I hope you’re all well! I have several garments to share with you, but I’ve been busy getting ready for a trip to Southern California for Costume College and a vacation and I don’t have much time to take photos, so those dresses are waiting in the wings at the moment. I also may wait to share those until they’re photographed in more exciting places than around the ranch. 🙂
If you follow me on Instagram, you may have noticed that I do a lot of thrifting/antiquing and I love to share the treasures that I find. I also LOVE to see what other people have found as well. Along with that, I’ve found that it’s useful for me to share what I’ve found, as I often go through past IG posts to pinpoint where/when I found an item. A few IG friends have asked for me to share some tips for sewing treasure hunting, so I’ve put together a post with some tips that I’ve picked up — both from “practice” and by asking other sewists. Perhaps this will help you if you’re interested in hunting for your own secondhand sewing items.
Why buy secondhand?
Well, there are several reasons why you might want to go this route. The two obvious reasons are environmental and economical. You are using discarded items and are often paying far less than it would cost to buy brand new items at a fabric/craft store. Those are both very good reasons for searching for your sewing needs like this. The other two reasons that many of my sewing notions are found secondhand is that I prefer vintage sewing items for their quality and many notions are not readily available or are no longer produced. Also, if you like to sew vintage patterns or retro-inspired clothing, you might want to use true vintage items when sewing those.
What will I find?
Who knows? The stock always changes and it’s a crapshoot. Some days I’m lucky and find many things and some days I find absolutely nothing. The more you go, the more things you are likely to find. To me, it’s like a treasure hunt and a lot of the fun is in the search. It helps that my husband also enjoys thrifting and antiquing, so it’s something fun and often rewarding that we do together. And as we are not “hoarders” and are only looking for specific things fitting our own interests and don’t buy excess “junk”, we can be pretty quick pinpointing where and what we want to look at in a store and don’t waste much time perusing things.
Where to shop?
Thrift (Charity) Stores
This is my number one place to shop for secondhand sewing goods. You never know what you’re going to find and sewing items are generally super cheap. You can look online to find thrift stores in your area or just stop at one when you see it. The stock varies and is always changing, so you might want to drop in often to check things out. My husband and I stop in at thrift stores nearly every where we go — even where we are on a trip. You never know what you’re going to find.
I am not going to list specific thrift stores as there are a few hidden gems that I’d rather not share, but I generally find more sewing goods in thrift stores located in rural communities and small towns than in larger cities. There are two reasons why I think this is so in my area. One, there are more people donating in more populated areas, but there are also more people out looking for the same thing, so it’s basically just luck on whether you happen to find something before someone else. Another reason I believe is true where I live is that there are more people who sew or who did sew in rural areas, so there is a better chance that there are more sewing finds in rural and small town thrift stores. Where I live there are not many garment sewists, so there is a higher likelihood that I will come up on sewing items as there are fewer people looking for them and they will often sit in a store until I come in and snap them up.
I have found that charity thrift stores sponsoring a religious cause or that benefit animals to be more likely to carry sewing items. My intention is not to stereotype these stores, but I’ve been thrifting for a long time and I have found this to be true. Along with religious and animal rescue thrift stores, charity stores that benefit causes like a hospice or the American Cancer Society tend to have higher quality items from my experience as many people (including myself) prefer to donate their items to charities that they support. It is great for us to also shop at these stores and give back, along with finding treasures for ourselves, so it’s a win-win situation.
I tend to avoid Goodwill these days as I rarely find any sewing items or generally anything I want at any of the Goodwill stores in my region. It wasn’t always this way, but I think that once they started their online store and listing things on eBay, that the good stuff is no longer put out on the shelves of my area stores. I have also heard that they don’t want to sell sewing stuff and won’t accept those items, but I do know people in other areas of the US who have found sewing patterns and such at the Goodwill, so you never know.
If you drop into an antique store, there is a good likelihood that you will find some sewing items. There might just be a vintage sewing machine or a jar of buttons, but it seems like 9 out of 10 antique stores that I stop by will have some sewing stuff. You will generally pay more at an antique store, but you might find better quality things that are well curated and nice to look through as well as a higher probability that sewing patterns will be complete and not a tattered mess.
The estate sales in my area also seem to price sewing items a bit high, and are priced a little bit lower than the average antique store price. If an estate sale has sewing items, you have a better chance of finding more stuff or a rare treasure and you might be able to cut a deal. I only tend to go to estate sales if they have sewing items listed with photos to see if it’s worthwhile going.
Michelle is the queen of estate sales among my SBC friends and she finds amazing things at sales in her area. I asked her some tips a while back and she suggested searching for sales listing “sewing” (or other items you’re looking for) on EstateSales.net and contacting a sale agent if you’d like to know what they will have at a sale. You can subscribe to sales in your area to get email notifications and also set up a keyword search that will email you when items with “sewing” (or other keywords) are listed at a sale in your specified area. I have noticed that some local estate companies don’t list their sale on that site and will sometimes just list it on Craigslist and/or a local newspaper.
