Thrifting Deal-breakers

thrift shopping deal breakers

Thrifting can lead to shopping-related compromise. A shopper who would never consider purchasing a brand new pair of jeans that have a stain at the hem might be perfectly willing to plunk down a dollar for said jeans at a thrift store with the intention of cutting them into shorts. Another shopper would scoff at a coat that’s missing a key button in a department store, but might consider a similarly buttonless coat as a DIY project waiting to happen should that coat turn up at a secondhand store. But we’ve all got our thrifting deal-breakers. And here are mine:

Pit stink

I have tried remedy after remedy, friends – from vodka to sunshine to vinegar to salt. But vintage polyester that’s had someone else’s BO cooked into it through years of wear and dozens of trips through Hot Dryer? Just can’t do it. I’ve tried, and I’ve given up.

Stains

OK, OK, if a stain is in a portion of a garment that I fully intend to lop off, that’s different. But visible stains on used clothing can prove challenging. If a thrift store find is stained, it’s possible that the person who donated it did so specifically because that stain proved stubborn. And although I believe that Palmolive can deal with scads of common household stains – even long after the fact – I know a permanent blotch when I see one. Most stains are deal-breakers for me.

Missing buttons that can’t be replaced

Button-front shirts in classic colors generally feature buttons in colors and styles that can be found at most fabric stores. Older and fancier blouses, coats, and skirts often feature buttons that you might spend a lifetime attempting to match. It’s true that many button-adorned garments will have a spare stitched to the hem. And I check. If that sucker is gone, I generally pass.

Aside from pit stink, these problems can be dealt with post-purchase: Tailoring or over-dyeing can mask or remove some stains, and swapping out ALL buttons on a buttoned garment often works. But the root question is this: How much time and energy are you willing to invest in this item to make it wearable? And the follow-up question is this: Would you be willing to do the same if the item were less expensive and/or brand new?

What are YOUR thrifting deal-breakers?

Image courtesy OUI.

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  • Megan McConnell

    Fit! I would rather pay full price for something that I know will fit me well, without me having to alter it than pay a few dollars for something that I will probably be too lazy to sew or hem.

  • I sometimes think the thrift stores in my town are a bit overpriced. True enough, they are all operating to raise funds for one non-profit or another. But still, it annoys me when something from a big box store brand (Northcrest, White Stag, Old Navy, etc) is priced at $5 or more. Those items go on clearance from box stores for less than that.
    To be fair, I have gotten some great deals — $12 pair of Beautifeel heels; $8 Patagonia hoodie.
    But the racks are way more full of the former than the latter.

  • D

    I am very lazy, anything that would require sewing is a deal breaker for me! Stains and any kind of smell turn me off too. Also, anything with lots of beading or sequins- it will drive me absolutely crazy if I lose even one bead, so it is just not worth it.

  • Hetley

    Stains, holes/worn-out fabrics and odors I think are my deal-breakers. Fit is generally alterable; my last haul included a Breton stripe long sleeve shirt, several sizes too big for me, but in otherwise great condition. It took perhaps 15 minutes to get it sewn and hemmed to fit perfectly, so it was definitely worth the dollar + time. I wouldn’t have bought a coat or anything really complicated to alter if it were too big, and I have never had much luck with thrifting pants, but simple dresses, skirts, shirts, etc. are all things I’ve thrifted and altered to fit.

    On the other hand, I picked up a cute leather handbag thinking I could clean & recondition the leather and make it as-new again but uh..the cigarette smell just will. not. come. out. I simply can’t deal with it – and I used to smoke! So that is a definite deal breaker, now.

  • sisty

    Any white shirt or top, because nine times out of ten these are pit-stained, or have some other small stain on them.
    Shoes have to be new, or barely worn.
    Sweaters with holes, no matter how small.
    (These are in addition to yours).

