Tuesday 11 December 2012

Thrifty Business

You're welcome.

If only thrifting/charity/op-shopping was always that joyful and successful! No doubt like many of y'all in the sewing/vintage/retro game, I've got a long-term relationship going with charity shops/thrift stores/op shops. But like many long-term relationships, after the first couple of years of passion, things have mellowed as we've both changed and got new things going on.

I'm sure like many of you, when I was in my teens my lack of funds and desire to wear something more interesting than the offerings in local shops drove me to jumble sales and charity shops where I would get a hunter-gatherer style high from bizarre finds from previous decades that often needed a bit of tweaking. But about ten or fifteen years ago many charity shops (in the South East UK at least, I can't speak for elsewhere) started to 'clean up their act'.

Possibly in reaction to rises in retail space rent, or possibly in accordance to a wider social trend, lots of charity shops got re-fits, chucked out anything older than 10 years and cranked up their prices. In many ways, most charity shops started and continue to look like slightly rubbish versions of normal clothing shops. Rather than being treasure troves of wonders, oddball donations and smelliness (which as everyone knows, is the sign of true emporium of hidden gems!), they now appeal almost exclusively to the late-middle aged women who 'curate' them. Plus, as my Dad regularly laments, in many the men's departments have shrunk or even vanished entirely.

I suspect this is is due to pressure to 'compete' with the high street, which is pumping out ever cheaper pieces of what many sadly view to be disposable clothing. But bizarrely enough, as most charity shops now only stock newer items and their prices are quite high, you can often find donations from the cheaper shops on the high street like Primark and Peacocks at about the same price, or perversely for even more, than they originally sold for new!

Obviously I understand that I cannot expect their rails and shelves to contain the boxy 60's jackets , 70's maxi dresses or 50's ceramics that I remember being available in the 90's. But having worked until very recently for a textile and clothing recycling charity, I know A LOT of pre-80's vintage is still out there and being donated. If the 'good shit' gets diverted by retro-savvy sorters and dealers before the rest of us get a chance to snaffle any of it, that's one thing, and I can probably stomach it. But my fear, my true honest-to-goodness-wake-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night-sweaty-and-crying fear, is that LOTS of it is just getting binned.

Some years ago, a friend of my mum's was (maybe still is) the manger of one of these gentrified-but-blandly-style less charity shops. Having heard that I was a big charity shop fan, she invited us to come by and said she'd give me a discount on anything I liked. There was not one thing I wanted in that whole damn shop. And believe me I looked hard. She was clearly so proud at how 'modern' her shop was, entirely misunderstanding the route of my fascination with them. I wasn't just looking for high street items with perhaps a couple of quid knocked off the original high street ticket price. I was out to go hunting through the belongings of previous generations and make potential-filled, amusing and, yes, maybe even smelly discoveries!

But, if I have to really boil down why I dislike gentrified charity shops, with their cheap laminate flooring and Radio 2's Stevie Wright in the afternoon blaring, into one single reason, it's this; I am convinced that all those lovely volunteer late-middle-aged women have collectively received thousands of donated vintage sewing patterns, maybe had a laugh with their colleagues about how their old mum used to sew all her clothes, and then systematically binned them all like some horrendous vintage sewing pattern holocaust.

Ok. So to be fair to charity shops, as I said earlier, I have also changed and become distanced. For one thing, I got into sewing my own clothes from scratch. The challenge of learning to make all the things I normally would have bought from a shops was/is so exciting. Starting a new sewing project from scratch is so full of promise, possibilities and offers complete control, that wandering around trying to find a gem in a charity shops when in your head you have a vision of exactly what you are damn well after can just be too bloody frustrating. And when you start to furnish yourself with the skills to make that vision a reality, it can be hard to go back to relying on the offerings that the charity shop gods choose to bestow on you during any given month.

Also, I physically moved away from charity shops, driving a further wedge between us. Correct me if I'm wrong, but from my experience of living in Barcelona, there seem to be no charity shops in Spain aside from a crazily expensive chain called Humana. I used to get my fixes when possible during visited back to the UK, but I guess I just got used to not having them as an option in my everyday life.

Then when I moved back to UK, as formerly mentioned, I ended up working for a textile recycling charity. When you receive bags and bags and bags of unwanted textiles every fortnight, a few pieces of which you are allowed for personal use for a small donation, the paltry stock of most local charity shops does not look inviting or inspiring. Ok, I got spoilt. I admit it, I am spoilt.

