I walk into the thrift store and take a deep breath of the dusty, stagnant scent. More than the old clothes, it smells like opportunity. Half of my wardrobe has come from thrifting and I’m proud of it. Every item strikes a balance between absurdly cheap or practically free. The thrift store often has the kind of retro, dated clothes that just aren’t found at a normal store. Funky sweaters, faded graphic tees, neon jackets—it’s all there. I waltz over to the men’s sweaters and start scrounging through the sea of musty cotton before feeling upon a soft knit. Tugging the item out from its brethren I analyze it under the fluorescent lighting. It’s a thick yet soft gray wool sweater. It’s a bit big, but with sweaters that’s hardly a problem. A little peek at the Calvin Klein tag is all I need to know that this is an absolute steal. At this point I’m scrambling to the fitting room because I just can’t wait to try this on. You too, can find beautiful sweaters at your local thrift store.
Ok, not necessarily your local thrift store. There’s a laundry list of factors to consider when scoping out which store to stop at and which to pass up. Location is often one of the biggest factors. Luckily for me the Goodwill down the street is near a large suburban neighborhood—the kind with white-fencing and lush green lawns. I look for stores close to wealthy areas. But you also don’t want a store that’s too well-known, or it’ll be overrun with prospectors panning up your gold nuggets (I blame Macklemore for popularizing thrifting). In the right thrift shop you should be able to find new-looking, name-brand clothes without name-brand prices—potentially even with the original tags. These tags are a sign you’re in Thrifter Heaven, with the added benefit of being able to see what the poor sap before you spent. Still, even if the thrift store is excellent, you shouldn’t spend all day trekking to Beverly Hills. The right store needs to be vistable. Make a habit of popping in after a day of errands. Since my local Goodwill is right next to my job, I often take a peep inside after a shift. Thrifting favors the patient and the persistent.
Like fashion outlets which receive shipments one season at a time, thrift stores receive product regularly. This means fresher items, but also no clear schedule. The thrift store is an ever-shifting labyrinth of racks. One day you might find a dozen oversized basketball jerseys for the same team (a team that is never local), and the next day there might be a J. Crew denim jacket in exactly your size. However, such blessings don’t appear often to the impatient. You will be forced to wade through disheveled clothes to get to that special find. How will you find that Neiman Marcus sweater that was originally ten times the thrift-store price tag? Simple, you need to dig for it. And I mean dig. Elbow-deep, flinging hanger after hanger, feeling up every piece of clothing you can. Grow comfortable with different kinds of fabric and learn how to tell quality fabric from a dollar-store item with just a simple feel.
All of my fabric knowledge has come from my mom, who works in the textile industry. I’ve spent many afternoons with her in Goodwill, asking what she thinks of my finds before she simply gives it a feel and proclaims “you don’t want this, it’ll fall apart.” This is the thrifter’s secret weapon: the fondle. Expert thrifters can breeze through a whole rack, feeling along the entire way and snagging the best pieces. To do so, you need to learn what expensive clothing feels like. Pricier items generally have a thicker weight to them. To get a feel for what I mean, browse the most expensive store you can find. High-end department stores are my favorite, because they carry a wide selection of designer brands. Walk around that Nordstrom or Bloomingdale’s and grope all the clothing you can (maybe try on some stuff to make it look like you’re an actual customer). The fabric should feel thicker, softer, and more uniform, with few irregularities. While you’re pretending to be a Nordstrom shopper, take some notes on visual cues. The stitching should be even and durable. There should not be any pilling (tiny balls of material on the surface of the fabric). This field research will help you analyze thrift-store-finds in mere seconds.
While in the thrift store, take note of any wrinkles—they’re generally a sign of cheaper fabric. If the item has buttons, feel them and assess what they’re made of. Non-plastic buttons like wood or metal are generally better, but if it’s plastic it should be thick and weighty. If it’s a zipper, check its heftiness and if it has a nice smooth slide. If it says “YKK” on it, that means it’s from a quality manufacturer. Knits should be symmetrical, with no holes or knots. They are also prone to stretching if they’re left hanging for too long. This can pose an issue in the thrift store where you have no idea how long something was neglected in someone’s closet, so make sure to check that the proportions are still in order.
It’s impossible to tell everything from just a quick grab though. A little-known secret is that tags tell a lot more than just sizing. Tags will usually tell you exactly what the item is made out of. linen, silk, full-grain leather, merino wool (or the impeccably luxurious cashmere)—learn to separate quality materials from cheap. For your own sanity, try to avoid clothes with an overly high mix of spandex or polyester. They’re simply not durable or pleasant on the skin.
When analyzing second-hand fabrics, by nature you will encounter stains. These little un-pleasantries can range from tiny ink-blots, to a splash of red wine, to God-knows-what. As a personal rule, I refuse to purchase anything stained. People are often squeamish about thrifting because they can’t get over the fact that someone else wore that cute flannel before them—or they think that every item is going to be riddled with stains and communicable diseases. Not only is this an irrational fear, it also disregards the fact that “new” clothes are often worn by dozens of people in-store. It’s also very possible to give your thrifting finds a quick wash when you get home (which you should do with any piece of clothing anyway). In my years of thrifting the only key difference I’ve noticed between the thrifted and the “new” is the price tag.
No matter how skilled you are at assessing fabrics, you’ll never find the best items if you’re looking in the wrong place. The novice thrifter will tackle the racks like they would a normal store, checking out the section for their respective body-type. This is severely limiting your odds of snagging a hot find. While normal stores may have racks properly organized, I’ve yet to see a thrift store maintain the same consistency. Between the sheer amount of product and the customers misplacing items willy-nilly (I myself am guilty), there is hardly a strict organization. With your handy Cop-A-Feel technique (patent pending), simply breeze by that XL rack even if you strictly wear XS. On my last thrifting venture I was perusing the XL men’s pants when I noticed a pair of chinos whose cuffs ended much farther up than its rack-siblings. Tugging them out from the sea of oversized office-pants, I found some lovely navy pants exactly my size (with wooden buttons too).
When sifting through the thrift store, I often completely disregard the illusion of gendered sections. I find countless unisex steals in the women’s section. The only trouble I run into is that I still have no clue how women’s sizing works (what even is a zero?). Though most girls have no qualms appropriating a sweatshirt or flannel if it looks cute, men can be especially squeamish when it comes to wearing “female” clothing. This is absurd, as some of the best-fitting and best-looking items I’ve found while thrifting have come from the women’s section. Sure, I get some odd looks while elbow-to-elbow with two moms, pulling out clothes to try on—but I always make it out with my dignity and one or two chic items.
I strut into the Goodwill, making my way immediately to the women’s sweaters. Running my hand along the entire rack, I pause when I catch hold of something especially soft and fuzzy. I give it another cursory fondle before pulling it out and into the light. The sweater has an almost grid-like design that combines red, green, and brown daringly. It’s almost ugly, but just enough to make it look tastefully retro. The tags say it’s a wool and cotton blend a size too big for me. Perfect.
Addison Beer | firstname.lastname@example.org