  • Sonja

    I would like to add that changing all the buttons might help to update a piece, or make it more “you”. I think for someone who likes to sew, this is probably not a big deal. On the other hand I’ve sometimes bought things like a huge dress or a coat in a niece fabric, thinking that I would totally “remake” it in a style that fits me, and that has actually never happened. So, answering your question: I would cut off, dye or replace buttons, but probably not re-sew …

  • Eliza

    I put things back if I’d have to buy a different bra. A thrifted dress is just not worth the money and time involved in bra shopping.

    The way a garment moves is a pretty big deal for me. If it bunches when I raise my arms or scoots up when I sit, I usually pass. Last month, I found a pencil skirt (for the first time ever) that is fitted when I stand, but is equally comfortable when I sit- a minor miracle!

    • Liz

      Amen Eliza.

  • Mia

    Major pilling, definitely–on sweaters and knits that I know are going to pill, I want them to look newish for at least a while! Especially now that I do outfit photos, I feel like any pilling shows up glaringly in any detail shots I take, and it just makes me cringe. Sweaters can at least be shaved to a certain degree and look refreshed, but I’m not sure what to do about jersey dresses and the like, so they get a wide berth.

  • LeslieLe

    I would say yours are my biggies… I smell EVERYTHING. Even if it’s vintage fabric that smells of mothballs– I generally pass. Do you know how hard it is to get that smell out???

    I also hold up shirts and do a hem check. If the front hem is shorter than the back? I always put it back. I have a problem with the fronts of shirts shrinking, and am rather well-endowed to begin with– I don’t need a shorter front!

    I always try things on. If I can’t try it on, I don’t buy it, unless it’s under $1.

  • Erin

    pilling, holes of any sort, shrinkage of course, anything that will require costly alterations. I am on the short side and just don’t want to bother paying the cost of having them hemmed, unless they were an amazing find. I don’t think it’s worth the time, energy, and cost to address any of these issues.

  • Lisa

    re: missing buttons, I move the top one to the empty spot, and replace the top button with a contrasting button that looks intentional (also can be the bottom button).

  • Katharine

    I will hem, replace buttons, shorten sleeves, alter waistbands, and even do refashioning on promising items (“promising” usually meaning very odd and interesting, or really good fabric, label and condition).

    I don’t touch anything that smells, or is pilled, or has holes other than opened seams (which take a couple of minutes to sew back up). I don’t usually buy anything polyester or unpleasant-feeling in any way unless it’s for a special purpose like a costume (but then, I have a lot of texture issues with fabric whether I’m buying at the thrift store or not). Stains? If an item is low priced, and otherwise highly covetable for me for some reason, and the stain doesn’t have that particular set-in look, I will buy it and give it ONE shot with Kiss-Off stain remover (a magic ingredient which will even remove dried paint… I get it from the art supply store). If that doesn’t work, well, back it goes to the donation pile.

    I don’t usually buy anything from any of the common “names” — Gap, American Eagle, Abercrombie — let alone my particular thrift-store annoyances, George, Joe Fresh, Old Navy, H&M — because they’re always stupidly overpriced. I’ve found legit designer dresses at the thrift store, priced lower than some ugly H&M rag they’re hanging next to, which was on sale last season new for less than the thrift price. You know, more for me, but there is NO way a worn Old Navy dress should be in Value Village with a $12.99 tag.

    Really, I try to be as discriminating at the thrift store as I would at a retail shop. There’s less of a chance of stains with new clothes, of course — but I’ve seen brand-new items with poor quality construction and fabric, and I don’t buy those either.

  • Velma

    Fit! I don’t mind replacing a button or tacking up a dragging hem once in a while (if the item is excellent), but I know that I am not going to undertake major alterations.

    Bed smells (especially smoke, mildew, and body odor, including strong perfumes) and any kind of fabric wear, fading, or pilling are my other deal breakers.

    I buy the majority of my wardrobe secondhand from thrift stores and ebay. The good stuff is out there–there’s no reason to settle.

  • Lisa W.

