Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Dead air guide to yard sales and thrift store clothes shopping

This is a guest post by Daisy of  Daisy’s Dead Air. 

As times continue to be economically difficult for many, I believe that it has become increasingly important that we began to change our patterns of consumption.  Not only will this save money, it is an earth loving policy that is environmentally responsible.

image At left, Miracle Hill Ministries thrift store in west Greenville, SC. On the dressing room walls, they have Bible verses from Romans, so you can be spiritually edified while you shop.

I found two lovely summer dresses here on Saturday, as well as a hand-painted candle-holder and like-new flannel Carhartt shirt. Total spent: $6.

There were several young women (from the shelter, I assume) folding clothes and cleaning glassware in the front of the store, while singing old Baptist hymns in high, soft, sweet soprano harmonies. An unexpected bonus and pleasure.
This guide focuses on clothing, since it's something everyone needs, and it's my particular area of expertise. This is a recession, and this advice might help a few folks out there who don't know where to start.
This guide was decades in the making! ;)
:: Flea markets
Flea markets are often an ongoing enterprise, and participants are just like store-owners: they need profits to pay for the space. For this reason, I avoid flea markets for clothes shopping, since the quality tends to be poor and the prices too high for what is offered. However, flea markets as a social event are a lot of fun, and one can always find some delightful, odd or strange thing for very cheap, that you can't find anywhere else. But if you are out for a bargain in a hurry (i.e. child needs school clothes; you just got a new job), this isn't something you can count on.

:: Thrift stores
The very best bet if you need something RIGHT NOW. The best, most high-profile, second-hand stores (Goodwill and Salvation Army) have already sorted everything for you by gender, size and type of garment (jeans, skirts, etc.) Other thrift stores do not employ any labor to do this, and you might actually get clothing by the pound or for something like a quarter-a-piece. Mission stores such as Society of St Vincent de Paul or Miracle Hill routinely offer stuff at 50 cents a pop. The problem with some of these stores is that you will have to dig, and nothing is pre-sorted. It can be very time-consuming, but if you know what you want, you can dive in and find it.

:: Church/Organizational/Fund-raising rummage sales

Church and/or other organizational yard/garage/rummage sales (i.e. Cancer Society, Humane Society, etc) are by far, some of the very BEST places to find used clothing, as well as a variety of other goods. The problem is that they are sporadic and seasonal, and you have to hunt them down anew every year. (A group may only have ONE yard sale, and then never have another one--or perhaps only every five years or something.) Local newspapers are the primary places to find these great sales, which tend to be concentrated in the spring and summer (due to the "spring cleaning" ritual). So, keep in mind that you are buying for the whole year, a situation which can bring its own set of problems (size changes, unforeseen need for certain types of clothing, lack of storage space, etc). But I heartily advise "stocking up" if at all possible.

This clothing has usually been accumulated over many years, by lots of people, and there will likely be an abundance of sizes and styles to choose from. However, if you're picky, look at the organization or church conducting the rummage sale. If you want pricey designer clothes, go to the rich Episcopalians or the annual Rolling-in-Dough Country Club rummage sale... but if you want funkier clothes, you might want to check Local College Animal Rights organization, or equivalent. The type of group it is, the neighbourhood it is in, the class of people in the group, all of these factors are a way to gauge what the donated items will probably be, as well as their cost. This also involves some knowledge of where you live, and the general demographics of the area. Consider carefully your ideal taste in clothing, and who else might have it, then look for the sale that those people are having.

This stuff is usually priced to move quickly, often by volunteers who have no clue of the value of, for instance, designer labels or handmade items. (Sometimes, you can also find beautiful quilts and afghans that have been stored in attics for generations.) If clothing is cheap, get creative and branch out. It won't hurt to grab something for 50 cents. I can't tell you how many times I have purchased some strange or quirky old dress, blouse or skirt, and didn't wear it until (seriously) 10 years later, when it was suddenly funky, antique and back in fashion. If you like it and it costs virtually nothing, grab it, and screw fashion, which changes on a dime anyway.

The issue here is storage space, which for some of us is at a premium.

