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Five Tips for Thrift Shopping to Upcycle & Refashion

Thrifting tips for refashion and 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.  I’ve also been bulking up my refashioning Pinterest board with both tutorials and inspiration! If you haven’t heard of Goodwill Outlet, do yourself a favor and read more; I just snagged two leather jackets from mine to make baby moccasins.

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, see the dress in this post. My Dad raised me to be a bargain hunter, taking me to antique shops and garage sales from a young age. I now also try to shop second-hand for environmental/ethical reasons (you can read more in my post about ‘Overdressed’). The bulk of my son’s clothes are made from upcycled fabrics, in that I just cut up bigger tshirts and reused them like fabric, and I’ve done a few refashions for myself – two of the most popular ones are this no-sew sweater cowl & one silk shirt into three shirts.

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? 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). ”

Looking for more refashion ideas? A few years ago, I refashioned bootcut pants into joggers, and also changed up a man’s silk shirt into a Scout tee.

 Still want more tips? Check out this post!
How to upcycle clothes - the basics!

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This Post Has 51 Comments
  1. Missed a great tip….Find out when bargain days are or 1/2 price days…I also look for purses, bags, totes that have usable fittings I can take apart and use for a new bag….Scarfs also are great for making small things….and do not forget to look for flannel pieces, sheets etc…great for using whole..if no smells, holes or stains..or can be cut up into squares for rag quilts….I also check out towels to make new floor mats for bath…..

      1. …..and I started a collection of “retro/antique’ purses that are part of the decorations in a guest bedroom. Some are worth some money and the quality is outstanding. All because of thrift store shopping. I did an entire summer cabin over ,furniture accessories ,kitchen supplies ,etc. ,well thrift store and curbside. It is such fun . I love to brag about how little I spend rather than how much.

  2. First. You are absolutely adorable.
    Second. I admire your thrifting and really want to try to make it happen in my own life. I’ve never been good at it. But I’ve also never been into sewing as much as I have in the last year or so…so I’m thinking if i go into a thrift shop looking for fabric, not actual clothing, things would be much easier for me.

    Also. I think I need a white wall to take pictures against. Mental note, written.

    1. You are too sweet Katy! I think it’s hard to switch from looking for fabric versus clothes.. my husband was SO HORRIFIED when I brought home a tshirt with the grossest stain on the shoulder a few Valentine’s ago, but it turned out so cute as pants for my son (stain cut out, naturally). Also, it’s funny you say that, because I keep that wall in our playroom blank/easy to clear out just for this purpose 😛

  3. I have been using good will and yard sales for doll material and findings. lots of good things to find to make “funny” l

    just learning to sew, so I use the Good Will for practice material. Love all the nice lace, trims, buttons etc for little of nothing. No waste of money for a novice….

  4. Oh, I’m going to have so much fun reading through all the other bloggers’ posts too! I love upcycling! I also do it for environmental reasons, it’s such a great way to reduce our footprint. As Lori mentioned, purses are so great for picking apart. I found the most beautiful handles on a not-so-beautiful bag a little while ago and I used them on a carpet bag I made. I also love to use the metal rings, which can be pretty pricy brand new. Thanks for the inspiration!

    1. I do it for environmental reasons too, I’ve been working to reduce our purchases of ‘new’ anything! Goodwill lets me still have the thrill of shopping without the guilt. I cannot seem to remember to look at bags, maybe one of these times I will because it’s a great idea!

  5. Some great tips Stephanie – I often source bags for the hardware, much cheaper than buying new hardware! Some of my favourites are curtains for fabric for bags. I’m building up to try refashioning womens clothes for myself, but being the slightly larger its hard to find larger clothes to remodel!!!

    1. i used other material from other clothes scarves dresses etc that have beautiful material to add pieces under the arms or on the back or with extra seams to decorate and add a focal point to blouses and leggings. I collect pics from pinnerest refashion and companiesto get other ideas.

    2. Look in the men’s section. I’m short and not thin and I’ve found great fabrics (especially cottons) in menswear. I wear anywhere from a 16 to 22, depending on the item, so I buy XL to 3XL men’s shirts to refashion.

  6. I love most of your suggestions. However, as a plus size woman, I find it frustrating to go thrifting and see tiny women walking out with great garments in sizes I could use only to find nothing but stained, unusable things left on the racks for me! If you’re a size 4, do you really need all the good size 24 stuff in the place? We’d like to be able to get in on the action too!

