Thrift Store Shopping Like a Pro — Inspection

April 17th, 2012

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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?

Let me know by leaving a comment below the post, or by saying hello on Twitter or Facebook! 

Don’t forget to check out my 34 Tips on: How to Thrift Store Shop

xx, SD

Thrift Store Shopping Inspect Surface

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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.

thrift store shopping check fur

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!

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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

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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.

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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

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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.

thrift store shopping check hardware

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

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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.

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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!

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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

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35 Comments

  1. E. says:

    I’ll be going to my vintage haunt today, so thanks for reminding me to take care when examining finds!

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    Samantha Davis Reply:

    E, I’m glad you read this before you set out on your ventures!!! Any success?

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  2. Natalie says:

    Another tip for sweaters – check for super static. If you pull it over your head once and you already hear that electric crackle, you are going to get shocked constantly if you purchase that piece. I’ve made this mistake a couple of times.

    I’ve found mystery prescription pills in purses/bags before. But once I also found some cash in a pair of jeans I bought… definitely check the pockets for better or worse (even though what you find is most often a little scary.) Good tips, Sammy!

    [Reply]

    Samantha Davis Reply:

    Natalie, thank you for that tip! I’m sorry to say I’ve never even thought of that!!! As for cash, pills … ‘mo money, ‘mo problems! LOL! I’ve found a few dollars here or there, too. Iced coffee money ;-) A friend who is a professional thrifter will just go into stores and look in pockets, purses, and drawers for money. He’s found $$ that way.

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  3. Erin says:

    I love these tips! I didn’t even think to turn something completely inside out! I do usually check the hem of the item thoroughly, I have found myself fixing quite a few hems from just not checking them out closely. Not a big deal to me but some people aren’t that comfortable with sewing.

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    Samantha Davis Reply:

    That’s a good point, Erin! It’s just about comfort level and dare I say it, “prioritization.” I’m still “working on” “prioritizing” a lesson with my machine ;-)

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  4. I don’t know if this will help with your Pan Am bag but when we were kids/pre-teens most zippers were metal. A very old trick used frequently back then was to rub a candle over the teeth of the zipper and then zip it up and down a few times to work it in. You may need to rub the candle over it a few times to coat it sufficently. This was always the first thing done to new jeans so we could zip them up. This allows for smooth zipping. This will need to be repeated occasionally to keep it smooth. I guess it’s just one of the shortcomings of metal zippers.

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    Samantha Davis Reply:

    Katie, OH MY GOSH I never heard that before. Thank you! The zipper is completely broken so no return, but I do still use the bag like I mentioned ;-) One of these days I know I will regret it when something falls out though …

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    Lauryn Reply:

    Have you tried just replacing the zipper, or cutting it out and fastening it with something like buttons?

    My worst thrift fail was finding an amazing brown riding trench that fit me perfectly, with flawless blue satin lining, and immediatly throwing down the $20 and getting out of there. But, of course, as soon as I got home, I put my hands in the pockets…. And there was a huge hunk of already chewed gum in the left pocket.

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  5. Dobromira Ivanova says:

    Hey Sammy, I’ve had lots of fails, having in mind that I’ve been thrifting fot ages. I recent story is from 2 months ago, when I went to a small store and I saw this gorgeous white lace shirt, high arond the neck and buttons at the back. I fell in love. I tried it on a fitted perfectly. As my hands are small I managed to sqweez them in throguh the sleeves without unbuttoning the sleeves. To admit I don’t really spend much time expecting the items I buy. When I went home, and tried it on again, I notices that there was a hole at the bottom of the sleeve, which I did not notice in the first place. Terrible. I loved it so much and I wanted to wear it so badly. I don’t think I will ever wear it, unless if I think of something.

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    Samantha Davis Reply:

    Dobromira, I feel your pain! I feel it! How big is the hole, and I’m assuming not around the seam so you can have it sewn?

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  6. If a sweater is super static it’s more than likely been dried too dry in a dryer. A good way to fix this is to wash it in cold water then rinse it with a liquid softener or white vinegar (don’t use dryer sheets). Put it in the dryer for about 5-10 mins. (you don’t want it to dry much in the dryer) to activate the softener than air dry. I got a lot of sweater sets when I was young because of this frustration. People didn’t want to mess with it but mom and grams knew how to fix it. This may not take away 100% of the static but you won’t have a “shocker” anymore. Also a good way to dry them is to lay them on an old window screen across the bathtub.

    [Reply]

    Samantha Davis Reply:

    this one is going in the save folder ;-)

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  7. This is just great. I haven’t had many thrift fails, but I’ve definitely had a few. Wonderful advice – all of it!

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    Samantha Davis Reply:

    Gracey, my tall sister! xoxo

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  8. Natalie says:

    that’s a good tip, @katieslullaby, i’ll have to try that :)

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    Samantha Davis Reply:

    so glad you ladies connected! ;-)

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  9. Alex says:

    Ugh. I just had a Thrift Store Fail. Only it’s all my fault. It involved a Princess clock that I got my daughter. I know electronics are hit or miss but something as simple as me bringing an AA or AAA battery in my bag would have done a quick check of it in the store to discover the “seconds” hand wasn’t working. And of course it wasn’t until I got it home that I realized the actual second hand was falling off (totally noticeable and in my excitement I overlooked it). This is a great list mind you! Zippers. Always.