Flea Markets/Vintage Fairs
When my husband and I visit flea markets in my area, I usually don’t find sewing items that I want or need. There is one that has two sellers with fabric, but they are mostly cheap synthetic fabrics that I don’t sew with. However, we still enjoy going to flea markets occasionally and looking around as you never know if you’ll be lucky enough to stumble upon something. I have heard from many other sewists in different parts of the US (and world), that they have found amazing sewing things at flea markets, so perhaps it depends where you live….
We are fortunate to have a few awesome vintage fairs in my region and I always see sewing things somewhere at a seller’s booth at one of those events. They are often priced higher, but will probably be higher quality and nicely curated — meaning that you don’t have to sift through a box of junk to find something good.
I have found some outstanding things at yard and garage sales. I have also walked through and looked at so many sales with things that I don’t want more times than I have found things that I do want to bring home. Many people don’t list sewing items when advertising a yard/garage sale unless it’s a sewing machine, so you never know what you will find.
Don’t want to go out and search and search for things? Well, thankfully you don’t have to anymore! With sites like Etsy and eBay, you can look through thousands of listings and find exactly what you want. Downside? You have to look through thousands of listings. Yes, you likely will pay more, but with some searching by keywords, you can find what you’re looking for and know the item’s condition along with finding things that you may never run across thrifting/antiquing. Along with Etsy and eBay, there is also ShopGoodwill.com and I think Amazon also has some vintage items, although I can’t be certain.
If you’re on Facebook, check out some selling groups and you’ll find some amazing sewing things. There are local swap groups, vintage pattern groups, fabric groups, etc. A lot of sewists (including myself) are also setting up sewing detash accounts on Instagram and selling some sewing things there or on their own account. You can find some great deals and super amazing things!
Craigslist, Freecycle and LetGo also offer opportunities to find sewing stuff and you have the chance to get some great deals (or FREE!) via those sites and others like it.
I am lucky to come from a family of sewists, so both my mom and my grandma gave me all of their sewing things. My grandma was a minimalist, so she did not keep her fabrics or patterns, but she did have a lot of sewing supplies. My mom had the opposite approach to things and had all of her fabrics and patterns along with notions and gave them all to me. If family members, friends, or people in your community know that you sew, you might just find yourself the recipient of some sewing stuff. 🙂
What to look for?
I can usually find the sewing/crafting area of a thrift store by walking around. Often it’s over by the linens/blankets/towels and sometimes it will be on a back wall near personal accessories, with greeting cards/wrapping paper or close to the children’s toys. About half of the time I will walk around a thrift store a few times before coming across a little area and sometimes it’s curated and most times it’s not and thrown into a big bin or two that you’ll have to sift through. Occasionally they will have sewing/crafting items in the center area of a clothing or linen rack, so make sure to look there as well. If all else fails, ask. Often notions are bundled up in a mixed bag so you have to buy all of it, but those bags are usually very inexpensive and I find it fun to see what treasures I find inside. At an antique stores sewing things could be located anywhere, but at least you’ll have fun looking through some fantastic vintage items while you look for sewing treasures.\
What do I look for?
I sometimes go thrifting with my MIL [who also sews] and she has an eye for finding amazing fabrics. I never had the desire to go through boxes of fabric at thrift stores as I usually only saw scraps of quilting cotton and loads of fleece — neither of which I was interested in. But my MIL found some amazing cotton damask for me at a thrift store in San Francisco and a few months ago we found yards of beautiful wools (I let her take those as I did not need them). After finding those wools, I started looking at the fabrics more carefully and came upon a beautiful seersucker that I made into a peasant top and more recently found some vintage 1970’s Hawaiian fabrics. These finds have energized me into looking more carefully at the fabric bins at thrift stores as you never know what you’re going to find. At a thrift store, fabric might be in a bin labeled “fabric” or it might be mixed in with the linens. Andie has found the most amazing fabrics at thrift stores and Emily recently shared a haul of gorgeous fabrics in her Instagram stories that she found.
Antique stores sometimes have fabric, but I don’t find that to be very common in my area. A local store I stop in occasionally had some bolts of deadstock vintage mid-century barkcloth, but it was priced accordingly and not worth it to me. It definitely doesn’t stop me from looking!
Both Melissa and Michelle often find fabulous fabrics at estate sales. I haven’t happened upon an estate sale score in my area with fashion fabrics yet, but I always hope to see one! Fabric is like the Holy Grail of vintage sewing treasures to find, so I always have hope that I’ll run across some nice vintage fabrics for sale somewhere.
Like fabric at thrift stores, I used to avoid looking through the patterns. I usually just saw 80’s/90’s patterns that I thought of as “junk” and I didn’t want to bother looking through them. However, one day I thought I’d peruse the patterns and found a bunch of 50’s/60’s gems and bought them all. After that, I was hooked as I have found so many treasures since then. Some of them I keep, some I give away and some I put in my Etsy shop to share with others. You never what you’re going to find and where you’re going to find it.