So where do things stand now with me and charity shops? You know what? Our relationship has entered a pretty stable phase. I'm still going to sew my own clothes, but the things I can't produce myself that I can get second hand, I'll keep hunting for in charity shops. So now, when I go in them I usually look for the following things: curtains and fabric if they have it (a guilt-free stash addition!), knitwear (especially fine-knit cardigans because I'll never be able to create those myself even when I learn to knit), shoes and boots (yeah some people think that's grim, but if they are fairly new then I'm fine with it), kitchen equipment (within reason, I wouldn't buy second hand pots and pans) and belts.

What about you? Have you noticed a change in your relationship to charity shops/thrift store/op-shops? Have they 'smartened up' and become boring round where you live? Do you prefer this cleaner thrifting experience? Do you have set things you always look for when you visit them?


Annabel Vita said...

Yes yes yes! You've hit the nail on the head here. Most charity shops have lost the thrill of the hunt element that kept me hooked. I've also moved to an area where the charity shops are super expensive, which is discouraging.

Kate said...

I know a lot of people throw out vintage patterns don't even donate them. Which is horrifying.

.x.Helen.x. said...

Very well put. I used to work near a charity shop that had a single cabinet full of sewing and knitting patterns. One of the staff told me they threw away any donations that wouldnt fit in the cabinet. They were so keen to get rid of the patterns that they would sell them to me for between 10p and 1p each. Yes - one penny for 1950s and 1960s knitting patterns! I felt like i had to "rescue" as many as possible. Unfortunately i dont live near there anymore.

The local shops near me in the north west all sound very much like you describe. I browse occasionally but rarely find anything.

Becky said...

I never had a lot of thrift stores around to begin with, living in a small state that pretty much exists on chain stores for everything. But I did notice they "cleaned up" and weren't as interesting anymore/got more expensive. Not just for clothes--their book selection got greatly reduced too! At least now I have a Kindle and can get older classics for free--I used to buy them for a quarter at the thrift stores. I still prefer shopping secondhand to shopping new when I'm looking for clothes that I'm not sewing, though, and will probably be making a trip sometime after Christmas when my schedule lightens up. I'm desperately in need of some sweaters and color in my wardrobe, and sewing a wedding dress has left me no time for DIY!

Emma said...

My mother in law works half a day a week as a volunteer for a charity shop that is quite "upmarket". when they sort donations they do not accept anything for the store that smells - it goes straight to the rag man - WHAT A CRIME! Apparently the rag man pays them way more than you would think and that it simply isn't worth cleaning the items. And the manager is very proud that her charity shop does not smell.

Anonymous said...

I live on the east coast of the US, and many of the thrift stores here are well aware that certain young people love crazy old clothes, and price them accordingly. Many have vintage sections. Goodwill stores seem to save a lot of the crazier stuff for Halloween. I had also assumed that the reduction in vintage had something to do with the proliferation of online vintage sellers, particularly on Etsy. I imagine there are people stalking the thrift stores and snatching the good stuff up!

And, yes, the prices have gone way up. It's much worse in the stores that price things individually, rather than have a set price for each type of item.

For the above reasons, but also because I'm older and have an office job, I have stopped going to thrift stores to find crazy and unique items and started focusing on things like work trousers and sweaters. I pay more attention to quality and materials than I used to. I now have lots of work-appropriate clothes from brands like Banana Republic, Ann Taylor/LOFT, and Talbots (these are the brands that I find in my petite sizes). I would never want to pay close to the retail prices for such boring items, but I do get a thrill from finding lined wool trousers for under $10.

I agree about the sewing patterns, as only 1 of many thrift stores I have frequented even sells them.

Jano said...

It is the same here in NZ- there has been a proliferation of hospice shops that have become much more upmarket (in the bigger centres at least). At least the money is going to a good cause as we also have a chain of stores that are essentially large warehouses filled with cheap clothes, mostly stuff that hasn't sold in the shops with some vintage pieces in the mix. I was an avid op shopper for many years and still make an effort to pop in but I have limited myself to buying fabric, patterns and occasional household items.

Beklet said...

Yup - loads of charity shops here and only two in the whole town actually seem to sell dress patterns. I have a friend who works in one of the bland shops and she will let me know if fabric etc turns up but she says she's never seen any sewing patterns :(

MrsC (Maryanne) said...

