- Stains: look for stains and if they will be easy to remove or difficult. If you pick up a shirt that is stained but you really want it, you can also consider adding a cloth flower or some other detail on the stained area to cover it up (if that is possible). You could also try this trick with bleach that the homemade mamas did. Otherwise, this could be a dealbreaker.
- Care instructions: make sure that it is machine washable. Look for tags that indicate the care instructions and consider carefully those items that are "Dry Clean Only" or "Handwash" and if you will follow those instructions.
- Smell: items can be washed or dry cleaned to get rid of the smell of secondhand clothing. If you have an item that has very specialized care instructions (such as leather or suede), you might want to reconsider.
- Fit: refer below for lots of ideas about fit. Generally, items have to fit you in the right places such as the bust or chest, shoulders, hips and thighs. After that, everything else can be adjusted. Whatever you buy, you have to be able to button or zipper it up properly. Also look to see where things fit you -- something can look fantastic on the rack but if you are short-waisted (like myself), it may look terrible on you once you put it on. Some fit issues cannot be changed such as the width of a leg.
- Colour: depending on the fabric and the colour (or print), almost anything can be dyed. Jeans can be dyed a darker colour or lightened with bleach. So, if you pick something up that has great bones and seams but a horrible colour, consider dying it. You may have to change the buttons though (if there are any).
- Coats: look for both summer and winter coats in neutral colors and in some flashy ones to go with my outfits. Look for good seams, pockets in the right place, single-breasted coats. Wool or cotton are ideal fabrics. Fuzz and nubs can always be removed with a clothes shaver. If you don't want to do too much adjusting to a coat (sleeves, length, fit, etc) then get one that fits from the beginning.
- Blazers / jackets: it’s alright if they are too big, no problem. Just make sure that they fit at the top and aren't too short. The fabric can’t be too faded and it has to have good seams. You can change the lining (if you want to go that far) and you'd have to remove it anyway to make any fit adjustments. You can change buttons and pocket linings -- or pockets can be sewn shut or removed. You can add different collars too (like a fake fur one).
- Button-up shirts: fit can always be adjusted as can sleeves and darts but it has to button up properly (or be too big). Men's button-up shirts can be turned into aprons. You can turn almost any button-up top into a tube top or cloth handkerchiefs. You can add piping to the edges of the collar and the cuffs, change cuffs or buttons, and change the sleeves from long-sleeve to short or 3/4 sleeves.
- Sweaters: look for good, reliable machine washable fabric that won’t warp or fade easily. Good construction, not rotten cotton, and good seams on the inside. The bust and waist have to hit at the right spot. If it is too short though there is still hope: it can still be used to make pillow covers or a fooler top. The neck can be cut off of turtlenecks and it can be turned into a scoop-neck whereas sleeves can be shortened to short sleeve or 3/4 sleeve. It can also be taken in the sides if the fit is too big or baggy.
- Dresses: they can be fitted on the sides and darts can be added. The length can be adjusted (unless it are too short). Also, they can usually be turned into tops or skirts with minor adjustments. Sleeves can be cut off to create jumpers.
- Jeans: need something that fits in the legs, hem and hips. If they are too long they can be hemmed and the waist can always be tucked but nothing can be taken out if they are too small. Jeans can be dyed, turned into shorts or skirts or they can be upcycled into sturdy draft snakes for windows or doors or log carriers. They also make great tote bags or garden bags, anything that requires a sturdy fabric. Make sure you have jean needles and strong thread for your sewing machine.
- Pants: as long as they fit in the waist, hip and legs then you are fine. Pockets can usually be removed and sewed down if they ruin the look of the pants. If you want to shorten them into capris or shorts then you can, or turn them into a skirt. They can be dyed as well. Pants also make excellent fabric for purses or lunch bags.
- Long skirts: these can be hemmed into a shorter skirt and then options are endless. You can embellish a hem with ribbon, lace or anything else that comes to mind. Or, you could turn a long skirt into a dolman top. If you have a size 4 skirt that you like but it won't fit you, try my post on turning it into a larger skirt.
- Skirts: look for some that fit you then you can work with the hemline, the colour and such. You can add things to the hem like lace or ribbon. You can also turn pants into skirts. Take a second look at wrap skirts because you might be able to change the size if there is enough fabric.
- Jewelery: broaches, necklaces, earrings, etc. All are fair game. Look for the real stuff if you can (real gold, white gold, real stones, etc.). Consider that most jewelery can be cleaned or vice versa, taken apart and reused as raw materials for new jewelery.
- Belts: look for belts that are not torn, ripped or falling apart. Buckles can be replaced and even the belt itself can be covered in fabric and given a new look. Studs or grommets can be added as well as beads, rhinestones or fake jewels.
- Shoes: really look carefully at these!! They have to fit in the toes and heels. They can’t be falling apart, cracked or split and the soles have to be good. Soles can be glued or sewn back onto shoes and the inside soles can always be reglued and replaced. They are usually all crumpled in the store but the leather should stretch back into place.
*You may have noticed that I left out t-shirts. This is because that point was so large that I created a whole other post for it. You can find it here.
- Towels: it can be used for its original purpose or turned into a rag rug like Sisters of the Wild West did. Towels make excellent trendy pillow covers (if they are not stained or smelly) and can also be turned into a litter rug for a cat's litter box. If you have enough towels in the same color, you could probably use them to slipcover smaller pieces of furniture like an ottoman cover.
- Sheets: there are endless options for sheets. They can be used as intended and embellished with a ribbon trim. Sheets can also be stenciled along the edges then put on the bed. Or, they can be turned into fabric for clothing. They can be dyed. These can be turned into capes for would-be superheros on Hallowe'en. They can be used as slipcovers for furniture.
And here are a few more ideas that can refer to almost anything from this list:
- Christmas ribbon (or cloth ribbon in general)
Other related sources: