Thrift store shopping

You don’t know this yet so I may as well tell you; I don’t like clothes. For the most part. Actually, I don’t like going through the bother of acquiring them via shopping or sewing. I’d rather prefer that they grew on bushes and one could snag what’s needed in passing. The clothing I like best are items that miraculously appear. A friend mailed me a pair of cover-alls that he found in his dumpster and I wore them for years. Anyway, while my views are extreme, you’ll find that garment industry people largely do not care about clothes. We are the first to cheerfully agree that we are the worst dressers. There is a reason (!) that some design houses semi-dictate the wearing of either all white or all black. It’s because the designer knows we’re such losers taste-wise, that we need some sort of fashion guidance. I swear. All of the garment industry people are laughing themselves sick at this point because they can’t believe I had the nerve to say that. I wish you could hear them.

Anyway, I’ve always meant to write about a great way to teach yourself without resorting to the input of others because I went shopping for clothes today (those who know me best are minimally applauding at this point; my son hugged me saying I needed “positive reinforcement”). My favorite store is the Family Thrift Center on Alameda. The owner buys his lots from the east coast and there seems to be a lot of designer and better brands, sometimes even some vintage pieces. Anyway, sometimes I can stomach the trek there but today was more of a necessity because I’m having a clothes-crisis. For somebody with a scrawny butt, I tear out the seat of a lot of jeans. Actually, it’s not my fault. It has a whole lot more to do with the fact that back pocket placement needs to be rescaled so the lower pocket corners aren’t resting precisely over the area of greatest stress in lateral expansion. The underlying denim is stressed by expansion and 2 layers of denim stitched on top of it and it wasn’t designed to tolerate the stress of movement and application. I mean, that’s just simple ergonomics. Anyway, before I was justifying my wearing of butt-ripped pants, I was saying that the basic premise is that you go to your local thrift store and find garments that contain elements that you’d like to master. Or, not that you necessarily choose to master at this time -you have to mull things over- but you’re curious as to how it’s done. This is the first step in what’s known as reverse engineering.

Now, you have to be mindful to find what you need. It’s no good to study a poor example and taste has nothing to do with it. I just say that because I’ve done this thrift-store exercise with designers and they tend to pick the wrong things. First off, Do Not Buy Something Because You Like It. That’s entirely the wrong reason. The first thing you should buy is a man’s suitcoat or sportcoat and it must have a full lining. Sportcoats with only a half lining will not teach you anything about bagging a jacket so it’s a waste of your time. For this exercise, you want to get an older men’s jacket, something made between 1950-1975. Check all of the labels and tags. If you can find sew-in labels with the ILGWU crest (international ladies garment worker’s union) , that’s a definite consideration. If you can find a jacket made in Hong Kong -of any time period- that’s another keeper. It doesn’t matter if the fabric is ugly, has moth holes in it or whatever, just buy it. You can always wash it or have it drycleaned before you work with it. I usually wash them first, cold water, no dryer if they’re wool (stretch it out a bit while it’s still damp). If they’re silk, just wash them. I don’t know why people freak out about washing silk when there’s nothing delicate about it. Ounce for ounce, it’s the strongest fiber there is. As a matter of fact, the US Airforce uses silk cables to brake fighter jets when they land on aircraft carriers. The only delicate thing about silk are the dyes. At the converter’s, the fabrics aren’t always processed to the extent that the dyes no longer bleed.

Try to select a jacket with only one vent in the back. Double vented styles are too confusing to read because there’s so much going on. Also, don’t get a double breasted jacket for the same reason. If you select a style without a back vent, it should have a sewn in lining. By that I mean the lining and shell must be joined rather than each layer hemmed independent of the other.

When you’re ready to work with the jacket, turn it inside out. Along the back seam of one sleeve, you’ll find the closure seam. Open that. Reach your arm into the jacket, grab a handful of the outer fabric and pull it through the opened seam. Work it through slowly. I know that at times it will seem that you can’t get it to come through the sleeve opening but keep working it. It won’t fall apart and the clothing police will not come and get you for this. While you’re pulling the thing through, you’ll find “tacks”. This is where the lining has been tacked into place within the seam allowances of the shell fabric. You’ll find tacks at the lowest part of the armhole, more tacks located an inch or two above the hem, and then some around the collar area. There may also be tacks where the shoulder seam hits the sleeve cap. You can take out all of the tacks if you think they’re getting in your way but you don’t really need to. When the jacket was made, the tacks were sewn before the jacket was turned so you should be able to reverse the operation. Anyway, once the thing’s been turned, I know you’ll find plenty of interesting things to look at!

