Skip to Content

Five tips for thrift shopping to upcycle & refashion

tips for thrift shopping to refashion upcycle

I love refashioning! I haven’t done a ton of it lately, which is a bummer, because I have a whole stack of “transformation ready” clothes in my sewing room.

Even before I could sew I was drawn to the transformation of making something unique from a thrift store reject -one of my first refashions was in high school. Now that I’ve been sewing for a few years, I have a better idea of what to look for when thrifting and I thought I’d share some of my top tips for choosing clothes to refashion! Thrift stores are often so full that they turn away donations, so dig in and start making something new.

Once you finish this post about shopping tips, click over and read my best refashioning tips for once you start sewing! If you like shopping secondhand, also consider craft & fabric thrift stores or creative reuse stores that use upcycled materials, in this resource post.

If you need project ideas, check out these posts:

Pin these refashioning tips for later, here:

Tips for thrifting! If you want to refashion or upcycle clothes, you'll want to read this. There are photo examples for what to consider while you shop!

Ready to shop?

1. If you’re looking to buy something solely to cut it up and use the fabric (an upcycled project), bigger is always better. Linens, like sheets and duvet covers, can also be used as cheap practice fabric (jersey sheets are one of my favorite knit fabrics!). Lori commented below to remind me that purses and bags can be upcycled for findings, too (thanks Lori!).

2. Be sure to consider any details like buttons, plackets, pockets, elastic, etc. that eat up usable fabric when you’re estimating.

3. If you’re looking to buy something and adapt it to your taste (a refashioned project), try to keep your comfort level with sewing in mind. A shirt that is three sizes too big will likely have to be completely deconstructed, whereas a shirt one size too big will require more minor adjustments.

Always keep the following factors in mind when considering a piece of clothing! It’s easy to fall in love with a fabric or a print but it’s only worth buying if it will suit your project’s needs.

4.  Remember the factors you can work with:

  • Color (by using dye and/or bleach – or dish detergent, check out Brenda’s tip in the comments!)
  • Small holes or stains (cutting around them, appliqueing/designing over them)
  • Fit (bigger to smaller is always easier!)

5. Remember the factors you cannot change:

  • Strong detergent, smoke, or other odors (I have not had great luck with these – but reader MJ has some detailed tips on tackling smells, down in the comments!)
  • Fiber content & stretch amount (cotton is cotton and polyester is polyester – if a tshirt doesn’t feel stretchy enough to be leggings, it probably isn’t)
  • Pattern scale (large stripes on a man’s shirt will not translate well on a women’s pair of short shorts)

Visual learner? Here are a few examples I snapped while I was shopping!

Boring, right? Wrong! Dresses are a great source of high quality knit. This was a thick, supple jersey that would’ve been perfect for  upcycling. It also had a lot of length and room for refashioning, too.

Stars and a bright color would normally be a no-brainer for me, but the actual usable fabric in this top was small. The zipper, hood, and kangaroo pocket all ate up the print.

Another dress! This big graphic print would be cute on kids clothes or maybe refashioned as a women’s scarf. The stripes weren’t too wide, and there weren’t any holes or stains in the fabric.

I love bright green and blue! Unfortunately, the stripes are super wide and wouldn’t translate into smaller kid clothing items. It smelled very strongly of perfume also, so wouldn’t work as a refashioning project very well.

Okay! Do you feel inspired to go out and start digging through the racks (or the bins, at my favorite place, Goodwill Outlet (it is different than regular Goodwill!), do yourself a favor and read more)? I hope so! Mariana left a comment with a bonus 6th tip that I love: “While you’re in the store and you love something, but it doesn’t look enough to work with, look around and find another (one or more) items that go really good with it and can be combined together – through colour, texture, details or else. That’s amazing way to gather all materials for your project while still in the store (and having wide range of choice). ”

Check out all my refashion sewing tutorials here and get started!


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


Monday 7th of March 2022

I love refashioning! I looked for a formal in a thrift store and found a cranberry red dress with a sparkled red jacket! I cut the skirt off at the waist and added elastic making it into a Holiday Suit. I paid $6.00 for the dress and have worn it several times. The jacket and tank top look nice with black pants or skirt, too.

Stephanie - Swoodson Says

Saturday 2nd of April 2022

Jean, that sounds so lovely! Refashioning is so much fun :) Thanks for reading & commenting!


Tuesday 2nd of February 2021

You are sooooo full of great info, resources, and links. I'm always amazed at how much you have collected under your umbrella. I haven't used Google since I found you. BTW, I have the book Resew. I LOVE it, both for the instructions and the inspiration. The clothing results are pretty to me, but I know I could refine if necessary.

Stephanie - Swoodson Says

Tuesday 4th of July 2023

you are so kind Rebecca! and thank you, googling that book now!


Tuesday 1st of October 2019

I found two duvet covers in gorgeous brown that I plan to use to re-cover a love seat. Furniture fabric has to be pretty tough, especially if there are kids or pets in the house, so another choice could be drapery material.

Another really cool use of scrap material I once saw at a friend's house was using fabric to make pictures. She found objects she liked in magazines or coloring books, trace them on copy paper, then glue the individual pieces on paper, and frame it! Once she got skilled, she had some truly gorgeous pieces in her house, and they only cost her a few dollars to make!

Stephanie - Swoodson Says

Wednesday 8th of January 2020

What a fun idea! Thanks for reading!


Friday 30th of August 2019

Woven fabrics, especially cotton and linen can be pricey. One way to check the quality of the fabric is #1- must be 100% cotton or linen. .#2 check out both horizontal and vertical pulls for stretch. Better women’s have their threads blended in a special manner that produces a slight stretch without any other added fibers. The added fibers like spandex or Lycra are a lot weaker than natural fibers.

Stephanie - Swoodson Says

Wednesday 8th of January 2020

great tip!

Theresa Travelute

Tuesday 3rd of April 2018

Can't wait for your newsletter to arrive!!!!

Stephanie - Swoodson Says

Thursday 5th of April 2018

Thanks for subscribing, hope you enjoy it!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.