    1. Hey Julie! That’s a good thing to think about, and I’m glad you took the time to comment and say as much! In my defense, *many* of the things I buy are stained or with holes that I think make them unwearable for someone, unaltered. Sometimes I feel guilty cutting up anything that is wearable at all, but I know that most thrift shops get such massive amounts of donations they can barely process them (This post talks more about that: https://swoodsonsays.com/book-sewing-thoughts-reflecting-overdressed/) BUT I can obviously see that the plus-size section is smaller than the straight-size sections, and there is less to choose from. Anyways, something to think about for sure 🙂

      1. Thanks for the response, and your efforts to not select garments that are wearable as-is to refashion. That being said, the plus size woman is so much more limited because we need more fabric to start with that when I see what is supposed to be a funny photo of a little girl in a big dress I just see a waste of a garment that some desperate woman might have made over into her first truly fashionable outfit in years and I want to cry. Those Girls think those shots are so cute but they’re very hurtful to us who haven’t been able to buy anything but that awful stuff to see it mocked as a joke and referred to as circus tents, etc ( not here ). I just wish more thought would go into if one really needs to head to the plus sizes first. Try menswear’s big and tall section if they have a good selection! Men always have better fabric anyway.

        1. I can’t promise I’ll never use a plus-size garment as a ‘before’ but I can promise I’ll never refer to it as a circus tent! That is so thoughtless and cruel. I think part of it is just the dramatics – taking something from too big to fitting is an easy adjustment, and visually surprising, but I think you bring up some great points. Thanks for taking the time to comment, and for reading!

        2. Hey Julie. I’m a plus- sizer too and I rue the fact that there seems to be 1 rack of big gal clothing for every 10 racks of the other stuff. Furthermore, what is there is usually dowdy and depressing. I had gotten to the point of looking for what fit, not what I liked or felt might look good on me…that didn’t even seem to be an option anymore. Then I found Pinterest and created my board, Jazz Up Plain Clothing, and began to look for ways to add pizazz to otherwise frumpy basics. There are also tutorials for adding extra room to something that might otherwise be a bit snug. That expands your range of sizes when you shop, and for me personally, my excitement level goes up as I think I might actually might be able to wear something cute again. As a bonus, I might have actually lost a few pounds. If you don’t sew, there’s no better reason to start. A sack of clothes purchased during your thrift shop’s “bag sale” and a Walmart sewing machine will cost less than a trip to the mall and provide you with untold satisfaction and empowerment. If you do sew, you’re practically there. Just start clicking on clothing makeover, refashion, etc. I hope this helps…it really opened up a whole new world for me. We don’t have to settle for the mousey plus sizes out there—we can make them haute

    2. Julie, I understand some of your frustration, but I am the opposite size. I am thin and have no bust, so I have trouble as well. I wish I could find more stuff at thrifts stores for me to wear. I always wish I had more time to go in like everyday to check out the new stuff before anyone else. I (and my mother-in-law) have bought me a few pairs of pants that we have taken in, but only a few sizes bigger.

  7. Hi! Just found your blog and love it! I love thrifting and refashioning too. More creative and far less expensive!! And your blog is excellent and inspiring.

    A couple of great tips I can give you to expand your thrift store options (and you might want to change this blog post to help others) are regarding smells and stains. I have an extremely sensitive sense of smell and I have never met a thrift store smell (detergent, smoke, or perfume) that I could not remove pretty easily. Of course we wash everything we buy before using or wearing. For the smells, I pre-soak (in the sink if just one or two purchases, in the washer if a lot of fabric) in vinegar and water. You can use ammonia if the smells are very tough, but vinegar almost always works to cut that smell. Then I rinse before washing as usual. Both smells usually go away once you wash after this soaking. A few times I had some mild residue smell that did not last a second wash.

    Same for conquering stains. I have gotten some great clothing when other people donate or do not buy because of stains. I have never met a stain I could not remove. Equal parts of hydrogen peroxide and BLUE Dawn dishwashing liquid (I use generic) and stir with some baking soda to make a paste. You don’t have to be exact. Leave on a while and rinse, then launder. You may have to do this a couple of times or leave it on longer if it is a particularly tough stain. But this has worked on every stain!

    Of course ammonia and peroxide could damage delicate fabrics, but It does not appear you are buying delicate fabrics. And in the rare case something does not work out, I look at it as a fun experiment and a small monetary donation to Goodwill or Salvation Army. Little loss, but huge gains by doing this.

    Love your blog and am excited to read your archive and follow in the future!!

    1. Hey MJ!
      Welcome! Thanks so much for the detailed tips. I’ll be honest – I am just not willing to work that hard when there are soo many options 🙂 BUT I think this is great stuff and I added a link to your comment up above so others can read it 🙂

      1. I have to agree Stephanie, you really don’t know how many chemicals have already been used, how much scrubbing has been done to the fabric, or how many times the stain has been set in with washing and drying. So much out there to use that’s in good shape. I’m a bigger woman so I seldom find things bigger than a plus sized 2x, so I really don’t do this too often. I did use a man’s 3x dress shirt that was pink paisley, with a burn hole in one sleeve, and made it into a cute apron with new cuter buttons down the front.

  8. Hi Stephanie,

    Your website is gem! I found it through G+ and love it!

    Thrifting is great source of material, my main one actually as a professional upcycler (but also my clothes are about 95% thrifted). And you are right, it could be really overwhelming. But having all this tips you’re writing about helps a lot! Thank you for compiling them into a post.