These are some of the things you’ll find inside that you may want to adopt:
You’ll find wigan, a bias-cut strip of hair canvas in the sleeve hem. Depending on the styling of the jacket, you may find this in the jacket hem too.
You’ll notice the entire front of the jacket is either fused or interfaced.
The back shoulder, back neck and back armhole areas will be fused or interfaced in (usually) one continuous piece.
Any hem area will be fused (where you’ll find the wigan).
Pockets: you will note there’s an extra layer of interfacing in the pocket inset area. Also, the seam allowances of the pocket welts may be anchored to a seam off to either side with a strip of hair canvas. I never worked at a company that did this step but I like it. I think it makes for a more stable pocket.

You’ll probably find a whole lot of stuff going on in the front shoulder area and right next to that is a bunch of sleeve stuff. The layers in the front shoulder are a chest piece, and no you can’t buy some too because each factory has to make them specific to each armhole/chest of each style and for each size no less. Making the patterns for chest pads was one of the things I liked least, 3 layers of stuff to make one component and each layer had to be a different size so it’d stack correctly (snore). The sleeve is easier. You’ll find a strip of flannel, lamb’s wool or something similar sewn into the sleeve cap. You may notice that the strip looks as though it might not have been sewn in “correctly”…it was, we do that on purpose. The shoulder pad will also be stitched to the seam allowance of the sleeve cap (the sleevehead is sewn in first). The shoulder pad is usually not sewn to the shoulder seam which is another great idea to copy. That’s all I can think of for now.

If you do all of that, you’ll learn more than just our secrets. You’ll learn one I could never hope to teach you. Promise. I expect that some will figure that out before they start.

Back to something really important, like resolving my clothing crisis. I’m thinking I should pander toward the designers I already know -after all- what’s a blog without blegging? I think they should just send me clothes so I can dispense with the formality of shopping entirely, don’t you agree? Okay then, send clothes, but no yellow/green and nothing strapless. Please.

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  1. kathleen says:

    let’s see…nobody’s sent me a darn thing since I posted that. bummer. and it’s summer and I don’t have a thing to wear; the things I wore last summer should have been thrown away the summer before that. _sigh_ I guess it’s time to go back to family thrift center on Alameda St.

    oh. I forgot to mention something. Lest people think I’m too industry-apologist, one should know that I’m boycotting my own industry. I’m dismayed and disappointed by what’s available and I choose not to buy it. I resent being in a position where I have to buy something I hate just because I have to have something to wear. So other than staples like underwear, I buy used clothes. And I’ll continue to buy used clothes until such day that somebody makes something I’ll covet. I am no less disappointed than you.

  2. Nicole says:

    Just wanted to say I just found your site but have owned your book for several years now and am so thrilled to have access to even more great info now. I can’t wait to swing by my local thrift store to try out this interesting lesson!

  3. Copying processes

    In the past I’ve made frequent references that you don’t have to worry about confidentiality when working with professionals. However, that is not to say that contractors or pattern makers don’t ever copy -boy that’d be an untrue statement if…

  4. La BellaDonna says:

    One entry at a time. What size are you? I thrift a lot, and I’d be happy to send stuff to you. Just tell us what you like, and where to send it. It’s a fair exchange for all the information you give us.

    Would you wear jeans that have spandex mixed with the denim? You might tear out fewer backsides if they expand a little more easily.

    I do reverse engineer stuff; it does help, but it helps more if I write down the steps. It helps if I’m in the middle of some horrible creative process if I do that, too. It results in what I call Post-Atomic Sewing: the world may blow up, civilization may come to an end, but the garment will hold up until Judgment Day.

  5. Michael says:

    Actually, I think the Navy uses steel cables on aircraft carriers. I know the Air Force doesn’t use carriers. Former Navy Seabee, and the closest I ever got to a carrier was taking a tour of the Nimitz, but I did walk on the flight deck.