    Dry clean only can be a deal-breaker if I don’t feel confident in my hand-washing abilities for the item. Cashmere sweater? yes PLEASE! Light colored, heavy tweed, lined skirt? Nope. Anything that needs fixing/is difficult to care for is not happening at my house! I have too many projects going on. I fully agree with all pilling, staining, smells deal-breakers listed above. MUST scrutinize all items before getting in line at the checkout!

  • If a garment is otherwise perfect, I would see a stain as an opportunity to do some creative appliqué or embroidery. I have several very personal favourite pieces that happened that way. And I would attack the button issue the same way. My most common dealbreakers are viscose and wool. It might work if I´m not wearing it on my skin directly, like a skirt, but it´s mostly a no. And pit smell, yes, that will not come out. However, old smelly dresses often make very nice skirts, which is a consideration worth making, since they often come very cheap. Also, I rarely thrift shoes, due to the sweat/smell factor.

  • Sarah

    I buy most of my clothes at the thrift store, and my attitude is that I never thrift something I wouldn’t pay full price for if money wasn’t an issue. I don’t buy anything with stains, tears, holes, etc, and I only buy stuff that fits me really well. It takes some effort (and sometimes, in a pinch, I will buy stuff at Marshall’s or Target) but it’s worth it, and it’s my only option for having a decent wardrobe. I end up with some really wonderful name-brand or even designer pieces that I could never afford in real life (i.e. never worn Manolo Blahnik black pointy-toe flats for $4).

    I also have a set budget in mind that I rarely stray from. I refuse pretty much categorically to spend more than $10 on a piece that doesn’t have tags on it unless it’s leather. Thrift stores in my area have really gotten ridiculous with their prices, so I usually drive to Pennsylvania (from Baltimore) to a great thrift store there that has reasonable prices, and a senior discount (I take my mom along!) It’s only about an hour round trip and I find great pieces in the $2-$5 dollar range that would be triple that at my local stores. Plus I have my mom pay so I get everything half off (sneaky I know!). Even if I find a great piece that I love and that fits, I will walk away from it if it’s more than $10.

    I have run into the button issue, and it can be very frustrating!! One caveat for replacing all the buttons when one is missing is that sometimes, the button is an irregular size or shape and it truly is impossible to find something that really fits the hole. I have a beautiful Jones New York cardigan sweater that is extremely heavy and very nicely finished. The buttons are STUNNING but the sweater was missing one when I bought it. The buttons are large and rounded, more like faceted black jewels than buttons. I bought it with the plan to replace all of the buttons, but I have yet to find a button that matches perfectly. I have tried 4 different buttons that I thought would work, but they don’t fit in the holes as well as the original buttons and I had the same issue with all of them: they don’t stay closed. I’ve given up and just wear the cardigan open like a jacket. I don’t regret buying it because of the quality but I would like to have the option to wear it closed.

  • Anna

    My deal-breaker: any large thing that presses the little button in my head that whispers “I can make at least 5 Christmas presents out of all that material.” And how did I learn this deal-breaker? The hard way, of course: from a $10 fur coat that I was sure I could transform into pillows and teddy bears for everyone on my gift list. That bulky fur took up tons of space in my little closet and never did undergo the pie-in-the-sky transformation. Miraculously–or mercifully–it never did attract moths. I ended up donating it, of course. Now my thrifted items must be things I can use right away, or use after only a few simple passes with needle and thread.

  • I buy most of my clothes at the thrift store, and my attitude is that I never thrift something I wouldn’t pay full price for if money wasn’t an issue.

    Same here (buying 90% of my clothes second-hand) and I think this is a really good guideline…or else you end up with a ton of thrifted clothes that you’ll never actually wear.

    • SKP

      Agreed. My deal breaker is…do I put it on and instantly love it? If not, I put it back.

  • Pit stains on blouses, piled sweaters and holes that are not on the seams are my deal breakers.

