Goodwill Hunting (See What I Did There?) Part 1: Identifying Quality

One of my top essential frugal skills: clothes shopping at secondhand thrift stores such as Goodwill, Salvation Army, and the like. I've loved thrift shopping since I was a teen and brought home mounds of hideous clothing from Savers. Now, I love thrift shopping because it's insanely cheap compared to shopping new, it's eco-friendly, and I often end up getting far better quality items than I could (or would let myself) afford new. The regret factor is lower, both because the risk is lower (if I get something I end up hating, eh, it was only $5), and because I simply find great stuff there!

I've heard people suggest that, by shopping at Goodwill, they will be depriving poor people of affordable items, but I don't think that argument holds much water with fast fashion options such as H&M and Old Navy offering new things for pretty much the same cost. No matter who you are, the environmental ethics are heavily in the favor of shopping secondhand, rather than creating unnecessary demand for new items (especially cheaply made items of dubious sourcing destined to break quickly and get tossed in a landfill where they will live forever because they're made of plastic). You can find much better quality clothing secondhand if you know what to look for.

"Knowing what to look for" is a work in progress for me. I'm still learning. H&M made most of the clothing I wore from 2000-2010; I'm not sure I know what quality stitching really looks like. But last month, I started working in an office with a business dress code, so I've had to go from zero to dressing like a grown up real fast. I think I've been catching on. Here is what I've learned.

Touch the fabric

I started realizing that I had Opinions and Feelings about fabric quality when I was disappointed with some clothes I'd bought online. They looked like the picture, all right, and they fit okay, they just... felt cheap. The fabric felt thin and insubstantial, and it seemed like corners had been cut in subtle ways, like the fabric only being patterned on one side, and feeling nicer on the outside than the inside. The inside is where *I* am!

When I'm in a Goodwill, I throw germy caution to the wind and let my fingers do the walking. Fabric I like to touch is better than fabric I don't. Okay, it sounds idiotic when I put it like that, but it's important, and it's an easy barometer for someone who doesn't know much about fabric.

This is where shopping in person, whether new or used, has a real edge over shopping online. In person, you can apply the Marie Kondo method: hold the item in your hands and ask yourself if it "sparks joy." Useful for decluttering, useful for shopping (or "pre-cluttering.")

Brand names aren't everything... but they're something

When I'm shopping new, I make a point not to care about brand names. In grocery shopping, for example, brand-name items are often more expensive purely because of the advertising budget of the brand, and the store-brand generic is typically just as good but cheaper. 

In clothes shopping, though, especially secondhand shopping, I've reluctantly concluded that brand names are sometimes correlated with quality. Some of my best-looking and most durable items of clothing from Goodwill bear labels from brands such as J. Crew, Saks, Banana Republic, and Brooks Brothers. One nice thing about shopping secondhand is that you typically don't pay extra for the brand--most items are a flat price--so it's up to you to "treasure hunt" and get the best bargain. 

Of course, brand quality isn't constant; it differs from item to item and season to season. A few times I've found something super nice for $5 at Goodwill, only to be unable to find something anywhere near as great for full price from the same brand's current offerings.

Favor things that look new

This probably goes without saying (but sometimes when I'm in a Goodwill my standards lower.) If an item is secondhand and it still looks new, it is more likely to give you years of good service. Items that are already grungy-looking when you get them are probably not going to last long in your wardrobe. 

Notice and avoid:
  • Stretching (limp elastic, runs/stretch marks, oddly long proportions)
  • Shrinking (felt-y wool, oddly short proportions--was this T-shirt MEANT to be a belly shirt?)
  • Fabric pilling (little lint balls)
  • Faded colors and "worn in" feeling fabrics (of course, sometimes this is the look you are going for!)
One of the perks of shopping secondhand is that you can use this as a metric; in a new-clothes store, everything looks new, so you can't tell the difference.

Inspect each item carefully for subtle damage

Have you ever been tempted to donate something of dubious reusability to Goodwill? I have. I bet they get a lot of terrible, terrible items. It's a credit to the staff that, for the more part, the things that wind up on the racks are in pretty good shape. Still, some damage does get through. Here are some gotchas that have got me:
  • Missing buttons or embellishments
  • Stuck zippers
  • Pit stains
  • Ring around the collar
  • Tiny moth holes in sweaters
  • Faded coffee stains (they're invisible until you know about them, then you can't see anything else)
There aren't necessarily dealbreakers--some are highly fixable (not the ancient coffee stains). But it's still nice to make an informed decision about buying a fixer-upper.

Pay attention to attention to detail

This is generally what people mean when they say "look for markers of quality." Look for hints that the item was made with care, not dashed off haphazardly:
  • Small, even stitches (so I've heard... I find this impossible to notice)
  • Hidden seams, even if you turn it inside out (the inside should not be a mess)
  • Patterns are matched at the seams
  • Item is lined (and you also like the hand feel of the lining)
  • Extra buttons (a sign that the maker plans for a long lifetime for the garment)
These are the hardest details to notice, for me, but they're the most reliable; they work for new or used items, they are more telling than brand name, and they are timeless.


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