One of the worst thrift store shopping experiences isn’t going home without a great thrift score, but rather accidentally purchasing a horrid thrift fail.
Last holiday season I went thrifting for a quintessential ugly Christmas sweater. I scored one from my nearby Goodwill outlet that I loved and decided to wear the next day in honor of the week leading up to December 25th.
After wearing it for about an hour, I noticed pieces of fluff on the ground. Minutes later, I noticed that same fluff on my pants, too. It was then that I put two and two together and realized that my ugly Christmas sweater was shedding!
The sweater ended up being a disaster. With each move I made, more fluff fell and eventually, the armpits and sleeves unraveled completely. Because I was working at A Little Wicked that day I had nothing to wear once the sweater came off. I was stuck in black jeans (covered in fluff, no less) and a black tee. Not quite the holiday look I was going for!
If I’d had practiced some of my tips to inspecting thrifted clothing like a pro while shopping the outlet, I would have known that this ugly sweater was more than just ugly — it was pure trash.
Keep reading after the jump for my 4 tips and (many) tricks to inspecting your thrift store pieces so that you can learn from my mistakes and avoid a thrift fail of your own!
Be a smart thrifter and know how to determine the quality of a piece before you pay. The extra time spent inspecting a piece can make all the difference, and something I wish I’d practiced before buying that holiday sweater!
Have you had a thrift fail as epic as some of mine shared below? What are your secret tricks for inspecting a garment before purchase?
Don’t forget to check out my 34 Tips on: How to Thrift Store Shop
Thrift Store Shopping Inspect Surface
THE INSPECTION: It may seem obvious, but never forget to examine the surface level of each garment for stains, tears, snags, pill balls and signs of damage or over-wear. Also examine any surface appliques to ensure the full decoration remains intact.
PRO POINTS: When thrifting a fur coat, rub the fur against a cotton shirt to test if it shreds, and the same thing goes for knit sweaters. If there’s some falling fluff in the thrift store, chances are the piece is going to unravel once you wear it at home.
Other surface level inspection points include scratching leather and suede to check for cracks or flakes and examining the soles and heels of shoes for surface quality. If you’ve got some on hand from your thrift rations bag, test stains with Grandma’s Secret Stain Remover to see if fabric stains are removable before purchasing.
And because they can be delicate, missing sequins, crystals, braiding, tassels, etc. are commonly seen on thrift store pieces since they’re shuffled around before making it onto the store’s racks. Don’t trust any design at first glance — make sure that bed of sewn-on rose appliques is a full one before purchase!
MY THRIFT FAIL: My worst thrift fail ever was the purchase of a faux leather maxi coat from the ’70s. The coat’s leather was beginning to crack already when I bought it, but being the 19-year-old vintage newbie that I was I didn’t realize it would just keep cracking.
The coat became such a nuisance that upon cracking, the faux leather flakes would stick onto my outfit worn below, too. I was literally wearing pepper leather flakes! I eventually had to throw the coat away — and the $20 I spent along with it.
Thrift Store Shopping Inspect Nooks & Crannies
THE INSPECTION: After you’ve inspected the surface of a piece with a solid visual sweep, it’s time to dig deeper and eyeball the nooks and crannies of a garment. For the best results, turn your piece inside out or try it on to reveal these hard-to-see spots.
PRO POINTS: Once the piece is inside out, examine its interior for lining tears or stains, loose threading along the hem and if it bothers you, a missing tag (I see them often!).
Next, put your hands in a piece’s pockets to check for balled-up pieces of used tissue or sticky remnants from mints, gum or whatever else its previous owner may have stowed away.
Stretch a garment’s elastic waistband, wrists or neckline. Is that elastic bouncing right back, or does it seem permanently stretched and it ain’t ever going back?
Finally, check out a piece’s interior to see if it was previously altered. With many vintage pieces from the 1970s and earlier being home sewn, oftentimes you’ll find loose fabric and thread that needs trimming from sloppy stitching.
Important to note is that no matter how hard you look, you’re not going to know if a piece of clothing carries bed bugs. My advice? Wash all clothing immediately after purchase for peace of mind!
MY THRIFT FAIL: When I was selling vintage full time, I was thrift store shopping like a mad woman and because I was so fast-moving that I wasn’t executing these tips with due diligence.