I onl haunt them when doing costuming, because I've never found anything my size I would be seen dead in, if at all. I do remember in the early '80s when you really could buy a 1950's new look dress or a 60's mini evening gown in turquoise lurex brocade for a few dollars. And winkle picker stilettos, beaded cardis, all the 'real deal' stuff that was considered tat until suddenly it was hot stuff! Now, it is hard as you say and the proliferation of pilled polyester cheap clothing is so depressing! I did score a few finds when in the UK though - a patched Indian skirt, a leather jacket for the hubster, silver salad tongs and cake slice and a few cool teatowels, that kind of thing. But no button boxes, or good patterns. It was gutting really.

Zoe said...

Thanks everyone for your comments so far!

I totally agree about why lots of charity shops don't put tatty looking things like used patterns out. But as we all know, a tatty envelope might still contain a thoroughly usable pattern which is why it's so frustrating! Well done for volunteering your time, and for sourcing second hand textiles. I hope the charity shop gods smile favourably upon you!


didyoumakethat said...

This is SUCH an interesting blog post. I don't know if there's time in the evening to say everything I want to! I feel as though we live in an age where we remember the halcyon days of charity shops and still keep hoping that they're with us - I don't think they are. Mrs C accurately puts her finger on the early 1980s as a time when you could still wander into any charity shop and find gems. It was a teenage rite of passage to buy a 'grandad coat' from a charity shop! And we didn't have to look too hard for those coats. Then, something shifted. As you say, they went upmarket. Also, designers started getting involved. Charity shops became cool. I remember walking into a charity shop in central London as a skint student and being staggered at the prices. I couldn't afford to shop in a charity shop! Even now, I don't particularly like my approach to charity shopping in London. There's one I regularly visit in Islington to see if the bored and rich have recently dumped a load of stuff. As you say, you can find some good stuff ie belts. But there's not much spontaneity going on in my visits. Now, I DO think there are some hidden gems. Charity shops afficionados should definitely pay a visit to Leigh-on-Sea in Essex. And I DO think there are some people who can sniff out a charity shop gem much better than the rest of us - Miss P springs to mind, as does another good friend of mine. But you have to have such an eye, and it feels like a case of diminishing returns. One last question - has Ebay and the Internet become our charity shop of the modern age? One last, last point (!) - my sense is that it's still very different in the US. I read so much about amazing finds at garage sales...

Laura said...

Here in the US I've noticed a similar trend - 'real' vintage is being upsold or sold on ebay, simply out of style stuff is going to overseas markets or being turned into fiber recycling, and the current stuff is the bulk of the thrift stores I visit. I am not particularly into vintage as something I actually wear, so I still shop secondhand a lot.

There is one thrift store in my vicinity that resells sewing patterns, and I regularly buy them there. Otherwise patterns seem to be overpriced these days, at antique markets and online - just because it's old doesn't mean it's worth 20 bucks, people.

Kate said...

I work for a rather well known organization here in the US, and all I can say is, I sometimes feel that these non-profit orgs have seem to forgotten what exactly their purpose in the retail biz is. Seeing it first hand and also shopping occasionally in thrift shops there has been a major rise in prices including the one I work for and there seems to be no other reason than greed. Luckily I only work with second hand books but, I know how the game is played and 99% of the time it's a sick guessing game to see how much someone is willing to pay for an item. I also experience a lot of the same bizarre excessive consumer behavior that mall shops see. I have a serious conscience about my footprint on this earth which is why I chose to work for this org in the first place but, now 3 years in I have mixed feelings and don't think these places ultimately give a crap about the planet and it really is all about the money. Sad.


Kate said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lucy Legget said...

I never really visited charity charity shops that much when I lived in the although I did have a green paisley 70s shirt with long collars (from Iran!)that I wore to death much to my mum and boyfriend's horror.
Come to Australia - the OP shop is alive and kicking, especially in country towns. Retail here is pretty stuck in the 1950s anyway so op shops are still mainly the rummage kind. I really started shopping in them out of necessity 3 years ago as we were very short of cash and I am now hooked, its when I started sewing and I only by swims, shoes and undies, soon to change..thanks;) new now. I get all my jeans there, (I love my 2 current pairs) I have found beautiful shirts, skirts, tops etc. Charity shops run by community groups, hospices, etc. seem to be the best (i.e. cheaper, with treasures to find and friendly people working there.) It also where I get most of my material. I have a large (and possibly slightly obsessive collection of vintage sheets) but I've also found great jersey fabric, linen, 4m of new denim for $2 etc. One of the shops where I used to live obviously got in lots of patterns and there were often 50 or 60 to choose from and I had a job to limit myself!