At thrift stores, the patterns will usually be in the sewing/crafting area. Sometimes they are in filing cabinets, so be sure to look for one in the vicinity. At antique stores, they could be anywhere… The best vintage patterns that I’ve ever found, however, were at estates sales. It’s not often that I find patterns that are pre-1960’s, but occasionally I do find them. I often also buy patterns individually on Etsy and eBay as finding vintage patterns at around my bust size is rare.
Vintage zippers are a pretty common thing at thrift stores and I pick them up whenever I find them. I find many vintage zippers to be better than it’s modern counterparts and it’s also especially awesome to add one to a garment that you’re making from a vintage pattern. Also, in my opinion, you can never have too many zippers in your stash.
I never pass up looking through a box of vintage buttons. You never know when you’ll come across some Bakelite or amazing novelty buttons. Not only do I find them to be better made than most new buttons, but there is more variety than what you often see in fabric stores these days, especially big box stores. I love making a project and then searching through my button stash to find the perfect button to match what I’ve made. 🙂
Covered Buttons & Belts
I never pass up covered button and belt kits. Although they do still make covered button kits, its difficult to find covered buckle kits these days. I buy them whenever I see them and them to my
Trims & Lace
I don’t really come across beautiful trims and lace very often, but I did find some packages of them yesterday at a thrift store. I also came across some beautiful trims at an antique store a couple of years ago for a good price. When I’m searching for something specific, I will likely hunt for it on Etsy.
Bias/Hem Tape, Rick Rack, Piping, etc.
Vintage packages of these notions are easy enough to find, but be wary of them. The plastic on the packages can sometimes disintegrate the fabric inside and there is nothing worse than opening up a vintage mid-century bias tape and finding that it tears apart when you pull on it. However, if you see some that you like and it’s a good deal, why not buy it? If the package was stored correctly, it may just be like the day it was made.
I have found nearly all of my pressing tools at thrift stores. In fact, most of them came from one thrift store and each at different times that I stopped in and they were only a few dollars each. I recovered my sleeve board and two of my hams and that large one in front hasn’t been recovered yet. The only pressing tool that I don’t have yet is a velvet board, so maybe I will run across one of those someday. Or….just purchase on Amazon. 😉 (But where’s the fun in that? 🙂 )
It is very rare occasion when I pay full price for a book. I look everywhere for sewing books and have found them at pretty much all of the places/sites that I listed in the first part of the post. I love vintage sewing books and new ones as well. In addition to the regular spots that I shop for sewing things, I also have found many sewing books at Half Price Books. They have an ever-changing and great collection of sewing and fashion books (I also have a large collection of fashion books) for great prices. Of course, be sure to check out your local used bookstores, too!
I just found that rocking chair pincushion last week. Isn’t it cute? I just need a few replacement dowels for the the thread spool holders and then I’m going to paint it either green or yellow. You never know what you’re going to find, do you?
Things I Always Hope to Find
Someday, I’d love to happen upon a Wolf dress form. And of course, I’d want it to be cheap. 🙂 I did find one at an antique store once, but it was very expensive, so I passed. I don’t really need one. I love my Dritz adjustable form and it works well for me. But there’s always those things that you dream of and think might look nice in your house. I did find a nice professional dressform several years ago at a thrift store in San Francisco. I remember walking out with it and someone else asking me if I wanted to part with it. So, it’s definitely the luck of being the first one to get to something.
I’ve also been looking for years for a vintage pattern cabinet. You know, the cabinets from fabric stores. I almost got one from a Hancock’s when they closed, but I wasn’t quick enough on the draw. Fortunately for me, my husband’s grandfather had one in his shop which no one noticed until recently as the “Butterick Printed Patterns” is almost all scratched off of it. I am very lucky that my in-laws are going to let me have it, so it’s waiting at their house until I can bring it home. 🙂
Another thing on my wish list is a pattern counter book. Yes, another item from a fabric/department store that is difficult to find. I do sometimes see these, but they are always expensive (at least $100 and up). I did see an 80’s one in an antique store recently that I probably could have bought super cheap as it was in a pile of discarded stuff, but I wasn’t interested in it…. However, I probably should have picked it up as I could have passed it on to someone else that would like it….
I collect vintage sewing machines, and there are a few that I would definitely pick up if I found them for a good deal. I didn’t mention sewing machines on my list as they are easily attainable. There’s usually at least one at every thrift and antique store that I go to. I don’t really need another sewing machine, but if I saw a handcrank, an Elna Grasshopper or a Singer Featherweight for a good price, it would be in hands and back home in my sewing room as soon as possible.
I also love anything fashion or sewing related 1880’s-1920’s and I always hope to find some treasured books, magazines and patterns. So far, I usually purchase things like that on eBay, but I did find some 1920’s gems at a recent estate sale and at two vintage fairs, so you never know what you’re going to find. 🙂