    Depending on the item and cost, I’m sometimes willing to take a chance on a stain or piece in need of repair. A few years ago I bought a beautiful sundress with a big black tar looking stain on it at a thrift store. The saleswoman insisted on only charging me a dollar because she was convinced the dress was ruined. I actually managed to get the stain out. For a dollar, it was worth taking the chance.

  • Kara

    @Sarah – I live in your area and agree about the thrift store prices. Would you be willing to share the name of this fabulous place over the border?

    • Chiming in as another Baltimore thrifter willing to drive to PA!

  • Katie

    I can think of a justification for almost any issue with a thrifted item, but my usual deal breakers are:
    Moth holes, since there may be moths or eggs in the garment that could spread to my closet
    Anything that’s touched someone else’s bare crotch (swimwear, tights, undies) – BUT i will make an exception for fab vintage swimwear
    Pit stains
    knitwear not cut on the straight (you see this in cheap t-shirts)
    Fit issues. I can sew, but i’m lazy.

    All this said, sometimes issues can be great leverage for a discount, especially at places that are overpriced. I once found an eyelet dress that was missing the lining/slip and the cashier gave me half off.

  • If I feel at all uncomfortable coming out of the dressing room to show my friends (and anyone else who might be standing there) I know I’ll feel uncomfortable wearing it, no matter how much I otherwise love it.

    Small tears, even if they’re along seams, are a big turn-off for me. I don’t want to put in the time fixing something I’ve just bought.

    For those who can’t get pit stains out, try a mixture of Dawn dish soap, hydrogen peroxide, and baking soda. I think it’s about 2 parts soap to 1 part h.p. to 1 part soda. Just mix it until it’s a nice paste, then spread it on the stain (I usually do both sides of the fabric) and then wash it after it sits overnight. I’ve only tried this on white shirts, but it does wonders for them.

  • Molly

    My local thrift store has half price days. I am in a very bad habit of bringing home too many things because they were only a dollar and they had potential. I can fix it, right? I’ll find the time? Probably not. It’s time for a sewing box purge.

    I have definitely fixed thrifted clothing with stains! I just refuse to pay more than a few bucks for it if I’m not sure I can get it out or artfully cover it.

    Dealbreakers? Shoes that likely were worn without socks. I’ll thrift Doc Martens or shoes that are nearly new, but anything with an ounce of odor stays where I found it. I can’t tell you how many cleaning methods I tried on that one pair of perfect yet faintly smelly thrifted shoes, but the smell of someone else’s feet when you remove your shoes after a walk is super super icky.

    Underwear, bras, or bathing suits. I just can’t go there, even if the items are washed or virtually new.

    Leather or pleather pants. I’m not sure “wipe with a damp cloth” is enough to get someone else’s cooties out of those things.

  • I won’t buy shoes if there’s even a hint of wear. It’s terrible for your feet to have the impression of someone else’s foot in your shoe as you walk around. If it looks good on the outside I feel for toe impressions and if they’re there I pass. I pass on holey, torn, and piling shirts. However, I disagree w/ you on the button thing. Buttons are cheap and easily replaceable and often make the item look better when they’re new. Great article.

  • ~ As you know, the majority of my closet is from the 1930s ~ And my cashmere sweaters are all thrifted ~ I am more than willing to •save• a vintage item that is full of popped seams, is slightly nibbled on by moths/dust mites, and has random stains ~
    ~ Stains or tears are best camouflaged by patterns ~ Or can be cut off while hemming ~ I once bought a cashmere tee that had at least a dozen holes in it ~ I carefully sewed them up and am still wearing this sweater years later ~
    ~ I love wearing old stuff and am more than willing to take hours steaming and sometimes reconstructing a beautiful garment ~

  • Piling, slashing/holes, and odor. I probably wouldn’t fix a broken zipper, it’s beyond my own abilities right now.

    I’ve managed to get stains out, I’ll happily replace all the buttons on a garment, especially to update a vintage piece. I can fix a busted seam if the garment is in good shape. I can even do minor alterations.