:: Yard sales

Community yard sales ("multi-family") are very good, and can be almost as good as churches or large organizations. But one-family yard sales are often a bust, since there will usually only be a few sizes in the family. All the men's clothes will be one or two sizes, and all the women's clothes will be one or two sizes. Ditto, the general type, colors and styles of the clothing. (Since mom tends to buy for the whole family, you will notice a profusion of mom's favourite colors in everyone's clothes. And her favourites may not be yours.) However, children's clothing may span many sizes, since children grow quickly. If there is more than one child, and/or an accumulation over many years, you could be in luck.

I once attended a yard sale put on by a children's dance studio, and struck pay dirt. My kid wore that stuff for eons; I bought garbage-bags full.

:: Estate sales
These are sales conducted in homes in which someone has recently died. I love them because I am preternaturally nosy and I love snooping through an old, unoccupied house, just because.

Most of the stuff in the house will be tagged, and the prices tend to run higher-than-usual because the people managing the sale get a cut of net-profits. The clothing will likely be very old, and if you are lucky, you can score some old Doris Day coat from the 50s or 60s (I have two!) or something similar you have always wanted. Keep in mind that certain fabrics fall apart like dried newspaper after a certain period of time (depending on how they have been stored), so don't forget to check those seams! For funkiness, estate sales can be especially wonderful.

If you aren't into vintage clothing, estate sales can be a bust for the reasons stated above. The deceased individual was probably only ONE size and favoured only a few general styles of clothing. If you aren't that size and don't like those styles... well, that's that. However, if they were very wealthy and/or stored a lifetime of clothing, you may find several sizes and several eras represented, and unexpected treasures await! Old bridal/evening gowns, collections of coats and jackets, bizarre and wonderful costume jewellery, and other fascinating cast-offs that are notably absent at other second-hand sales, will be at an estate sale.

Check the neighbourhood, take a good look at the house before entering. If they are obviously rich, everything will either be very high-priced, or very cheap. There tends to be no in-between. Most common: the furniture and collectibles have high price tags, but the clothes will be in an untouched heap, 3-5 bucks a piece or something like that. Sometimes, they will charge you by the grocery bag, say, $3 a bag. (If so, it is worth it to have a look at the blankets, quilts, pillows and other fabric items hanging around, especially in a wealthy home.) The gowns and such will usually be set aside and tagged separately, but not always. Be sure to look at everything.

Old estate sales also specialize in novelty items like old scarves, handkerchiefs, gloves, hats, belts, and the various forgotten accessories of a lifetime. Things never worn and put aside (particularly if affluent) are everywhere, and you could unknowingly walk into a gold mine. Always be prepared!

:: General guidelines

::Know what you want and know what you need. (Two different things, as the Rolling Stones reminded us.) If you need jeans, learn to train your eye on the clothes heap and see only denim... likewise, wool sweaters, silk blouses or whatever it is. Examine the sizes of your sleeves and such, in your own closet, before you leave your house. I am able to pull out an appropriate size from a clothes heap, even with only a partial view of a sleeve, collar, or pants leg. (Yes, it's a gift!) Likewise, I can easily differentiate silk from glossy rayon impersonations. If there is something you particularly LIKE (silk, wool, floral patterns, tartan, tie-dye, frilly dresses, leather, old scarves), train your eye to pick it out of a huge pile. Make a game of it, like a treasure hunt, since that's really what it is.

::There is a good reason people do not want used underwear, bras and shoes, aside from the general "yuck" factor. They tend to be IMPRINTED with the butt, boobs or sole of the original wearer, in a way other, looser garments are not. Don't bother with any of these items, unless they are obviously new, and sometimes they are. Slips can be worn, but not usually bras. And sometimes, tight shirts or jeans will obviously have been owned by someone with a very different chest/butt size than you have, and have already been "molded" to the previous owner. Hold the garment up and look for any telltale stretching or wear-patterns.