    I don’t personally boycott the industry, but I loathe the idea spending money on clothes with logos emblazoned on them. Read Pattern Recognition by William Gibson for an idea of this. Basically, I don’t want to spend money on someone else’s advertising. I usually end up shopping at TJ Maxx for clothes (no thrift shops in my area) with small logos or none at all.

  6. Lois says:

    Middle of the night and I am poring over your blog. From the very beginning!

    I love clothes but have never had time for them. Just too many decisions to make!

    So I adopt a uniform…My favorite one was in the early seventies, cover-alls…I used to call them Overhauls….until my son laughed at me and told me that was what you did to your car and you wore over-alls while doing it.

    Any way it was overhauls with handmade cowboy shirts (tore apart old lady cotton dresses) and clogs on my feet.

    Thanks for the sweet trip down memory lane

  7. rebecca says:

    Love your articles!! This one was fun to read, and since I am a recently-new reader, didn’t get that far back in the archives yet! (Yes, life is busy). I am a freelance Designer…for Y-E-A-R-S and have recently started a small business with Designer/BF using clothes from thrift stores and regenerating them into new pieces to wear now. love finding beautiful fabrics and turning them into fun new garments. Problem is very time-consuming and then getting others to appreciate also. Also difficult time to have a new biz, need a better outlet and to work on our PR for sure!
    Keep up the good work, love reading your stuff!

  8. Leslie Hanes says:

    I hate clothes shopping too. Pretty much everything I wear is an advertisement, but it’s for me, not for Calvin Klein. I own 2 businesses, so I either wear outerwear from Discovery Trekking (comfortable! fashionable? pretty nice but mostly functional.) OR I wear something that says
    Curves…because I also have a Curves franchise. When I have to go out somewhere nice, I usually borrow something from my daughter, otherwise I look like I’m in a time warp from the 80’s.

  9. Snoo says:

    Interesting article. Love … absoutely love shopping at local thrift stores. It is a challenge to bring used clothing to life again with new trim or buttons, a soak in Oxy-clean, and a good washing. I sew for our local theatre and love it when our thrift shop has 50 cent Friday with each garment costing only 50 cents. This summer we turned about 75 thrift shop dresses into Thoroughly Modern Millie costumes for 43 girls. It’s such fun to turn a red skirt and red/white polka dot blouse into a flapper dress with a polka dot sash and collar.

  10. Stormy says:

    Congratulations on the 5 year anniversary, Kathleen, and thanks for sharing some of your older posts. I also hate going shopping for new clothes, but I have been a thrifter for years. I have a lot of reasons for doing this: cost, re-use, love of quality, and the ability to find something unique all play into it, as well as the enjoyment I get from hunt and reward.

    Using thrifting as an opportunity to learn isn’t something I’ve ever done intentionally. But, I have gone through the process you describe – more out of want of something that fits properly, than with technique as a primary goal. Most recent find: a moth-eaten wool skirt with a high waist and a bias cut. Fit me gorgeously, but was beyond repair. I had no problem ripping it apart and using it as a pattern and a construction guide. Point taken, though: a lot can be learned from others’ work.

  11. Donna says:

    All the ladies in my community are always bragging about their thrift store finds. I laugh! I just go through my drawers and closet and find things older than Moses and continue to wear them. If I gave this stuff away I would be forced to go out shopping too.

  12. Theresa in Tucson says:

    I’m taking an Alternations class right now and have been to the thrift store three times in the past two weeks. I’ve found items to modify into something else; some stuff either I or the offspring can wear so I don’t have to sew it; items to practice alterations on; and several items for tear-downs. My best find was a pair of expensive shoes in a “to die for” red. They were a size too large for me but flew back to Vermont with my sister at the end of her visit last week. For her they were a perfect fit.

    I’ve even talked to the sorter in the back room so she will save me some items that need repair for the upcoming mending class. I promised to donate them back if the repair was successful. And like Stormy, I’m in the process of copying an item that fits me well, but is not wearable in public.

    Thrift stores rock!

    Happy Anniversary Fashion Incubator!

