some of the frequent problems I’ve encountered, along with my suggestions. (See also: 10 Things to Look for Every Time You Visit a Thrift Store)

Zippers

If a zipper doesn’t work, I’d leave the item behind. I find zippers to be tricky to replace, and a new zipper runs about $7.

Buttons

Missing a button? Check the inside seams of the garment. Usually, you will find a spare. If not, see if you can rob a button from the bottom of the shirt, or from a cuff, and use that in the missing button’s place. Do you have a button jar at home where you might find a match? Unless the buttons are extremely unusual, you can probably find a close replacement at a fabric store. I’d take a chance on buying it. If you don’t know how to sew on a button, here is a helpful link: How to Sew a Button

Collars

It is frustrating when the rest of the garment is in great shape, but the collar is frayed. I think these are a lot more trouble than they are worth. Leave it behind.

Stains

Unfortunately, most of them are not going to come out. In all probability, the previous owner tried hard, already. I had a friend who would always say, “I’ll just put an appliqué’ over it.” I think that works for jeans, but nothing else. In most cases, it’s pretty obvious. I’d leave it behind.

Rips

As a rule, if the threads of the fabric have been ripped, that’s a tough repair. However, if the rip is in a seam, you can probably make this repair easily if you have a sewing machine. I’d take a chance.

Holes

If the fabric has a pattern (for instance, a plaid) you can probably make this repair. For a solid fabric, it will be too obvious. Below are photos of a wool kilt, unfortunately discovered by moths. To make a similar repair, cut a piece of the fabric from the hem or a seam. Pin the “patch” piece to the inside of the garment and hand-stitch (of course using appropriate thread color).

Hems

Too long? Easy fix. Just turn up the edge and stitch. Too short? Check the existing hem. Can you let it out a little? Take a look at the line, though, that is revealed when you let down a hem. The old hemline may be too obvious. Sometimes, you can use the steam setting on your iron to get the old hemline out.

Odor

Go ahead, give it the sniff test. If there is odor, it is possible to get it out. It might take a lot of effort and multiple washings, though, so you will need to decide whether you think it will be worth your time, effort, and investment in additional laundering supplies. Because I discovered dormant body odor when I steam-ironed a cotton blouse I found, I turned my husband (a.k.a., Der Stain-meister, in our house) loose on it. He did plenty of Internet research, and tried most of the remedies sworn by online:

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW
  • paste of 20 Mule Team Borax
  • soak in hydrogen peroxide
  • vinegar soak and after-wash rinse
  • baking soda paste
  • ammonia in the wash water

Many of these things seemed to help, incrementally (the 20 Mule Team Borax paste and the hydrogen peroxide soak, most notable among them). But what finally removed the last traces of body odor, even under the steam iron, was when he sprayed the armpits of the garment with a 50/50 dilution of rubbing alcohol and water, then let the blouse line-dry. He says it helps to understand that body odor is caused by bacteria, so killing bacteria without damaging the garment is the trick. Since that episode, he has seen recommendations he would like to try on the next problem garment: Cascade in the wash water, a can of Coca-Cola in the wash water (not Diet Coke), and a spray of Antibacterial Febreeze. (See also: 6 Things in Your Kitchen That Get Rid of Bad Smells Naturally)

Linings

If a coat is in otherwise good shape, you can re-line it, although it is not easy. Home sewers know the challenges (slippery fabric, tricky fit). For a price, you may find a seamstress or tailor who will take on the challenge. Be aware, though, that you may pay as much or more for a lining as you did for the entire coat.

Fit

For pants, either they fit, or they don’t. Leave them behind if they don’t. It takes an extremely skilled tailor to make a pair of pants fit properly. A dress has more possibilities. You may be able to take it in if it’s too big. Yesterday I found a sleeveless dress that is a size too big, but I could tell that taking in a half-inch on each armhole would be perfect. If something is too tight, do not play the “if I just lose five pounds” game. The odds are that the clothing will just languish your closet, taking up valuable space.

My last tip: check the washing instructions. Be realistic. I personally no longer purchase clothing that has to be dry-cleaned. I never liked items that had to be hand-washed, or “blocked,” like sweaters. If you know you will put off cleaning, and therefore wearing this item, it’s a waste of your money.

Happy hunting.

