When you enter a secondhand shop, or perhaps, a Thrift 2 Fight sale, there is so much to look at! It can be so easy to get excited about colors, patterns, beadwork, or other details, only to later find that you’ve made a choice that might not last you as long as you would like. Here is a small list of things that I always check when I am looking for new-to-me-clothing, as well as a few things I think are really not worth considering.
What To Check:
1. Seams—Seams are stitches that hold two pieces of cloth together. In lower quality garments, they may split or rip. To check these out, pull gently on seams and see if the thread seems loose. If the seam looks stressed or pulls apart, the seams are unlikely to last. If you have access to a sewing machine, or a lot of time to hand stitch and you don’t mind going over the seam, this may not be an issue. However, in general, this is something you will want to consider for the value and longevity of the garment.
2. High stress areas—In jeans or pants, this is the top of the thigh/groin area. Check the fabric. If it seems very thin/frail, it will rip soon from average use. This region and issue is one that is rather difficult to repair. I would not recommend purchasing a garment that is showing wear in this region.
3. High stress areas in tops/dresses: check the armpit seams and fabric. This is one zone which is likely to be discolored by deodorants or weakened by use. Depending on the color of the garment and the severity of the stain, you may be able to treat or cut off the offending region. It’s worth checking before you let a new shirt sweet you off your feet.
4. Zippers—It is very easy to replace a missing button, but a broken zipper, especially an invisible one (one that hides under the fabric), is far less easy to deal with. Check the zippers to make sure that they move easily and without impediment.
5. General tears/stains—perhaps the most obvious, but sometimes easy to ignore. When you see an amazing beaded jacket, you may not notice until you get it home that it has a gash across the back. I strongly believe that mending should be normalized, but if you do not want to take on a project, note the damage and place it back on the rack.
6. Coats: When examining a winter coat, check the coat for small holes and tears. Holes in puffy coats will cause you to shed feathers or polyester filling wherever you go. The loss of this filling will also cause the coat to lose warmth. These small holes may be anywhere, but are especially common at or along seams.
7. Fabric composition/care instructions: usually a small tag on the side of a garment will clue you in to the fabric type and care instructions. Sometimes the previous owners may have snipped these off, so you may not be able to see them. Keep the following in mind:
a. Vintage polyester is HOT. It does not breath, and it retains odors. If you generally run hot all the time, maybe skip that vintage polyester blouse.
b. Cotton shrinks. A well-loved cotton garment may be much smaller than the size it says on the tag, as cotton has a tendency to shrink. That medium may fit closer to an XS, so be sure to hold it up or try it on for size before you purchase.
c. Wool can be a pain to wash. If you don’t like sorting laundry, hand washing, and shaping/laying flat to dry, the odds are you will shrink vintage wool clothing. Modern wool is usually blended to make it more user friendly, but vintage wool or handmade wool knits do not wash easily or well. Some people find wool very irritating on their skin, so hold it up to the inside of your wrist, which is a sensitive spot, and see if it bothers you.
d. Silk, beads, etc. may not wash well. Consider spraying these garments with water mixed with a little bit of tea tree oil to quash odor or gently hand washing them, but realize that they may not stand up to a washing machine.
e. Also, if that fabric care tag is still attached, the degree to which it is faded and worn will give you some more concrete information about how heavily used the garment has been used. If the tag looks really beat up, odds are this piece has been worn and loved, and it may not last as long as something else. Just something to consider when you evaluate the cost versus value of a garment.
What to ignore:
1. Sizing! Sizing is some patriarchal nonsense anyway. American sizes have little to no standardization between brands. Little known fun fact, American sizes have shifted downwards. A vintage 12 could be the same size as a modern 4 or 6. This comes up a lot when I’m thrifting, as I find the numbers can be so misleading compared to the actual size of the garment. I personally own clothes in at least 5 different sizes. Some are from different decades, but others are just contemporaries from different brands. As much as you can, try no to worry about the number on the tag. It is utterly meaningless. It’s easier said than done, but I strive to resist the temptation to restrict myself to looking at my “normal” size. Hold things up or try them on, and let your eyes tell you if they might fit. Check this link for a little reading on how flawed our sizing system is https://time.com/how-to-fix-vanity-sizing/
2. Brands: While some brands may be more or less expensive or “prestigious,” I try to shop for what suits me. Finding clothing that reflects your style, gender identity and expression, professional limitations on your wardrobe, and preferences is far, far more important than owning one brand over another. Especially since many of these brands are manufactured in similar factories, the difference between clothing from most chain retailers is quite slim once you remove the veneer of marketing. Something that makes you feel fabulous will look more flattering than something that has the “right” name on the tag which doesn’t fit or look the way you want it to.
3. Gender: This is all easier said than done, but as much as you can in the moment, give yourself permission to boldly break free from heteronormative, patriarchal gender constructions in clothing. Wear what makes you feel good. Love a gorgeous sweater? Great, it’s yours. Release yourself from the rules; forget about what side the buttons should be on. If you are shopping at a Thrift 2 Fight sale, the clothes will not be categorized by the gender to which they may have been originally marketed. If you are shopping at a thrift shop which does group clothing by gender, wander with abandon and select what brings you joy, regardless of which rack it’s hanging on. This will go back to the sizing comment as well.
Eleni Georgiadis is a classically trained horn player currently residing in Kentucky. Outside of music, she enjoys knitting, sewing, composting, kombucha brewing, and spending time outdoors. She is thrilled to have the opportunity to share her thoughts about sustainability and inclusivity in fashion, weaving together her technical knowledge, passion, and research.