    I won’t thrift shoes. I’ll ebay them, but every pair of thrifted shoes I’ve bought have gotten maybe 2-3 wears before ripping or the dry-rot getting to them.

  • Elena

    I won’t buy shoes or underwear at a thrift store. I’ll also pass by anything that smells or is stained. I won’t buy any items that are from a store I would normally not shop in for new stuff–I’m talking about the really cheap, trendy stuff. Because I sew, I have bought items that need minor repairs like re-hemming, torn seams, or button replacement. Often these will also help update an item. I rarely go so far as to re-fashion anything–I save that for the clothing in my closet. I have bought clothing from the thrift store in order to use the buttons or some of the fabric for something else. Leather coats and jackets are on my list now to use in making accessories and I have used parts from old purses in making bags and totes.

  • liz

    i have very few thrifting deal breakers. irreparable damage and ridiculous pricing [$30 for a name-brand used tee??] are my two biggies though. pit stains definitely are up there, and even the slightest hint turns a horrid color when overdyed..which i discovered through trial and error. unfortunately i also have a bit of a thrifting addiction and overly lofty goals as to what i will actually refashion. but i do sew quite a bit and..eventually will get through the pile of to-do projects

  • Thrifts/secondhand/ebay makes up most of my closet and my rule is this: it has to be perfect. It has to fit because even though I know how to sew and can fix/alter the item … I just don’t. I won’t have time, and I won’t do it. I have accepted this. No stains, no pills, no tears, no holes, no nothing. Because really, I don’t *need* the item – I definitely have plenty of clothes to choose from. So it has to be perfect and it has to be cheap (I don’t buy from the “fashion focus” section of Goodwill, for example – because, as other readers have commented, why would I pay more than I could have paid for the item new-on-clearance? ridiculous!) and it has to be from a good brand (I never thrift/secondhand fast fashion; again, what’s the point? The garment’s lifespan is bound to be so short at that point, it’s not worth it) or I walk.

  • Chris

    I wish that everyone who donates clothes to thrift stores would read your all of your comments before donating. I am in the process of streamlining my closet and drawers.

    I donate items other than clothes too. In either case I won’t donate items that are stained, need repair, missing parts, are moldy, etc. Vintage items are a whole different category but I don’t have any of those to give away.

    Thrift stores are usually run by non-profits. They are trying to raise money for their causes. Items they can’t sell end having to be disposed of, usually for a fee. I think it is inconsiderate to donate clothes with stains, smells, etc.

    At least in my area, thrift stores are fairly picky about what they will take. They have been forced to institute no junk policies because the the dump fees were killing them. Unfortunately, too many donors were using the thrift stores to dump their trash!

    I understand that not every thrift store has the staff to filter every donation and that sometimes junk gets out on the floor.

    I think buyers and thrift store will benefit from donors being more discriminating. I know I have taken to heart what everyone said here.

    • SKP

      You’re awesome, Chris! I wish more donors were like you too.

  • Shaye

    A garment has to be very special for me to buy it if it has obvious signs of wear. I always check the pit seam of a shirt or dress. If it looks new, it qualifies. If it’s crushed or stained, it’s usually a no. Holes and more than a few pills will also disqualify a garment.

  • M-C

    Pilling doesn’t do it for me, because it’s irreparable. You can shave those pills off, new ones will form immediately. Not worth it.
    But no stink can resist borax – just add a handful to your usual detergent. Works with really grody bike shorts too, anything really. And only once have I found a stain that resisted the Magic Wand, something strangely only found in fabric stores but that’s pure genius.

  • Also good for smells is a sport laundry detergen, like Sport Suds, but there are a few brands. I’ve moved to the tropics and pretty much spent eighteen hours of the day sweating. I noticed this summer that my entire waredrobe was smelling like a gym bag, but the special detergent took care of the less-than-desirable aroma after two washes. I was seriously amazed (and cheering). Fels Naptha bar soap is also my trick for removing bad stains.