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Guest's picture
Kacie

I'd like to take this a step further. If any item in your closet has these characteristics (problem zippers, missing buttons, frayed fabric, etc.) don't donate it! Only donate an item that you'd be happy to buy in a store.

Donating trash just wastes the store's resources.

Guest's picture
Guest

I totally agree with KAcie...do not donate it if the average person would not want it. if you want to donate the usable fabric to a quilting guild, that is one thing. Who wants trash!?

Guest's picture
Laura

I worked as a teaching assistant in a human anatomy lab this past fall - my advice for getting odors out is as follows. :)

Soaking in white vinegar will get out most odors, especially human body odors (I had a little sister who liked to borrow bras and didn't always borrow deodarant - and I'm a 32DD. It's hard enough to find bras that fit, I wasn't about to let them go without a fight.) If you do that first, and then add about a quarter cup of baking soda to your wash water, you're usually golden.

Febreeze laundry odor remover (comes in a blue bottle for extreme odor fighting, lol) is the only thing I've ever found that gets rid of formaldehyde in scrubs - even scrubs that have been soaked in cadaver juice. I used two capfuls to soak overnight, then washed with an additional capful - usually a single wash will do it, but I had one set that required a second. It is really impressive - everyone else I know just pitches scrubs after anatomy is over because the smell is notorious for being impossible to remove. :) It's expensive stuff ($15 a bottle or so) but worth it if you use it rarely - and I save it for the tough jobs.

Guest's picture
cwaltz

is really good about ensuring the products aren't ripped, torn or frayed. I actually like shopping there better than regular stores sometimes because I know the product was at least durable enough to withstand one person.

Guest's picture
gt0163c

A while back I took a chance on a sweater at the thrift store. Name brand, merino wool, said "dry clean only". I liked the color and the fit. And the $1.50 price made it worth the gamble.

I washed it by hand with dishwashing detergent and *poof* new favorite sweater. No problems with not dry cleaning it.

I also picked up an old, army surplus shoulder bag that had seen better days. A good scrubbing (more dishwashing detergent) and it's become a great go-bag on days when I need something other than a backpack.

I need to get back to that thrift store sometime soon.

Guest's picture
Guest

I will also buy "dry clean only" items at the second hand store. Usually if it is washed on the delicate cycle in cold water and only dried a couple of minutes, then it will be alright.

Guest's picture
Q

I disagree that you should not donate items that require serious repair. Seamstresses and otherwise experienced sewers can easily fix zippers and other more serious repairs. Plus 50% of what I buy at thrift I buy for fabric to make into something else.

Don't assume that your trash is not in fact someone else's treasure!

Guest's picture

I hv gotten great clothes because they needed very minor repairs - a Bill Blass dress with a seam open at the top, easily sewn in 5 min! And replacing buttons is EZ - I got a nice batik summer dress for a few dollars due to the lack of buttons! Go to the button jar - & voila! Fixed

As for stains, I find that if the stains react positively if I pat it with my saliva, then it's very likely that I can get them out easily. Not all clothes are freshly cleaned before they get to thrift stores.

Don't hesitate to donate even ripped clothing to the major thrift stores, as they can sell them by weight for rags in bulk.

Go for quality fabric - and quality manufacturing. All my designer labels come from thrift stores!

Learn to put up hems yourself. A dry cleaner would cost more than the garment to do this simple fix.

If the fabric is fabulous - consider altering the garment - or making something else out of it. Yardage is pricey.

Mend minor flaws that won't show - Sweaters that are slightly unraveled can often be darned successfully. And pilled sweaters can be "resurfaced". Long straps can be easily made shorter.

Remember to mostly ignore sizes. Often newer items land up in thrift stores because the sizing on the label is too big or too small. Learn to approximate fix & try on garments if possible, especially pants.

You can spray thriftshop shoes with disinfectant if you are nervous about wearing used shoes. (Many shoes are barely worn.)

Remember that leather seams are usually easily mended through the existing holes with a strong thread, like button thread. And some shoes will look great if they just get a good polish. If they are something like very expensive boots, it might be worthwhile to take them to the shoemakers & get them re-heeled.

Don't expect vintage clothes to be without flaws. Very often the thread in the seams will go before the rest of garment - so be prepared to mend them - especially around the arm holes. Remember flaws such as ripped seams are VERY EZ to FIX with a needle and thread. Have a good mending box with a variety of colors of thread so that your mending is nice and neat and doesn't show.

