1. Take advantage of the season: Just like in big box stores, the best time to buy something is well before you need it. In my experience, thrift stores are full of old (read: high chance of vintage!) high-quality coats and boots in the summer months. People are much more willing to let items that aren’t their style go to thrift stores when they’re not needed; once the first snow comes, who cares if that coat your grandma gave you doesn’t quite fit? You’ll probably keep it to stay warm. Same thing with summer gear, to a lesser extent. If you haven’t gotten around to buying a bikini yet, you’re unlikely to donate the one you have during the summer, in case of unexpected swim party.
Exception: The first week of really springlike weather. People get that spring cleaning bug and will clean out their garages. I’ve found that first warm week to be when there’s a sudden flood of cool things. Your mileage may vary, of course.
2. Do your research: Does your thrift store have special bargain days? Mine has senior discount days, student discount days, days where everything that has a certain color tag is priced at $1… Find out what kind of deals they have beforehand to save even more money. Granted, on dollar days the merchandise is older and perhaps less choice, but it’s still worth a look. And I hate it when I forget my student ID on a day when I could get %25 off.
3. Limit your budget: You know that song “Thrift Shop”? The line “they had a broken keyboard/I bought a broken keyboard” makes me giggle every time, because I know that feel. Deciding on a set amount before you go — or better yet, bringing cash only — will help prevent reverse sticker shock and excessive impulse buys. “But it’s so cheap!” Unfortunately, thrift stores can be a huge money sink because it’s just a few dollars for each item and you might buy way more stuff than you normally would. Which defeats the purpose and ends up with huge, sheepish ‘re-donate’ piles.
4. Learn alterations/repairs: If you already frequent thrift stores, you surely know the exquisite pain of finding a designer label item that fits you perfectly and is exactly your color, but has a ripped lining. Or something so incredible you must have it, but it doesn’t fit. I think that usually people just buy the item anyway. Don’t! That will just prolong the frustration. Instead, learn to patch that lining and reattach that button. Or, if you’re ambitious, learn to completely reclaim fabric from a garment. Thrift stores can be a great place for inexpensive yardage. Which brings me to 4a.
4a. When purchasing clothing for its yardage, look for very large items (obviously) with as little detailing as possible. An XL overcoat in a fine wool, for example, may not have a ton of seams because the manufacturer didn’t want to overwhelm the lovely fabric with a lot of busy detailing. This will give you the largest uninterrupted chunks of fabric.
5. Know fabrics: Noticing a theme here? Most of my tips are knowledge-based. But this one is super important: Know exactly what you’re buying, even if there’s no tag. Be in control so you don’t end up shivering in the middle of winter because you didn’t know that cozy, warm-looking sweater was actually acrylic and therefore totally unsuited for snow. (Experience speaking here, can you tell?)
How do you go about developing that sense?
- Every time you go to a thrift store, find an item with a tag that comes from a reputable company. For silk, for example, I used Victoria’s Secret 100% silk pajamas whenever possible. Silk scarves are also good for this, although less likely to have tags. This will be your control item.
- Carry the item around with your other items. Every time you see something that looks like silk, touch that item. Then touch your control item. Observe: do they feel the same? How? Does the item you’re testing warm up to your touch? Is it very slick, or slightly textured? What does the color look like; if there is a sheen, how shiny is it? How does it smell? (Careful with that one, people will look at you funny.)
Note: The surest way to tell fiber content is by burning a small swatch of the fabric and observing the results. Do not do this inside the store. (Duh) If you still aren’t sure when you buy the item, you can confirm your touch test with a burn test at home.
- Once you’ve made your guess, check the mystery item’s tag. If it doesn’t have a tag, look for another item. Even if it does have a tag, look for more items. Get in the habit of doing this every thrift trip for a while. That way, even if on your first try you picked up something that wasn’t silk as your control item, you will develop a bigger sample size over time.
- After doing this for several months of frequent trips, I can identify wool vs polyester, and even when it’s a polyester blend (though not what percentage) by touch. I can sort of tell what kind of wool is likely to be in the garment. I can tell silk from viscose from poly with a nearly 100% success rate. And of course, leather from PVC and fur vs faux. With practice, I can even tell 100% cotton sturdy jeans from jeans with lycra/spandex.
So what, you ask? So I can find something gorgeous that will last for a long time and keep me warm or cool (and non-smelly! Natural fabrics don’t trap body odor as much, though there’s some debate about that.) even if the tag has worn away or been cut out or never had one to begin with.
6. Know quality: Nothing’s worse than buying a cheap knock-off of something you thought was really good, and having it fall apart on you. Look for signs that the garment is well made.
- Thicker, heavier fabrics are generally higher quality (except for fabrics like silk chiffon, which are practically weightless and seem almost to hang in the air when you twirl).
- In general, though not always, shinier = cheaper. Remember that petroleum-based fabrics like polyester are generally shinier than natural fabrics. (Though some silks do have a natural sheen.)
- Really expensive items won’t have flaws like crooked stitching.
- For jackets, make sure the lining is attached well, without bags or excessive wrinkles or puckers.
- For shoes, look for stitching around the soles. Cheaper shoes will be glued, better shoes will be sewn.
- Make sure that zipper pulls and hardware are metal, not plastic. Also check pocket linings; in high-quality suits, pockets will be crisp and heavy duty.
- If you’re into labels and brands in particular, be intimately familiar with your favorite logos. You can spot a fake by mistakes in the forged logo. I don’t do this, as I don’t really care about the label as long as the garment is well made, but I’m sure it can be worthwhile.
- Items like coats and suits, but also some higher quality pants (especially menswear) will sometimes have extra-wide seam allowances on the inside. This is to allow for custom tailoring.
- Look at the seams. Are they serged? (Serged seams look like t-shirt hems) If they aren’t serged, you’re probably either looking at a home-made or a couture garment, since most (not all!) factory-made garments are serged these days. Major exceptions here are stretch/fragile or highly fray-prone fabrics, all of which need the stretchiness and/or the security of serged seams and hems.