Thrifting for Quality Clothes

Thank you for your warm response to the announcement of our new company! While we work more on it, Amanda from Easy Peasy Organic is filling in for me today with this guest post…

Thrifting isn’t as simple as it sounds, and if you don’t consider what you’re doing, you’re going to end up with a closet (or two … and several boxes) full of clutter.

Trust me, I know. I’ve been there.

I’ve bought dresses with expensive labels that didn’t quite fit right; stacks of books I’ll never read (despite my best intentions); and dishes that just look old, rather than vintage – all because I could buy them for a dollar or two. It became an obsession. How much could I come out with, and for how little?

I thrifted with rose-coloured glasses, seeing value where there really was none. And as a result, I ended up with stuff and stuff and more stuff … a lot of it having to be thrown out relatively soon when I abruptly noticed that it was faded or snagged or stained. And that’s not what I’m about. Yes, I like the idea of recycling discarded goods, but I don’t want my possessions to be disposable. I want quality.

(Quality I can afford.)

Over the years, and with significant help from a thrift-averse husband, I’ve honed my thrifting skills to the point where I can actually walk out of a secondhand shop without buying a thing. (This is good. This shows power, and control.) And nowadays when I buy something, it’s quality that I wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford. But it’s been a process.

Here are my tips for crafting a quality, thrifted wardrobe:

1. Have a goal.

Personally, I want my life (all-around) to be simple, uncluttered, and high-quality. And this includes any new acquisitions I make, so when I walk into any store I’m looking for quality.

So what determines quality? I’ll get to that in a second. First, let’s talk about when and where to shop.

2. Some days are better than others.

My favourite-ever Goodwill store has $1 Thursdays, where every tag of a certain colour is $1. I found my favourite sweater (Abercrombie), my favourite workout pants (North Face), my laptop bag (Patagonia) and a gorgeous Calvin Klein dress (with the $180 price tag still on it) for $1 each by shopping on that day. I can’t even buy a coffee for $1.

3. Some shops are better than others.

I focus on particular thrift stores where I seem to do well, because I figure the people donating there must be similar to me in style. Try affluent suburbs. Check out sections of ‘better quality’ clothes. Don’t waste your time — it’s precious.

4. First glance: look at the fabric.

You can tell a lot about the quality of clothing via the look, feel, and weight of the fabric. You know what good fabric is. The point of thrifting is that you can afford the good stuff.

Some features to look for are: uncommon detail or unusual textures; well-sewn seams and buttons; a certain sturdiness in the fabric (even for light fabrics.)

Some features to avoid are: fading (a particular problem for black clothes); pilling or snags; fraying; stains; uneven colouring; or translucency (unless that’s the style). Tears or rips in seams can be ok if you feel comfortable fixing them, but don’t put too much stock in repair jobs or alterations. In my hands, chances are the clothes will go into a ‘to-sew’ pile that will never see daylight again; better not to buy them in the first place.

5. Second glance: look at labels.

Because my goal is quality, I’m actively looking for labels associated with quality — and if I find something in my size, I’m likely to try it on. Of course, just because something says ‘DKNY’ doesn’t mean it’s been cared for properly — it may not even be worth the $3.99 pricetag. But if it has been cared for, it might just mean that it’ll last you long time. Making it very worth it.

6. Finally, how does it fit?

This is the most important of all. You have to be able to critically assess the fit of thrifted clothing, because ultimately it’s the fit that’ll determine whether it ever sees the light of day once you take it home. You want clothes that flatter you; that blend well into your existing wardrobe; that suit your style. If you put it on and it makes you feel good – that’s value. Otherwise, hang it back on the rack. Even spending $5 is a waste if you’re not going to wear it.

So. Thrifting can be a cheap and eco-friendly way to enhance the quality of your wardrobe – but only if you’re discriminating about what you buy. It’s taken me years to learn this lesson, but I think I’ve finally got it. I’m in control. Well. Most of the time …

Guest author Amanda shares organic recipes and ideas for sustainable, simple living at her blog Easy Peasy Organic.