Sometimes you can cover a mend by using felt markers to match the thread you used - or even to fill in a tiny spot. Jeans can be aged by using sandpaper on the front.

As you can see, if you are in the habit of buying from thrift shops - I get almost all of my clothes there - you will develop a whole variety of mending skills to bring to those garments whenever necessary!

Guest's picture
Marla

Wow, thanks for more fantastic ideas. Laura, I about fell off my chair when you wrote about "cadaver juice." I don't even want to go there. :-)

You folks are hard-core shoppers. Pam, thanks for adding on all those great suggestions.

Guest's picture
Ted

I have stayed away from thrift stores, mainly due to the smell factor and the shame factor. But due to gaining weight and blowing out some pants, here we go! Time to get shopping. Thank you for the advice on what to look at. One last piece of advice, for folks struggling with the shame factor and depression, complete a task, get it done, feel great, breathe.

Guest's picture
Marla

Thanks for the nice comment. Unless you are shopping somewhere like at my earlier post (The Ultimate Thrift Store: How Far Will You Go for a Bargain?), there shouldn't be a smell. Try various stores. The better ones (like Goodwill) seem to have higher cleanliness and service standards. Shame factor? No way, dude. Thrift stores are cool now. Ask a teenager. -M.

Guest's picture
Kathryn

I love the fact that the Google ad served up with this post is:

"That Pee Stink is Gone"
I Finally Got Rid of the Urine Odor This Spray Works, Read Reviews Here

Talk about knowing when to take a pass on a thrift-store bargain...

Guest's picture
Marla

LOL! That's TOO funny.

Maggie Wells's picture

are the way I go these days. Goodwill and Salvation Army are just too formulaic. My major scores this season were all at the Jewish Women's Council Thriftstore in West Los Angeles. Perfect store in a great neighborhood where women with money donate clothes they wore no more than twice.

 

Margaret Garcia-Couoh

Maggie Wells's picture

are the way I go these days. Goodwill and Salvation Army are just too formulaic. My major scores this season were all at the Jewish Women's Council Thriftstore in West Los Angeles. Perfect store in a great neighborhood where women with money donate clothes they wore no more than twice.

 

Margaret Garcia-Couoh

Guest's picture
Michele

Shopper perspective: Re broken zippers, consider whether you can tolerate using a safety pin or some other "hack" to keep the zipper closed. Also, if a new zipper costs $7, but you can get the right color and size zipper from a $4 thrift-store garment, then it may be worth your while to teach yourself how to replace a zipper! It's like any skill that gets easier the more you do it.

Also: To save time and grief in the dressing room, know your measurements and take a tape measure with you to the store. Especially in women's clothes, the size numbers on tags are meaningless across brands. In one label's trousers I'm a 4P but I'm a 6A in another's. Phooey on that! I think I may start a notebook with what size my measurements mean to various designers.

Volunteer perspective: Re stuff too damaged to donate, thrift stores that know what they're doing will take unusable clothing because they can get some small amount of money for the weight, as @pam munro mentioned. You can call ahead of time and ask. You can also separate out the clothes you think are too junky and tell the staff, "This is just weight."

Guest's picture
kerrvert

Don't use ammonia if you have critters. it will only encourage them to pee on your clothes. Much better to use vinegar or oxiclean.

Guest's picture
Q

I hope no one feels shame shopping at thrift stores! As Marla notes, teens love them. Back in the 90's I don't think I owned a single piece of new clothing - everything came from the Sally. Not to mention the number of legitimately wealthy folks who shop for designer stuff at higher end consignment stores.

Don't force yourself to go to a store that is in any way distasteful to you. As previously mentioned, Goodwill and Salvation Army can be picked over (by merchants who upsell stuff to teens!) or a little rundown, but there are smaller chains or independent stores that might be nicer. Another tip is to travel to an affluent zip code. Let me tell you the stuff you can find at the Sally in Newburyport, MA...

Second hand is the new black!

Guest's picture
Marla

Michele, how wonderful to hear from someone in the know.

Kerrvert, thanks for the ammonia tip.

Q, I wish I had come up with that last line! Fantastic. -M.