Its funny though it can start to feel a bit obsessive like normal shopping. I am a big beleiver in sustainability but was starting to get more than I could feasibly use myself. I have moved to a different town with only 2 (rather than 10!) and find it calmer, I am sewing from my large stash and just pick up the odd thing at the op shop.
I like saving money, finding things a like, knowing my money is helping someone else. Just out of interest why not pots and pans?

We were back in the UK in April and I agree, I went into one of the glammed up designer charity shops and whilst it looked amazing and I can see would appeal to people who didn't like charity shops, for me it was really uninspiring, someone else had done all the sorting, taking out one of the most fun bits that makes it different to normal shopping.

Sorry for my overly long comment, a subject close to my heart.

Anonymous said...

First of all, I can't stop listening to that song! It's been my jam the last few weeks.

Second, while I love the idea of thrift shopping and we have a few stores that sell really cool secondhand clothes here in NYC, thrift stores are pretty expensive here (like $8 for a thin, worn-out-looking t-shirt!). I guess there's a price tag attached to a well-curated shop. :( I also hate digging through unorganized shops looking for something specific-- I'm just not that into shopping, and it's frustrating to come in looking for something and leave emptyhanded.

Kim said...

I live in Canada and thrift shops have become a lot more popular and expensive over the past decade.

There used to be a stigma attached to thrift shops- you only shopped there if you were too poor to afford now clothes. I was teased for wearing secondhand clothing.

I don't think that the shops here throw anything old away- they just charge crazy prices for 'vintage' stuff, even if it's falling apart.

Good finds are rare because they've been picked over a hundred times.

The worst offender is Value Village. They sell Wal-Mart clothes for more than they cost to buy new, and they sell things that obviously SHOULD have been thrown out.

Lovenicky said...

I agree with Kim. I have been thrifting for about 10 years and I have seen the prices go up and up for the same type of things! 10 years ago I got a very nice Ann Taylor blazer for work for only $7. Now something like that is more than $12!

I'm lucky that my neighbourhood has a lot of immigrants and the local thrift shop has lots of ethnic clothing which I love. Some of the workmanship, embroidery, etc on these clothing are unbelievable!

Roisin Muldoon said...

Zoe, you've summed up for me a lot of what my problem is with charity shops. Where I live, in Leamington Spa, the charity shops are really curated, and it gets worse at this time of year when they move out a lot of the secondhand stock to make room for new, Christmas gift type stock. Then the prices are higher and as Karen points out, this is pricing some people out of able to shop in charity shops and hence encouraging them to shop in Primark or whatever. I find that really problematic and I have to admit to adding to the problem somewhat - I don't donate to the large charity shops that seem to be the most guilty of this and instead save my donations for the local off-brand shops!

Up until reasonably recently the tip in Leamington had a shop attached to it, run by local sustainability charity Action 21. This was great because they salvaged usable things from the tip and in fact lots of people then bypassed the tip altogether and donated straight to the tip shop. We got our television set, speakers and a VHS player from there for well under £20 each and saved them from landfill. It was so great to poke through and find things - lots of the cool crockery and bits of household stuff in my flat, as well as lots of books and records, came from the tip shop for 10 p each, and it was a great place to get furniture as well. Last year Action 21 lost the contract and it was won by Sue Ryder. They stopped using the shipping containers Action 21 had used and built a shop building, and they started sorting through everything before it made it into the shop. And they have turned away perfectly good donations as well! It's such a shame because now it's expensive, uninteresting and it's totally against what was so great about the tip shop as it was, in that lots of perfectly good things are still going into the landfill. It pisses me off massively, to be honest!

Anyway that long rant aside, my relationship with charity shops has totally changed. I still buy LOTS of secondhand clothes, but they come from ebay instead.

Anonymous said...

I was at a party last night where every third person was indie- they played this song thrice and people shouted along for the Gucci bit XD Most charity shops out here are expensive knicknacks-I almost prefer evilbay for the real goodies (ugh can't believe I just said that-but it's true).

Also disqus not recaptcha please?

Jo Campbell said...

I grew up in Australia where charity shopping was fab. When I moved to the UK about 17 years ago I found lots of wonderful things in charity shops in Edinburgh but it has got to the point where I rarely go into the charity shops where I now live. It's a mix of not-so-cheap giftshop tat and high street clothes which doesn't interest me. The one good place is a sale held in our local football club once or twice a year with rails at 50p or £1 per item and although it isn't big you can find some gems.

Roobeedoo said...

