11 Secrets to Finding Quality Clothing at Thrift Stores

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Have you noticed the price of new clothes lately? Call me tights (you wouldn’t be the first), but $60 for an oxford shirt and $80 for a pair of jeans seems excessive, especially when there are other options, like second-hand clothes.

Buying new when used will do is one of the many stupid clothing buying mistakes.

For three decades, I’ve happily avoided retail and embraced resale, filling my closet with stylish, well-made pieces for pennies on the dollar. As part of my online resale business, I also sell contemporary and vintage clothing to buyers around the world.

But not all clothes are created equal. To find the best pieces, especially when shopping for used clothing, you need to know which features to look for and which to avoid.

Here are my tips for buying quality second-hand clothes.

What to look for

Woman in a thrift store
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Finding well-made second-hand clothes doesn’t have to be a guessing game. It just takes a little sartorial science. Look for the following quality indicators.

1. Metal zippers

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Plastic zippers are less durable, harder to close, and easier to remove from the track. Save yourself a lot of frustration by choosing clothes with metal zippers.

Tip: During washing and drying, the teeth of metal zippers can damage fabrics. Close clothes before washing them; it will help your clothes last longer.

2. Natural fibers

Pile of folded dress shirts
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Synthetic fabrics such as polyester, acrylic, spandex and nylon are derived from plastic. Not only are these fibers more prone to pilling, but they are easily damaged by the heat of drying and ironing.

For clothes that hold up wash after wash, look for natural materials such as cotton, linen and wool.

3. Patterns that align

Purchasing manager with clothes
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Details matter. Examine the seams of the garments to see how well the stripes, checks, and other patterns line up with the seams.

Not only does a mismatched pattern look unsightly, it can also be an indicator of hasty, shoddy construction.

4. Durable seams

man with torn suit coat
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A seam is where two or more pieces of fabric are joined, held together by stitches. Most wardrobe malfunctions are caused by faulty stitching.

To keep all parts of your body covered, learn to spot quality seams that lie flat and are free from puckering, fraying and other irregularities.

For durability, the best types of seams are:

  • broken seams: This name refers to the way two pieces of fabric are sewn together and then pressed open. A whipstitch finishes each raw edge.
  • Flat seams: Frequent in jeans and workwear, these seams are thick and easily identifiable by two lines of visible stitches.

Confused? You can find pictures of these and other seams on the clothing designer Eileen Fisher’s website.

5. Quality stitching

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Without quality seams, it is impossible to produce a quality product. Look for even, straight, reinforced stitches at all stress points, such as:

  • Crotch and bottom of pants
  • Shirt armholes
  • Yoke (shoulder area) of shirts
  • Pocket edges and corners
  • Belt and belt loops

Not sure about a garment? Give it a quick tug test. Pull lightly on each side of a seam. Good stitches should hold firmly and hold the fabric securely in place.

What to avoid

A worried man raises his hands in a stop or stop motion
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Everyone knows to avoid clothes that are obviously worn, but that’s just the beginning of the list. Clothing bearing any of the following signs should be left on the rack.

1. Snaps and zippers that don’t work

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Rule #1 When Buying Used Clothing: Test Everything — twice. Zippers may look ok but impossible to keep on track. Snaps may not engage properly. Save a little money and a lot of hassle by reviewing everything carefully.

2. Stains and discoloration

Examine a shirt stain
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Unless you’re looking for an early ’90s distressed look, be sure to avoid stained and faded clothes.

Stains occur in all the usual places – armpits and collars of shirts, ends of ties, fronts of jackets and anywhere on trousers. And while stains can be removed with common household products, I generally avoid the bet.

Discoloration may be harder to notice. Two types of discoloration to watch out for:

  • Shirts, blouses and jackets that have been hung up and exposed to the sun for too long often develop subtle discoloration on the shoulders.
  • A piece of a multi-piece outfit sometimes fades more than the other pieces. For example, many men wear suit pants more frequently than blazers. Over time, the pants fade from wear and cleaning and no longer match the rest of the ensemble.

3. Pilling

Woman checking a clothing tag and frowning
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Pilling: This is the bane of clothing lovers everywhere. Who hasn’t had to pull off a much-loved sweater once those little furballs started popping up? Who hasn’t fought them off with razors and lint brushes and those little battery-powered demisters? Avoid pilling clothes just as you would avoid ripped or stained clothes. It is a hopeless situation. You may be able to push back the pills temporarily, but those disgusting lint balls will reappear after the next wash.

4. Amendments

Close-up of a person sewing
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Since almost all the clothes I buy have to be adapted, a lot of what I donate has been altered in some way. And while there might be one lucky 5-foot-7 guy who appreciates my sense of style, I realize most buyers just won’t fit into the cast-offs in my closet.

For the same reason, you should avoid second-hand clothes that have been altered.

Attention buyer: Some alterations are difficult to notice. Whenever possible, try on items to ensure pant legs have not been tapered, sleeves shortened or side seams tucked in.

5. Suspension bumps

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Hanger bumps or “shoulder horns” develop when knit shirts and sweaters have been left on a hanger for too long. Over time, the fibers of the fabric near the shoulder seam stretch, creating small bumps.

While many websites offer advice on how to get rid of these closet destroyers, I’ve never found a truly effective method. Save yourself a lot of time and trouble by avoiding any garment with hanger dents. And for Pete’s sake, fold – don’t hang – knitwear.

6. Unpleasant odors

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Sorry, but when we talk about flea markets, we have to talk about smells. For those new to the game, remember this: your nose is one of your most important tools. Before you buy anything, give it a quick sniff test.

It’s not just the gross smells of tobacco, mold or animals that you’re trying to avoid. Heavy scents can be just as unpleasant and nearly impossible to remove from fabric.

If the previous owner of this cute cardigan was an avid user of White Diamonds perfume, you’ll smell like White Diamonds every time you wear it. Love it or leave it.

Disclosure: The information you read here is always objective. However, we sometimes receive compensation when you click on links in our stories.

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About Lonnie G. Mitchell

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