Guest's picture
Em

A little perspective: a $150 pair of flawlessly fitting, beautiful wool pants that you got for $5 is well worth the $15 a tailor will charge to replace a zipper or take in the back an inch or two. A new lining may cost $35, but if you paid $20 for the coat and it's cashmere... let's talk about the pilly acrylic nightmares you can get new for that price. Most tailors have a list of price ranges for repairs; keep one in your thrifting kit so you can evaluate on the fly. Know what your cobbler can do, too. My $4 Cole Haan heels were worth resoling. Thirty bucks to put a gusset in a fantastic pair of boots that's a little tight in the calf is nothing.

I'm with Pam. Most of these cautions don't reflect my experiences in 25 years of thrift shopping. The large charity and chain thrifts all bale damaged and unsold clothes for sale as rags. Many thrift shoppers are looking for damaged items to upcycle - the lower price just adds to the pleasure of making something from next to nothing. I love finding sweaters shrunk in the wash; they cost less and the felt is perfect for craft projects. I've bought items just for the fabric, buttons, or trim.

DIY fashion allows so many wonderful options for remaking clothes: lengthening a skirt with a contrasting fabric, silkscreening, fabric painting, unfinished rolled neck- and hemlines on knits, and some delightful new versions of the applique/reverse applique concept. A frayed collar on a great vintage shirt can be split along the seams with a razor to look on purpose or resurfaced with a bit of fusible webbing and a scrap of a vintage scarf.

Guest's picture

I am very willing to buy thrift clothes that are good quality but have rips, flaws or busted zippers. For the quality that I can find it is so worth the time to do repairs. I also buy silk scarves and leather belts that look like they have problems. Our local thrift sells tooled leather belts for 10 cents, most of them are cracked by the holes but these can be cut down to make the most beautiful dog collars and very funky bracelets. Some of them are worth buying just for the high quality buckles and I match them up latter with leather belts that have ugly buckles. You can cut up silk scarves that have holes or permanent stains to make very luxurious pillows and sachets or use the fabric for other sewing projects.
I don't know if this is true but I was told years ago that unsold garment are sold to the manufacturers that make the ugly gray cloth that line the trunks of cars.
I think the only garments that most thrift stores don't want are those that have a strong body odor. If it is clean then donate it.

Guest's picture

Excellent tips on clothing.

I’ve written nearly an entire chapter on how to Shop Thrift. Since it’s a completely different culture than conventional retail, one must reframe the mind. A series of posts on this subject appear in the left column of our blog. When newbies switch to thrift, I want them to become converts. The reuse market in this country needs to expand like nobodies business. It’s great for the local economy. It’s one of the easiest ways to lower the carbon footprint of your shopping. Shopping repurposed goods, is poetic in that it provides funds to help charities reporpose lives in need. I could write a hundred reasons why we need to develop a more robust reuse market.

Guest's picture
Guest

I use ATSKO Sport-Wash to remove odors--it's marketed to hunters (I get it at the hunting department at Walmart) to keep their quarry from scenting them but it works really well on just about any smell. It even removes cat pee(don't ask)!
http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B001DLF6C2/ref=pd_lpo_k2_dp_sr_1?pf_rd_...

I disagree about not donating garments with holes, broken zippers, etc. I will buy just about any 100% wool woven garment--I machine wash and dry them, strip them up and make them into rugs. People want them for braided, crocheted, knitted, hooked and woven rugs. Woven cotton is also valued for the same purpose and I have found cotton t-shirts work extremely well for crocheted bath mats. Cut it into one long spiral from the bottom up to where the sleeves are set in. If you pull it tight, the strip will turn itself into a perfect coil with no raw edges showing and makes a soft, absorbent, machine-wash-and-dry rug or hot pad. Even completely shrunk, unwearable sweaters have their uses. I made a lovely, soft, warm pillow for my cat's basket out of a shrunken sweater and crafters use them for a variety of projects. My daughter wears a pair of pink, cable-knit cashmere leg warmers made from the sleeves of a shrunken sweater--it was so completely felted that I didn't even have to do any sewing. I just cut them off the sweater, trimmed the top to make it even and the right length and voila! Unless the fabric is completely rotten, somebody, somewhere, probably has a use for it!

Guest's picture

Lucky enough to live in a neighborhood with lots of thrift shops and plenty of choices, I usually buy items that look new and need only hemming. I've also had luck in hand washing solid-colored silk items in Woolite even if they say dry cleaning only (printed silk colors tend to run into each other).