From Rachel: I like Amanda’s point of keeping your standards high when thrifting since you can afford the good stuff. I do better if I can try on clothes while I’m at the store, otherwise I might miss if it has a stain or if the fit is wonky. What are your thrifting strategies?
About Rachel

I write about practical tips that will help you simplify at home. Connect with me on Pinterest and Twitter.

Comments

  1. It’s so tempting to purchase second-hand items because they are so inexpensive, but like you, I’ve noticed that the low price can make the wrong things seem appealing. I’ve learned to ask myself if I’d be attracted to this item at full price; if so, that $5 dress is a bargain, but if not, I’m probably distracted by the price alone and not the actual item itself. That simple question has kept me from making a lot of poor choices, and it means I still have my $5 when I find the *just right* dress. :-)

    • I do something similar by asking myself, “Do I like this item or do I like the bargain?” I know if I decide to pass up a bargain, there will always be another one.

  2. My life is a perfect graveyard of second-hand buying. I have always bought stuff that’s good- but it has lead to over 200 pairs of jeans…thrill of the chase made me do it ! But no longer, haven’t bought a thing in nearly a year !

  3. I’m a sporadic thrift-shopper, just as I’m a sporadic shopper, period. I guess my two most important not-yet-mentioned strategies are:

    1. I stand there holding the garment and imagining the contents of my closet to make SURE I have things to coordinate with it. That seems more important at a thrift shop, where I might be a wee bit too excited about the deal I am looking at.

    2. I try, even at thrift shops, to shop with upcoming needs in mind. That helps with #1 above, too, because if I’m holding something I hadn’t anticipated buying anywhere, I need to think, think, think.

    I’m sure other shoppers think me a bit crazy, but I just smile sweetly and go back to staring off into space.
    Lori´s last post…Balancing Balance, Part X: The Home Manager’s Biggest Perk

  4. So helpful are these suggestions. I find it easy to get swept away with the idea of thrifting because it’s become rather trendy to find the vintage item, the great piece for a makeover or a wonderful deal. However, I try to keep a physical running list on my phone of what I need to shop for to keep me from falling prey to the unnecessary and spontaneous buys.

  5. This post seemed to mirror my thriving philosophy. I try not to buy anything at a thrift store that I wouldn’t buy full price (assuming I could afford the full price).

    I tend to let my hands do the finding, rather than my eyes. For me, it is much easier to feel quality than to see it.

  6. I’m an avid thrifter but it has taken me years of less-than-stellar purchases to hone my skill. I remind myself over and over that if I’m not going to wear it, it doesn’t matter how much money it is (or isn’t) and that I should not buy something just because it’s a good deal. I’m very short so items usually need to be altered to fit me (especially pants and long sleeves) but my rule is that they have to go to the tailor/dry cleaner within a week of me buying them. That way I don’t let them languish in the “to sew” pile forever. Also, because I’m short, I check the little boys suits and long-sleeved shirts to see if there are well-cut jackets or oxford shirts that I can wear. Several times I’ve hit the jackpot, and because they’re kids dress clothes, they’ve usually hardly been worn.

  7. Thanks for the suggestions! I’m so guilty of the “buy it because it’s cheap and sort of works” style of thrifting. I’m moving in a few months, so I’m simultaneously trying to turn a new leaf of de-cluttering and beginning to purchase quality staples (kitchen stuff, clothing, furniture, etc). Only what I need. Not just what’s cheap.

  8. This is great. I love to thrift, but I don’t want to impulse buy. Exactly my process, but so much better stated here.

  9. I wholeheartedly agree with everything you have said in this post. It took me awhile but I can leave a thrift store without anything too. I buy more homewares than clothes but the same reasoning applies. Even if I see something really gorgeous, I just think about if I have a space for it or maybe I should leave it there to brighten someone else’s day when they discover it. Not every bargain has to be mine.