Oh yes oh yes!
Same situation in Scotland!
And the diversion to ebay of "vintage" items has led to the prices soaring there too. It uised to be that people put things on for 99p and bidding raised the price - that's fine! But now, desirable items START at £10, which I find really off-putting. I also worry about sewing patterns. I went through a phase of "rescuing" them from ebay when I saw big batches for sale from charity sellers (clic sargent is a good one to watch)as I was sure that the majority would end up in landfill after the new buyers sifted out the "good stuff" for re-sale. But I can't save them all!

Crab and Bee said...

Representing Seattle here! I've been thrifting for over 15 years and have definitely noticed the prices going up. I'm hoping it's because there's more demand (and less scorn) for used stuff! Sadly, I'm not sure we can have it both ways, with people recognizing the value of used stuff and prices staying low. Thoughts?

Seattle has a wide range of places to buy second-hand stuff. There are the catch-all thrift stores that sell donated items, consignment stores, curated boutiques, stores specializing in vintage and shops to buy, trade and sell (my personal favorites). Last but not least, we have The Bins which even I'm not brave enough for, which are, yep, bins where everything is 99 cents/pound. They were definitely in Macklemore's video!

Like the anonymous commenter above, I've started looking for higher-quality used clothes that will last me a long time. Even though it costs more, I feel good about buying high-quality stuff without contributing to retail demand.

French Toast Tasha said...

Such an interesting topic! I have definitely noticed this trend in here in the US as well. I agree with Crab, it's good that more people are thrifting rather than buying new cheap stuff, but that probably means the prices will stay higher.

I've recently decided to try and sew everything I really need, bite the bullet and figure out pants for good and all, etc., in part because even if I do find something great at the thrift store, if it's really great it was probably already loved by someone else and won't last very much longer. But, I don't think I'd ever give up treasure hunting altogether, if only to find those few things that I love so I can copy them.

It seems like a two-tier system might be a good idea, if there were some shops that were more selective and more expensive, and another group for the older/weirder/cheaper stuff, if you were willing to dig through it. I'm not sure many people want to operate the second kind anymore, which is a little depressing because where is all that stuff going, and where are the people who really can't afford more than a couple of bucks for something going to shop?
We do have a couple of local charity shops here that still sell very cheap clothing, and tattered sewing patterns.

Miriam said...

great post - I certainly found in the UK the prices seemed rather pricey but I thought it was primarily about making money for their charity. Here in NZ there are still some great ones but a few who have 'designer racks' (while actual designers are often on the cheap racks) some have definitely lost their mojo for sure. I'm like you because I sew I look for fabric first in the linen section and then occasionally browse elsewhere.

Unknown said...

That really was f*cking awesome Zo! Still giggling away at the video whilst nodding furiously to your text. Here in Wales it's gone the same way, although we do have places like the Pumping Station in Cardiff that is filled with all the stuff that used to be in charity shops, alas it is however marked up as antique/vintage rather than at the expected charity shop prices. I spend more and more time on eBay/Freecycle looking for lower priced items from days gone by instead, particularly as clothing in the valley's charity shops isn't exactly to my taste!

Cherry said...

Totally agree. Here in Australia our op shops all have a rack marked 'vintage'' which 1, takes the thrill out of trawling through hundreds oh items just to find that one special gem and 2, means anything on there is bound to be $20+. Including that house dress with a huge stain down the front...

Emily said...

I live in a small town with an aging population, so my local thrift shop is still a real treasure trove. They do squirrel away some goodies for Halloween but other than that you can still find honest-to-goodness vintage on the shelves. And, better than that for me, because we're a college town, you can find fairly on-trend castoffs of well-heeled students, often of name brands I would never pay for new, but that are of decent quality (i.e. Steve Madden shoes).

But more than thrift shops, I love church sales, where everything is less than $1 and you are buying it direct from the old gran who dug it out of her closet! So I guess you could say the dream of the 90s is alive for me.

But then again ... I don't sew!!

Another Sewing Scientist said...

The pattern holocaust is real. My very first blog post was a horrified reaction to my village charity shop using vintage sewing patterns TO WRAP CHINA!!! I have been urging them for the past two years to put the patterns out for sale, and told them I would pay good $$, andthey have put out a few, but I still see them using the tissue for packing. Argh.

Unknown said...

I live in Wisconsin, USA. The biggest charity resale shop is called Goodwill. I've been shopping there my whole life. When I was younger my mom and I would go to different out of town ones on the weekends. Over the years resale shops have popped up all over. I love that people want to buy second hand as part of an environmental movement. Unfortunately, this means higher prices. Much higher prices. It's gotten to the point that I only buy the sale items at used stores. But I'm glad we don't have the problem where they only sell modern stuff. As long as it's in good condition they'll put it out on a rack.

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