Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Thrifting 101

Thrifting is akin to playing a sport, or gambling. It is addictive, unpredictable, and sometimes exhausting. There is a knack. Since I am a hopelessly compulsive thrifter I thought I might have some useful tips to pass on.

I'm not going to point out the pros and cons of thrifting per se in this entry. The fact that you are reading it means that either 1)you are interested in thrifting, 2)you're open to maybe being interested, or 3) you're just plain lost. If you're lost, there's a new link to BBC News to the right that will get you out of here and on to something more interesting. If you're here about the thrifting, here we go!

Know what you are looking for

I don't mean "I am looking for a white GAP blouse with 3/4 sleeves that gathers at the bodice" - because even if you do happen to find this particular item, it probably won't be in your size. I mean you need a general idea. Do you need work clothes? Jeans to wear while you drywall? A new curtain? These are helpful starting points that will determine where you will do your thrifting. Not every thrift store is the same, they usually reflect the neighborhood they are in. For instance, I always go to thrift stores near universities. This is because the odds of finding small, fashionable clothing and interesting books goes way up.

Thrifting takes time

Set aside at least a couple hours. You're not going to get a real idea of what is in the thrift store if you're in a hurry.

Which reminds me:


There's no point in taking two hours to cruise through two floors of used stuff if you're too stressed to think straight. If you have something you need to be doing elsewhere, or you're about to be late, forget it. Take care of your obligations first. Those of you who have kids, get a sitter if you can. Kids go together badly with shopping, everyone knows this. You'll enjoy it more, and so will everyone else. Of course this option isn't always available, which is why being relaxed is so important: you're less likely to flip out after twenty minutes of listening to someone's three year old whine.

Dress Comfortably

Wear clothing that is easy to get on and off quickly and with little hassle in the fitting room. I suggest slip-on shoes with socks, also, so that you don't have to touch the floor with your bare feet. Even if there are no fitting rooms, don't wear very many layers or carry much in with you. The luggage will wear you down and the layers will be in your way. I like to wear pants with a shirt and cardigan. The cardigan will keep me warm, but it also comes off quickly to try things on in front of the mirror. The pants are good because you can hold the seams of skirts and pants up to the seams of the pants you're wearing to gauge size.

Know Thyself

I don't mean this metaphysically. I mean know your limits, financially, physically, and psychologically.

For instance, I only buy slip or baby doll dresses at thrift stores. This is because if I buy something with sleeves it inevitably turns out that I need to radically alter it to fit my bustline. This is much simpler of a task when there isn't a complicated structure to deal with, like sleeves, shoulder pads, etc.

For the same reason, I never buy sleeveless career dresses, the kind that often go with matching blazers. Even if I altered the bustline to fit me, it would still look terrible. It's not that I am tremendously obese, but that I am teeny tiny. I don't have enough curve to make it look like anything more than sack on me.

Also, I often buy very plain clothes that look rather unexciting on the rack. That is because I will actually wear them, as opposed to admiring them hanging in my closet for years.

Develop a method and apply it with patience and tenacity

Good stuff hides, so you'll need to look at everything, even if you think it won't be there. For instance, in a store with a central aisle, I'll begin at the front right, work my way to the back, come around the left and work my way to the front, then go to the other level of the store, if there is one, and repeat. I also tend to look at one side of a rack at a time, even if a have one on my right and my left. This way I've seen everything there is to see, and I know it for a fact.

Look everywhere

Thrift store employees often put things in the wrong place. For instance, I find a lot of size 3 women's clothing in the children's section, just because it's small. Likewise, you will find pants for short men in the women's pants, and very large women's shirts in the men's section. I found a nice vase in the books once.

Pay attention

Look for stains, strange smells, tears, missing buttons, snags, etc. A little caution doesn't hurt.


Maybe you're looking for a Halloween costume, or your kitschy. I'm not. I'm usually on the prowl for work clothes or summer dresses, so the quality of the clothes I find is important to me. (Hence the ferreting out linen and wool.) These are the things I consider:

  • brand (The Limited, XOXO, there's a difference.)
  • material (high rayon and polyester content is a bad sign)
  • color (tacky, or not tacky?)


Ok, so you're facing a whole rack of black pants, and it's bit daunting. You can't see a damn thing. What do you do?

You feel the pants, one by one. Polyester feels different than linen and wool. With a little practice you could find expensive, soft wool pants blindfolded. If that's not your thing, you could just as easily find the shite.

When I'm looking through a rack I'm feeling the fabric more than I'm looking at it. If I feel something nice, I take a look. This is especially important in the less tidy places, since it saves time and effort. My arms get very tired pushing aside clothes on racks.

Always keep your receipt

Today I:

  • had cereal and weird flavored coffee for breakfast
  • ate a banana and two burritos for lunch
  • am drinking coffee black
  • look snappy, now that I have clean laundry to wear

Last night, I:

  • had an eggplant parmesan sub for dinner while doing laundry
  • drank a cup of chamomile tea
  • read more Ellery Queen
  • went to bed early


wenders said...

Yay for city light pictures! And I love the how-to... :)

Jonathan said...

Wow, that is just amazing. I'm so excited about this, I'm going to try and see what I can find. I'll try to look for a thrift store in Georgetown near the University.

Stay tuned!
:: High Five ::