  10. Do you have some ideas of good brands to share? I have inherited most of my clothes from family for the past 8 or 9 years and not only do I not know what my style is anymore, I haven’t a clue what brands are the better quality ones.

    • Try Ann Taylor, LL Bean, Talbots, Banana Republic. We talked about brands a little bit in this shopping guide.

    • Sister Morphine says:

      I have good luck with Union Bay. I also shop at a 2nd hand store that specializes in brand names. They get a lot of Aeropostle, Abercrombie and American Eagle plus Hollister. So I bought a pair of Armani Exchange jeans and they were actually made in the US!

  11. These are some wonderful tips!

  12. So, so true. When I go thrifting for clothes for myself, I do basically all the things you mentioned, take a HUGE stack into the fitting room…and find one or two things (on a good day) that are worth taking home and committing closet space to. And at this point I don’t think I’d have it any other way.
    MK Jorgenson´s last post…Sloth: A Study in Proverbs

  13. This is such a good lesson to learn! I have shopped thrift stores since the day my kids were born and I love it. But, I have definitely bought some things that were good bargains, but bad decisions. Now when the boys and I go to the thrift store we are a lot more discerning and we take a lot longer to choose things. The best lesson I have learned over the years is to check out different thrift stores in different areas. There is definitely better quality stuff in the more upscale neighbourhoods. Now we make thrift shopping an outing for the day and even my boys love it!
    Diane @ The Stripper Project´s last post…Go on… get down there!

  14. I agree that you have to try things on. I used to go to a thrift store that didn’t have any dressing rooms and I would invariably wind up buying tons of shirts that I thought I loved. Once I got them home though the story changed. Sometimes the shirts fit, sometimes they didn’t, sometimes they turned out to be see-through(a big no-no for me). Sadly, I just stopped going to that thrift store so I wouldn’t be tempted. Luckily, I recently went back there after a long hiatus, on the hunt for a dresser, and noticed they now have changing rooms, so I think I’ll be going back!

    My husband and I are expecting our first baby this May and since we both love to read we’ve been stocking up on kids books. One thing that I love about buying kids books at a thrift store is that I can find books I loved growing up.

  15. My thrifting rules are exactly the same, and it took me the very same experience of having too much of a good thing to make my rules. It is a better value for my money to buy high end brands while thrifting. They are better quality and will last much longer. I would rather have a few really quality items than a bunch of cheap ones. Blessings, Tami
    Tami´s last post…{this moment}

  16. Great tips. I am pretty new to thrifting & I can see how easy it is to end up with a ton of stuff that you won’t use.
    Audrey @ Mom Drop Box´s last post…The beauty of a trip away

  17. Great article; I learned these things the hard way too :)

    It also helps to know when your thrift store or second-hand store puts out new stock. One of our second-hand clothing stores has a two for one sale every Monday, and culls the tables in the late afternoon and evening. There is very little to choose from then, but they put loads of new stock out the next morning, and those days are the best to shop.

  18. In my experience, Anne Taylor, Banana Republic and Talbots ALL run to the small side; it pays to know that a size 10 isn’t a true size 10, it’s more like an 8. LL Bean runs true to size and, IMHO, is generally far better quality than Banana Republic and Talbots.
    The only time I’ll buy something I can’t wear is when it’s going to be used for a textile art project.

  19. I always try on EVERYTHING at the store. I also inspect items for rips, stains, etc. I also only buy the best brands. I love finding Ann Taylor tops for $1-2, but only if they are in “like new” condition. I am super cheap, so I never have a problem leaving the store empty handed.
    Amanda´s last post…You CAN Afford to Insure Your Family

  20. Great tips! I can’t tell you how many things find their way home with my because they were dirt cheap, and “of course I’ll have some use for it sooner or later”. Not easy when you live in a storage challenged apt. Thanks for sharing!