::Sizes on used clothing tags often mean NOTHING, unfortunately, because the clothing has already been washed and possibly shrunk...maybe severely. In fact, that is one of the main reasons people get rid of stuff, so it is a given. Learn to eyeball stuff--again, start with clothes you already own. Most folks get it all wrong at first; we inevitably over/underestimate the shape and sizes of our butts, thighs, shoulders. All pride must be put on the back burner (and if you are shopping in thrift stores, you are already ahead of the game on THAT score!)... All of us can get prissy about sizes: "I won't wear a 16!" --even if it has clearly shrunk to a 9. If it looks good, the hell with the size. I once found a fantastic designer dress, which the label informed me was... MATERNITY. A MATERNITY DRESS. But it had shrunk so much, no one would ever know this. But I didn't want to be teased about it (or start pregnancy rumours!) if someone should see it, so what did I do? I cut out the label that said MATERNITY. Yes, this will work on a 16, too. Your little secret!

:: Trying on

Ideally, you should be wearing a loose-fitting t-shirt or even a tank top, so that you can slide clothing on over it and do an informal trying-on session...yes, right there in the front lawn of the yard sale if you have to. It's your money, don't be ashamed--you'd do it in a fancy store, right? Do it there, too. (Remember: They tried it on before THEY bought it.)

Some thrift stores offer fitting rooms, but of course, yard/garage/church sales never do. Be prepared for where you are going and dress accordingly.

:: Inspect

It is not uncommon to locate (at long last!) the coat or pants you always wanted, only to find: missing buttons; dilapidated zippers; torn hems; seams ready to fall apart; nasty stains. Can you repair it? WILL you repair it? Buttons are easy, but zippers are something else again. Cost/benefit analysis: is it worth taking it to someone who knows how to fix it, if you can't? If it is stained: will the stain come out? Try to figure out what the stain IS, and you might be able to salvage it. Ask yourself if it's worth it to take the chance... a $10 jacket, no. A 50 cent blouse, yes.

Also, some stains, located in certain anatomical areas, are simply unacceptable (to me, maybe not to you). Ask yourself, if the stain doesn't come out, can it be hidden? Remember, coffee, grass and blood (most common stains) often will NOT come out.

I once found the most beautiful handmade aqua sweater with a small yellow stain. I gambled that it was mustard, and then I wondered: why would someone get rid of such a lovely garment, when mustard stains can usually come out? Do not second-guess the rich in this way; they are spoiled. They regularly throw things out rather than fuss with them. (The stain came out in the first washing; it became one of my favourite things to wear for years.)

Another reason people get rid of clothes is because the tag proclaims "dry clean only"--which is usually nonsense. (However, you do take the risk that it will shrink if you defy the order!) Lots of fabric-softener before hanging it up to dry (avoid dryers) will usually do the trick... I do not believe in ironing, a time-tested method of enslaving women.


In the south, yard sales are usually early Saturday mornings, when volunteers and kids can help out, avoiding the heat of the day. The early bird gets the worm, and all like that; if I can get up early on a Saturday, so can you! The great stuff might be gone by the time you get there, so make it a priority to be one of the first customers. In the north and west, sales tend to start at a more decent hour, and can last all day long. But the early-bird advice still holds.

People like me are staking out the sales, and if you want to beat us to the bargains, get there first!

Go to the ATM and get cash. These operations do not usually take credit or checks. Yard sales run by churches and individuals will invariably be cash only. Get a map (or Google maps) and carefully plan your route. A good idea is to concentrate on a different neighbourhood every week during spring, or just target the neighbourhood you have chosen. Buy a newspaper or find the classifieds for your local newspaper online. Free weekly "thrift" newspapers will often carry a lot MORE ads, since the advertising rates are much cheaper. (Estate sales will sometimes be in a separate advertising section, so be sure to check there, too.)

Train your eye to see the signs shouting YARD SALE! GARAGE SALE! I have a radar for these signs, and I always notice them... but I have observed that some people just don't see them. It's an ingrained habit, and you need to train yourself, as you would for red and green traffic lights.
As you can probably tell by now, this is a hobby of mine. I do it for the overall fun and satisfaction of the treasure-hunt, as well as for economic reasons. I often wear things I could never afford to buy new.

And on a political level, I also believe that one of the most horrific manifestations of modern capitalism is RAMPANT WASTE, and recycling clothing is as crucial as recycling everything else.

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