A couple of years ago, I shared 10 introductory thrift shopping tips for those who find secondhand shopping daunting. In light of some of your survey responses asking for more thrift shopping advice, I’ve decided to start a series with more specific tips for finding good quality items on the secondhand market.
I’m a huge proponent of buying secondhand, but not everything on the secondhand market is created equally in terms of stitching, fit, and fabric quality. And since most things have been used or worn before, it’s especially important to be aware of the way certain fabrics and materials wear over time, and to be alert to any condition issues like pilling, pulling, staining, stretching, and shrinking. I recommend looking over the pieces you’re considering in natural light – find a window or see if you can take the item outside – because yellow fluorescent light has a way of covering a multitude of problems.
I’ve been working as the manager of a thrift shop for almost 2 years now, so I’ve become much more aware of the styles and fabrics to avoid, as well as the most common wear issues on secondhand clothes.
5 Things to Avoid When Secondhand Shopping
1. Polyester & Rayon Blends
If you want your items to wash and wear well, avoid anything made of knit polyester and rayon blends. The term polyester can refer to a huge variety of textiles – from chiffons to satins to knits – and not all of them will show wear quickly. But in my experience, clothing made from both knit cotton/polyester blends and rayon/stretch knits will start pilling after light wear, even if you take care to hand wash and air dry the items. And since you’re already buying these things secondhand, it’s best to just avoid these fabrics altogether.
2. White Shirts
White shirts are so crisp and summery, but it’s best to avoid them on the secondhand market unless you’re shopping at a curated consignment store. In my experience, the majority of white tees, tanks, and blouses donated to thrift shops have either armpit stains or food stains that didn’t fully wash out. I’m constantly having to cull white clothing from our racks at the shop because of pit stains. If you must buy a white shirt, make sure to check it out in natural light.
3. Vintage Elastic Waist Pants & Skirts
While I’ve found lovely vintage skirts at secondhand shops, I would generally advocate avoiding anything 20+ years old with an elastic waist. Elastic wears out over time, losing its stretch and expanding. To check for elastic loss, give the waistband of the item in question a firm tug and listen for the tell-tale crinkling sound of bad elastic. Sometimes elastic goes out in swimwear due to prolonged exposure to chlorine. In this case, the whole suit may feel brittle. When in doubt, put it back on the rack.
The thin, stretch fabric that today’s fast fashion jeggings are made with loses its shape very quickly, conforming to the original wearer’s specific curves and movement. It’s best to avoid pants, jeans, and jeggings made of insubstantial, stretch fabric because you’ll often find when you get them home that the knees start sagging or the area around the crotch and thighs has stretch marks from heavy wear by the previous owner.
5. DIY Hemming & Tailoring
Just say no to items that were cut, cropped, and taken in at home. There are exceptions to this, of course, but I’ve been pretty disappointed by items I took home only to find that the hem was uneven or the seam allowance too small for minor alterations of my own. Even if the item was professionally tailored, it may still be a no go, because tailoring is body-specific. An item that may have fit you at its original proportions is now cut just right for the nice lady who donated it to the thrift shop. Tailoring makes it nearly impossible to tell what size the item really is since the size on the tag is now irrelevant.
A few other items to avoid: used socks and underwear (that one’s probably obvious), appliances with only 2 prongs on the plug (it’s a shock hazard!), and particle board furniture (it will likely fall apart in transit).
I’m interested to hear your thrift shop horror stories!
What items disappointed you after you purchased them? What fabrics and qualities do you avoid when secondhand shopping?