I've also noticed more and more teenagers shopping together at Goodwill, getting a kick out of their retro finds.

http://savvysavingbytes.com/2009/08/scouting-the-thrifts-for-gems/

Guest's picture
Rachel

I've acquired excellent second-hand pieces (a down parka, a designer dress) with broken zips, knowing that replacing the zip would cost a fraction of buying the the item new. (And I've bargained down the seller because of the zip problem!) Your quoted $7/ zip seems high to me - my local sewing notions store charges signficantly less (usually $3/zip). And while it's true that they're tricky to put in if you don't have a sewing machine, you can also get your local drycleaner/garment repair place to do it for you at nominal cost

Anyway, in sum, I don't think a broken zip is a good reason to leave an amazing bargain behind. Particularly winter coats.

Guest's picture
Guest

It also depends on whether you intend to make any alterations to the design anyway... I tend to buy items with the intention of making them into something completely different so the broken zipper, etc prob really isn't a prob for me at all! Many of my fave pieces were damaged in some way..
One tee I love to death was a dingy stained white, but with a brilliant green dye, perfecto!!
Just use creativity and a serious look at your limitations! ( i wont replace zippers in leather!)

Guest's picture
LaVerne

I live in Reno, NV and I have found that recently in the last year or two the thrift stores are spraying everythin in the store especially cloths blankets and pillows everything fabric, with I think it is fabreeze or a spray on fabric deoderizer. I can't handle the smell. In fact it hurts my lungs and gives me headaches that take days to get rid of.

I would truely like to find a way to campagne against this tactic. BUT so far I only go in for a little while. and Escape. It is poisonious. TO ME and anyone with asthma or lung problems.

BUT if I do buy I have a couple of ways to get the odors out, I wash the soak the cloths in soda and viniger, I sometimes have to do this twice, so I have started to soak them over night the second time. It works, but if they go crazy with the spray I have to do it more than once. I take that into concideration when I ma buying it. Will it hold its apeal to me after a few washings.

Because I am finding they are also spraying the books and kitchen ware no, I have found that putting a bowl of bleach in a small closet and setting them in there with the bleach and letting the bleach smell permeat the air for a few days it gets rid of most of the smell.

I bought a togo cup with a stainless steal lineing that they had sprayed and I never got the smell out of it.

Now the whole stores smell of the chemical of what ever it is they are using. As soon as I walk in I can smell it. I want to find out how to stop this. Does anyone know how to help.

But I love thrif store shopping, and hope I am not going to have to quit.

Guest's picture
Guest

I have to say that I strongly disagree with leaving stuff labelled 'dry clean only'. A lot of those clothes can go through a front-loading washing machine on the delicate cycle and come out just fine.

Granted, you need to know if it's a fabric that may shrink like crazy, but if you love it and it's inexpensive it's worth trying.

I've done this with a lot of items - most recently a beautiful pair of black wool pants that came out of the washer just fine.

If you want to be extra careful - skip the dryer.

Guest's picture
Sandy in the Northwest

Just as I donate clothes that I never got around to wearing, remember that there are a lot of new clothing items with the tags still on them at thrift stores, and those are the items I am looking for. Look for sweaters in the off-season. I try to purchase Irish knit sweaters in July when they can be had for $5.00. Cashmere and Merino wool are available when the summer clothes come out. Those people that are organized enough to pack up their winter clothes in the spring and summer clothes in the fall provide the opportunities for the rest of us to pick up a few terrific items for next season. Look for things that don't go out of style and fit even if you gain or lose five pounds. I find that these nice things are available in the spring and fall around the time when the seasonal clothes are packed up, so that's when to looked for the bargains: Shorts and beachwear in October and sweaters and jackets in May and June.

Guest's picture
Cynthia

The rubbing alcohol is part of an old wardrober/costumers trick called "Frenching." (It also has some other fun names.) We often mix rosewater with our sprays though to help mitigate the smell of alcohol.

It's primarily used on costumes that need to be worn more than once, but can't be washed between wearings. It's still used today in a lot of theater, theme park, and film costume houses and productions.

And I do agree that missing buttons and busted zippers, or items waaayyy too large for me to wear have never stopped me from buying them given that I took home ec when I was 16.