  21. After doing Project 333, I’ve learned how many clothes I really need in a given season. When I’m thrifting for clothes, a new purchase now usually means giving away something I already own. So for me, the question is: Do I like this more than _____? If the answer is yes (and it’s a good quality/fit/price) it will go home with me. If the answer is no, I put it back on the rack. Has helped tremendously cut down on my mistakes.

    If anyone is interested in tips on choosing thrift store plates, just posted on that this week: http://www.thissortaoldlife.com/2012/02/20/the-70s-called/
    Rita@thissortaoldlife.com´s last post…Happy Birthday!The best birthday present we can give our kids

  22. I have issues shopping for clothes secondhand, but home decor is a whole other story. Though I always feel that sense of power, or control, when I walk out of a store with nothing in hand. It makes it better when I do buy something, knowing that I waited to find something worth having.
    Jennie´s last post…Just Be Silly Sometimes

  23. I do agree about LL Bean. I bought so many of my children’ clothes from the LL Bean catalogue cause they hold up so well. Then, when they started wanting name brand stuff (Polo (my kids are in their 30s now) and expensive jeans) I went to the rich folks yard sales, or the GoodWill closest to their neighborhoods.

    I never even thought to be creeped out by 2nd hand clothes? A few items I wouldn’t buy…underwear or mattresses…

  24. This is my philosophy of second hand shopping to a “T”! It’s taken a few years, but now I’m as excited if I leave with nothing as when I find a few great pieces. I always mentally picture what top/bottom I’m going to pair the thrift shop piece with before I leave. If I don’t know, even if it fits, I leave it. It’s just not worth it to me for the clutter headache later. My thrift shop does NOT have fitting rooms. My family (and other shoppers) just try on the clothes over top of our own clothes in front of the mirrors. I try to wear tighter, high neck shirts that won’t snag on the stapled price tags, and either a knee length pencil skirt or black yoga type pants, so I can see the true fit of the thrift clothes. It’s usually helpful if you shop with someone too, they can help hold down a shirt for modesty sake if you have trouble getting off the ill fitting thrift top. Hope this helps someone else getting into thrift shopping without dressing rooms!

  25. This was so helpful! I have pretty much given up on thrifting because I seemed to just come home with sub-par items. I don’t have a lot of time to shop with three very young children, so maybe I haven’t found the right stores yet!

    • I think finding the right stores makes all the difference. In some thrift stores I’ve bought cute shirts for ten cents or a dollar, but other stores I haven’t had any success at, so I don’t want to spend my time on those. I don’t really shop for clothes very often.

  26. My #1 strategy when thrift clothes shopping (actually ANY clothes shopping for that matter) is when I try it on if I don’t absolutely LOVE it, then I don’t buy it. If I stand there staring in the mirror for several minutes convincing myself that the “wonky underarms” or “slightly too big pants” are something I could maybe get used to, then I put it back on the hanger and walk away. Because if I do bring it home, I may wear it once or twice but then those little annoying things about it will become bigger things and eventually it will get pushed to the back of the closet never to see the light of day again. I’ve had to learn this the hard way but its saved me a lot of money since.

    • I absolutely agree with this. Listen to the response in your head when you look in the mirror. The item you’re trying on should look as good on you as your most favourite things at home. Unless, of course, you are a good seamstress and have a track record of fixing things promptly. If not, leave it at the store!

  27. My Mom does a lot of thrift shop shopping, and brings things home for me occassionally. I have quite a few that I just don’t wear because they weren’t right for me. But I also have 2 good sweaters and a pair of dress pants that I wear all the time! When shopping for my kids I have to remind myself constantly that they already have one just liek that at home, or whatever, just so I don’t waste my money on clothes they won’t wear.

  28. I love shopping at thrift store, especially The Salvation Army Thrift Store. Not so much for clothing, as I am retired and already have two closets full..