So it should come as no surprise that while showcasing my vintage collection at a pop up show in Brooklyn a few years ago, that a customer showed me some dark stains she’d discovered in the crotch of a jumpsuit I was selling. Ugh!!!
Lucky for both of us, she wanted the piece and I wanted to get rid of something so damaged. She scored it for a sweet $5, which is probably the price I bought it for in the first place. Still, the embarrassment left a slight “stain” on my vintage selling reputation that I’ve yet to forget!
Thrift Store Shopping Inspect Hardware
THE INSPECTION: Examine all pieces of hardware on a piece before purchase, including zippers, buttons, hook & eyes, snaps and anything else that needs a pre-purchase try to determine whether it works as is or needs replaced.
PRO POINTS: Stop, drop and actually zip, fasten, button, snap, etc. anything that helps you to wear the garment. See if that zipper works up and down. Don’t just zip once, but two to three times to test its durability.
Double check if the hook & eye, buttons and snaps are threaded tight onto the fabric, and if each fastener works properly. Some vintage hook & eyes come with just the hook, which is supposed to catch a loop of thread. To modernize, you can always sew on an eye to catch the hook.
For safe measure, make a note if the garment comes with an extra button (usually sewn onto an interior spot, like the lining or in a pocket) that you can keep handy for a future replacement.
MY THRIFT FAIL: A few years ago I thrifted a ’70s Pan Am style Tourister bag with full knowledge of its already trashed zipper. Although intact, the zipper was a struggle to shut, forcing me to aggressively tug until it came completely shut over the main compartment of my bag.
Despite the apparent issue, I bought it anyway. I was too in love to see its faults!
That fishy zipper eventually failed completely, and today I’m left with a Tourister bag that has no way of shutting at all. Despite that, I still use the bag for schlepping my stuff around town. I just pray no one grabs what’s inside when I’m taking the subway or walking down the street!
Thrift Store Shopping Inspect Cleanliness
THE INSPECTION: Determining whether a garment is up to par cleanliness wise, and deciding if any icky factors are enough to influence pass of the garment altogether.
PRO POINTS: The majority of thrift store inventory is curated for cleanliness and quality, but you may still come across a stinky, pit stained item or a vintage garment that just smells old. If you pick up on a piece’s scent, put it down! It’s not worth taking a chance with your Tide back home.
As mentioned in tip #2, don’t forget to check those pockets. Used tissues or gum in old wrappers is the least of what gook, grime and Gosh-awful germs you could find buried inside. I’ve put my hands in pockets and touched crumbs. Gross!
When examining a pair of shoes, be sensitive to how the inside smells and whether the shoe is lined with any residue from outside wear and tear. Also check the shoe’s insert to see if it still sticks, and inner lining for any tears.
Shoe laces, tongues and toe boxes should be examined for wear and tear, too. A trip to the cobbler can usually correct any problems you may see — but only if that visit fits your thrifty budget!
MY THRIFT FAIL: Maybe this one isn’t too much of a “fail,” but it makes for a great story and example of my point.
A few years ago while thrifting on Long Island, NY, I came across a vintage black handbag with a single bracelet strap. But this wasn’t just any black handbag, as it was actually made from faux leather to look like snakeskin. “Score!” I thought, immediately throwing the $3.99 bag in my already overflowing shopping cart.
It wasn’t until I arrived home to my apartment in the city that I thoroughly went through my finds. When I came across my new favorite bag, I opened its compartment and it was then that I found a special little something waiting there for me — a funeral notice.
The notice was dated 1971, and the person whose death the previous owner was honoring? His name was Axel. Eek!
So while I didn’t open the handbag to reveal something as terrible as a dead animal inside, I did reveal a little bit of creepy that may have turned me off from buying it in the first place, since its last use was presumably at the scene of a funeral.
What’s your most epic thrift fail? Did I miss any inspection tips? Let me know in the comments below!
MORE THRIFT STORE SHOPPING ADVICE
34 Tips on: How to Thrift Store Shop
ADVICE: 10 Things Not to Buy at a Thrift Store
TIPS: 23 Tips for Buying Used Clothes
RISK: Avoiding Bed Bugs at the Thrift Store
VIDEO: Thrift Shopping the Goodwill Outlet
PLUS: The Complete Thrift Shopping Dictionary