    I’d add another suggestion. 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). My last tutorial on my website uses two thrift finds to make a new garment.
    I’ll be happy to stay in touch and definitely following 😉

    Happy thrifting,

  9. Why is everyone obsessed with smell? Use the right detergent and a washing machine = job done, surely? Even in a really hard water area in the UK I don’t have problems removing smells that way. Is it really that different in North America that you have to add vinegar or baking soda to get a good result?

    1. I don’t know, I’ve never washed clothes anywhere else! I just bought a sweatshirt that had a strong perfume smell that I didn’t notice until I was at home – it took an overnight soak in Oxi-Clean and sunning for two days and it is *still* faintly there — nothing else has helped!

    2. I’ve noticed in the US the fragrances added to the detergent and finishers (e.g., fabric softeners and dryer sheets) are often very heavily perfumed and it only takes a couple of washes to really lock in that mountain-fresh or ocean sunset fragrance (what exactly does an ocean sunset smell like?!?). When I adopt clothes I often have to cancel out those effects with vinegar. I’ve never tried ammonia.

  10. I once bought a shirt at Goodwill,and it smelled like French fries. It permeated the fabric, even after washing. I loved the shirt, so I kept trying. I hung it on my clothesline for 2 or 3 days, keeping it out there overnight. Voila, the smell was gone!
    If you don’t have a clothesline, you could probably drape it over something. If the sun shines directly on it, that will remove most stains,too. I really enjoyed this article,thanks!

  11. I have a water softener on my house, so stain and odor removal is easier, BUT it does take some laundry additives for set-in stains. I find that Blue Dawn removes grease/oil, Borax (Borateem or other brands) removes stains and odors far better than I thought possible. Oxyclean liquid works on stains. Hairspray applied to ball point ink only two seconds before plunging into warm water and detergent will remove the ink, even if it’s been through the dryer. I may combine most of the above in one load and set the washer to agitate longer and give an extra rinse to get out all the laundry products. I’ve had old yellowed stuff or things that I thought would never be white again that a combination of Oxyclean and Borax added to my usual detergent removed in one wash.

  12. […]  Don’t worry, that is the ‘before’ picture! I dug this out of my ‘refashion’ pile and gave it a makeover thanks to motivation from Magda in honor of Refashion Month. She blogs at House of Estrela and has so many fun ideas for herself and her daughter. One of her recent refashions was so clever, she is due next month and sewed a nursing nightgown! She declared July to be Refashion Month and invited a bunch of bloggers to sew along and share their refashions. There is a Flickr group if you want to join in the fun, and I shared a bunch of tips for shopping with the intent of refashioning and upcycling in this post. […]

  13. I love to shop for cheap stuff and fix it, eventhough I’m an inmature at fixing things. I bought throw blankets after chrismas for like 2 dollars and I sew them toguether and made a queen size bedspread also i made pillowcases and 2 darkened curtains to put under my bedroom curtains. Keep cold out. Everything was super cheap.

  14. I love the blog and the wealth of suggestions. For the stain and smell issues, I use scented PineSol (or the cheaper Pinalen) in our wash. It removes ink, oil, and other types of stains (even gear oil and disiel on the hubby’s mechanic clothes) and I have yet to come across a stain or smell that doesn’t come out in a wash or two. I WILL say that the regular Pinealen smell has to be rinsed several times to get the overpowering pine smell out, but I don’t usually have that problem with the pink or purple Pinalen.

    Also, I usually hit the bedding, tablecloths, and curtains first thing in a thrift store. They are such a great source of usable material and pretty lace…even after cutting out/around holes and stains. Wedding and prom/evening dresses (especially ones that are stained, ripped, or discolored) are great sources of materials perfect for making your own lingerie or dressing up a boring pair of pants, shirt, or jacket.

    Purses, belts, and old luggage are great sources for clasps, buckles, and straps to either repair those same things, or to even fashion a new one. The upholstery from a suitcase that the zipper is broken on can be refashioned into a smaller makeup bag, wallet, or overnight bag, and the handles repurposed into a handbag or purse. A garment/hanging luggage bag has enough upholstery material to re cover a small stool or the seat of a chair, or to even make a pair of shoes or boots for a toddler. There are so many ways to repurpose or upcycle just about anything. As you can see, it’s a bit of an addiction to me, I could go on and on. Lol. 🙂

  15. […] We’ve moved 4 times in the past 5 years so I’ve seen lots of thrift shops in the Midwest. Most have a ‘materials’ section with fabric yardage, notions, and patterns. You might have to ask where it is in the store, but it can be a true treasure trove. Be sure to check out my tips on shopping with upcycling and refashioning in mind! […]

  16. Hi! Love all the tips and ideas. I have one a friend shared with me for stains in delicate fabrics such as antique lace, crocheted scarfs, even tablecloths. Make a mixture of warm water and automatic dishwasher detergent. Leave overnight. If needed- repeat. I found a beautiful pair of antique gloves that were yellowed with age and I actally left them a week , changing the mixture every day. ( you can put them in a clean cool whip bowl with a lid and shake gently) They turned out beautifully! Hope this might help someone. Happy repurposing everone!

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