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  10. Run towards the light (um, yeah – a quote from the movie Poltergist), it is the best way to examine clothes.
    I did recently snag an olive green Jones New York jacket and skirt set for $5 at Thrift Town, didn’t have time to examine it, saw the jacket had a small stain but I’ll consult with the dry cleaner before I give it the heave-ho. The skirt alone is worth the fiver.
    Give me a visit some time at thriftshopcommando.blogspot.com

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  11. Madeline says:

    Great advice!:)

    I’m trying to get better at this! I recently started thrifting and ebaying for profit and sometimes when I find a great brand I tend to overlook the details!

    My most recent fail was last week when I was at the store just before closing. I found a free people coat (in my size!!) that was in excellent condition EXCEPT, as I realized when I got home, for a missing toggle closure! It’s a simple black closure and should be easy to replace, but without it the coat fits extremely awkwardly! oops!

    [Reply]

    Sammy Reply:

    hey Madeline! Thank you so much for stopping by and commenting! Alright, so kudos to you for sharing your fail. I think it’s important we share both our successes and our failures as they are both beautiful facts of life! Missing a toggle closure is easy to replace however ahh! Cause it was Free People and you’d never expect something so high end would be missing a piece. Let me know how it looks when you have it fixed, would love if you shared a picture on the fanpage ;-) XO

    [Reply]

  12. Mary smith says:

    are u mormon b/c that last picture your holding a mormon pamphlet. Im just curious b/c i am. btw i love your website.

    [Reply]

    Sammy Reply:

    hey Mary! No I am not Mormon, however I believe it is a wonderful expression of faith and love! Thank you so much for stopping by and spreading vintage love!

    [Reply]

  13. Kim says:

    Thrift shopping has given me an eagle eye for flaws. If the piece is NOT marked “as is”, point out the damage and ask for a discount! The worst that could happen is they could say no… but 95% of the time they give me a good deal. Having sewing skills definitely pays off.

    …and yes, I have found more than my fair share of snotty tissues in pockets!

    [Reply]

    Sammy Reply:

    ICK! so gross those tissues, right?! LOL

    As for your Eagle Eye, YOU GO GIRL! Thanks for stopping by Kim and keep “soaring” like an Eagle in those thrift stores! xx

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  14. The pictures ALONE were worth the read! But the information was even better. Great work! :)

    Serena
    Thrift Diving

    [Reply]

    Sammy Reply:

    Hi Serena! Thank you so much!! I am not a “thrift diver” so I need to give your site a thorough read to pick up your experiences and insights! We should work together sometime soon. Please email me anytime! XO

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  15. Jamillah says:

    Oy I just fell into a shoe debacle b/c of the lack of inspecting. The whole inside is crumbling!!! I dashed into goodwill for a quick donation, my bro waiting for me in his car outside and saw the shoes and checked the heel checked the general look of the shoe and smell, but failed to thoroughly check the inside of the shoe.

    [Reply]

    Sammy Reply:

    Hi Jamillah! EEK! See that IS a classic thrift fail-debacle, but it is a valuable lesson to learn and I’m grateful you learned it! Were you able to return for credit at least?

    [Reply]

  16. deborah says:

    My fails usually revolve around thinking the resale value for something is higher than what it really is. And of course, not checking for stains. I bought a vintage YSL gown for $85! and didn’t realize it had stains on it. Two trips to the cleaners later and the stains are still there.

    I refuse to put my hands in pockets because I don’t want to touch crumbs, snot-rags, etc. I pat the pockets for a bulge and will open them, but my hands don’t go into dark recesses. When I get home I’ll get out the rubbermaid gloves, sanitary wipes and sometimes the vacuum cleaner to clean out pockets and purses.

    [Reply]

    Sammy Reply:

    Deborah you know what, reading your comment just now about not reaching into coat/jacket pockets is so spot on. Actually I just shivered at the thought. I’ve definitely put my hands in a lot of dark thrifted places in the past but you just may have been inspired me to be a bit more cautious. GOOD CALL ON THE VACUUM CLEANER!

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  17. Tanya says:

    My recent thrift fail…..burgundy and leather are both in this fall so I snatched up a burgundy leather matrix looking trench coat from my local thrift. When I got home, I noticed that not only was the lining coming undone on both arms, but that there was an icky smell. I looked inside of the lining of the jacket and found mold!!! That was $11 that I had to throw in the trash.

    [Reply]

    Sammy Reply:

    woah! I’ve never found mold in a coat before! Ugh … was totally in a basement before you snapped it up ;-(

    [Reply]

  18. Angela says:

    I once found an (unused t.G) but loose condom in a thrift coat I tried on; another time I was going to try on a sweatshirt, when I realized one of the sleeves had been sewn closed at the elbow (belonging to a one armed man) but the biggest fail I had was a gorgeous vintage 1940s gray tailored jacket I had to have. It was in perfect shape. It was my size. perfect. I have no clue as to why I didn’t notice the problem until after I got it home: it was permeated with the worst body odor I have ever smelled in my life. I tried dry cleaning it, it made no difference at all! That was the one thing I had no creative fix for it!

    [Reply]

  19. allyjo says:

    I just brought home the cutest top. The zipper was broken.

    [Reply]

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