    But I am always on the hunt for props for my photos and things I can use for crafting. I try to only go on Wednesdays. Senior Discount Day. 25% off.
    Donna´s last post…Paint The Town Red and Black

  29. I have to say I’ve wound up at home with so many articles that were great in the store and rather worn or had a tiny hole once I got home, I’m a bit jaded on thrifting for clothes now. Goods are another issue, but I think I’ll stick with the clearance rack of decent brands than try to rescue any more “finds.”

  30. Thrifting is one of my favorite things!!! Buying for kids especially…I know the brands I want, and they usually always fit them. Checking for stains is definitely the hardest part of shopping for kids.
    Clothes for me take longer and I definitely need to try them on. They almost never fit like I think they will. But after thrifting for so long, I almost can’t shop in a regular store. If I do, it’s straight to the sales rack. I’m not a big clothes person anyway…I wear pretty much the same thing each week. I only own two pairs of jeans (which I think is too little, since I wear them often) and I only own one pair of sneakers…which are in definite need of replacement.

  31. I often have a difficult time passing up the ‘bargains’ at thrift stores as well. Somehow, I always see way more potential in things when they are cheap. It’s thrift blindness I think. I have finally learned that just because it’s cheap does not mean I need to take it home only to end up in my own garage sale or giveaway pile. I am much more thoughtful now with my selections.
    Lisa Medley´s last post…Top 10 Things I’ve Learned From Dog Obedience Training

  32. I don’t do a lot of thrifting for clothing. I did when my kids were little. I’m a plus sized woman, so finding good clothing at thrifts is kind of hard. If I lost weight it would be easier1 I wait until my favorite store has deep discounts. But sometimes I just buy something at full price because I LOVE IT. ;-) Finding quality is important, no matter where you shop. Just because it’s designer, doesn’t make it quality.

  33. Oh, I am so guilty of overspending at thrift stores. Since having my fourth, it’s been harder to get enough time in one to really do a good job shopping. Also, I don’t have any real needs right now other than some replacing some clothes that will be easier to find new and on sale. Here’s a few of my thrifting treasures, though:

    –A nice, possibly unused stainless crock pot for $10
    –A beautiful, modern glass container that’s been perfect for a terrarium-$13
    –2 original woodblock prints by a 20th century artist-$5
    –perfect square frame for above-mentioned art-$2
    –beautiful 100% wool vintage blanket in wonderful condition-$8
    –Anne Klein sandles that looked exactly like the ones I was drooling over in the LL Bean Signature catalog: $3.50

    I have bought way too many glass vessels, garments in need of altering, and children’s books. I’m improving though. Thanks for this post.
    zipporah bird´s last post…Interview with Penny: “I remember verbatim every time my dad has said he’s sorry to me.”

  34. I, too, have recently found the love for thrift store and resale/consignment shops! It started with find great bargains on baby clothes at my local resale shops! Then I decided to check out my local thrift stores to see if I can find stuff for myself. Today, I happened to check out a local thrift store and EVERYTHING was 40% off and certain items (over 10 days old I think) were $1 each! I bought 4 belts and 4 tops (appropriate for work) for $11.70! Score!

  35. Felicity says:

    Thanks I loved this post. Just today I decided not to buy 2nd hand jeans as I would need to alter them, but was rewarded by the next shop having 2 Jeans that fitted like a glove :-)

    Oh and a almost embarrassing moment I walked into church with a lovely skirt I purchased 2nd hand the day before and had a lady say ‘thats my skirt!’ right in the middle of a group of people. Oh well it was a lovely skirt and we are friends now and laugh about the story

  36. Love this post!
    Quality is key. Sometimes you can find cute things, but if the quality isn’t there walk away…it won’t last.

  37. I am so guilty of this. I love to thrift store shop, and say often that things are cuter when they are cheaper, but you are so right. This is not necessarily the truth. Thanks for the reminder. Every time I go shopping though, I donate a bag before I can purchase a bag. It’s kind of my own personal rule that keeps me from getting too cluttered.