  13. Carol says:

    I love to go to thrift stores when I’m looking for something in particular. I do costuming for our theatre group and am always visiting several stores per show. While I’m there, I usually do look to see if there’s anything unusual that I might need at a later date and I always look for jackets for myself, especially vintage ones. You can go down a long line of clothing and visually pick out the vintage fabrics. For my middle son, I bought a vintage satin trimmed tuxedo jacket that he wore to his senior prom and was crowned King of the Prom in. Some other kids’ moms told me how much they spent on rentals for their sons’ tuxedos and I could only laugh and say that I’d bought Alex’s for $3 at the thrift store and that he was crowned King! My oldest son borrowed a vintage tux that I’d purchased for my theatre to his prom and my youngest son had his first dance last year and told me that he’d need me to purchase one from the thrift store for him to wear. His was a great bargain @ $2.

  14. Sandy Peterson says:

    I hate the mall, I hate the thrift store, I hate all kinds of shopping, EXCEPT the flee market!! But I don’t look for clothes there either. I wish I could just wake up to a closet full of clothes that I have made for myself. I love to sew and love to learn!!

    I’m heading out right now to do some errands, and I am going to stop and look for a jacket.

    Hum, why is it that every thrift store that I have ever been to……………why do they all have the same smell??

    Thanks for all you do Kathleen!!

    Hey, I don’t know if you have been asked this before, but have you thought about turning your blog into a book with cross references to the links in each article? I don’t know how long it would take, but I could help you do that if you would like? Or, if you wanted, you wouldn’t have to do it at all, you could just keep writing and I could do it for you. Just an idea.

  15. russ b says:


    Just got done with Thrift Store shopping. You said some things that are quite zen. Your honesty speaks well of you.

    I will look for honesty in what has been done and what I hope to do. Unfortunately, a more pragmatic approach is what seems to be the path to wealth. Here is to the meeting of honesty and pragmatisym. Salute

  16. Laurie says:

    I have much the same attitude with regards to buying clothes. I hate shopping for clothing. I would much rather spend my time thinking about and creating clothing (or any of my other hobbies). My favorite way of obtaining clothing is for people to give me their hand-me-downs.

    When I was a teenager, my mother cleaned house for a family who shopped in NYC and Paris and other big cities (we lived in the south central US). Every six months, they would clean out their closets and give my mother bags and bags of clothes. Their teenage daughter was exactly the same size as me!! I think I wore those hand me downs for most of my teenage and young adult years.

    When my children were small, my mother supplied me with clothes for them. She loves clothes shopping in general, and loves garage sales and thrift shops. Every few weeks, she’d hand me a pile of clothes for my kids. Makes it super easy when someone loves being your personal shopper and loves spending money on your kids, lol!!

  17. iona says:

    what a fantastic post- i love it, and very timely as just started a as repair hand at local dry cleaners, so masses to learn and in a hurry. thankyou so much. i feel inspired. last week i turned a size 18 jacket in a fantastic textured weave wool fabric into a fitted size 10 (with size 18 arms and shoulders- i am a funny shape) by removing a large section from the side seam on one side, removing the other sleeve which was damaged, and the side of the jacket below, and replacing it with part of another jacket in contrasting fabric. it was a challenge, especially putting the lining back- i managed to make an impossible shape by attaching the sleeve lining on to the cuff the wrong way, and sat scratching my head for a while trying to work out what i’d done and what i should have done!
    the result looks great, i have had compliments every time i have worn it, it fits really well, was fun to do, only took about an afternoon to do spread over a weekend, and cost me £7. i am well chuffed! i love my new job, but feel a bit inadequate, so i shall be checking out your marvelous tutorials a lot over the next few weeks/months. thanks so much for putting them out there for free. it is a wonderful thing to do, i love that you spread your knowledge and skills to help and encourage other people. it is so generous.
    ps, love your writing style too.

  18. Al says:

    Hi Kathleen! Your book and blog have been such fantastic resources as I’ve set out to learn manufacturing by making my home sewing space operate as a small industrial space. It is nice to read of folks in the industry who also hate buying clothes! I make underwear and so it’s been sometimes a little embarrassing doing my reverse engineering research, going to the thriftstore and buying piles of used underwear! I’m also doing tailoring practice though, because I have the good fortune of being apprentice at a tailor shop just down the road from me. I just bought an old suit jacket made in Bulgaria and I’ll use your instructions to check it out!

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