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How to thrift and all the fabrics you'll want to avoid

Photography by Tracey Creed
Words by Tracey Creed

Published October 6 2019

Being an avid re-user, I think thrift stores, thrifting helps to address some of the fundamental issues which plague the fashion industry. For meaningful change to occur, action needs to happen at our level. We all engage with the industry and to make more informed decisions; we need to understand better the costs of making clothes — both financially and ethically. There are so many options available for people looking to have less of a negative impact when they buy clothing. Thrifting is one such approach. What I find enduring regarding the culture behind vintage and second-hand is that the focus is more about fabric quality and design — not the brand or logo. It is more about focusing on long-lasting items that are relevant, regardless of trends. It is about knowing yourself, your style well enough to buy something that compliments your personal uniform, something you will actually wear. For a long time. Then that decision becomes more of a question of how that item will serve you. And so, I share some advice on what fabrics and qualities to look for when thrifting.

Where possible, avoid synthetic fabrics

Synthetics are the fabrics you’ll want to avoid when thrifting — buying clothing in general. Synthetics include fabrics such as rayon, polyester, acrylic, acetate and nylon. This article goes into more detail regarding the dangers of synthetic fibres. Microfibres released into aquatic and terrestrial habitats through washing synthetic garments account for most microfibers entering the environment. Once you learn how destructive, polluting the fashion industry is to our environment, to people I think that becomes a huge motivator to shift how you consume. For me, reading "Wardrobe Crisis. How We Went from Sunday Best to Fast Fashion", provided a much broader context for understanding the extent of the issues. Another interesting read is Killer Clothes. While I am not a purist — I still have several garments which I have had for several years made from blends of synthetic and natural fibres. For more current purchases I opt for 100% natural fibres which are at the end of their useful life, recyclable and biodegradable.

General tips for acquiring thrifted clothing

Assess your closet

I would advise everyone to look at your wardrobes and comb out the pieces which you love. Examining those which garments have held up well for you, and which haven’t and you’ll start to gain an appreciation for quality manufacturing. Consider the frequency of wear, seasonal rotation and laundry habits. I find this approach can be instructive.

Seek out quality vintage and manufacturers stores

Handling higher-quality clothing, you’ll be able to recognise those same cloth qualities when making future purchases. Fabrics should feel substantial. That said, the fabric doesn’t necessarily need to be heavy to be good. If fibres are tightly packed but thin, the cloth can still be lightweight. What you’re looking for is density. Generally speaking, vintage (pre-1970s) garments tend to be well manufactured, and the differences between such pieces and fast fashion is an obvious one. Alternatively, visit stores you know to construct quality garments or request showroom visits.

Garment construction

It’s equally important to check the seams holding the garment together. In second-hand garments, you’ll also pick up on any minor repairs which may be required. Stitching should be even, closely spaced, and lying flat. You’ll also want to assess the inside of the garment. If seams are uneven, appear loose or have layers of overlocking, seams may separate, or fabric could tear away from the stitching entirely. These garments are best avoided. In higher-quality garments rather than overlocking, seams are taped, and in such garments, you will not see any raw fabric. Check also for loose threads around buttonholes and any missing buttons, and these are easily replaced. You would have at this stage noticed holes or seams in need of repair. The later of which requires less skill.


Loved clothes last, so if you have found that coat or pair of pants — a gap you’ve been looking to fill in your wardrobe or a garment that you know will compliment your personal uniform buy it and repair it. If you are comfortable with hand stitching, you can make minor repairs such as replacing buttons or repairing seams. If the original owner had invested in their purchase, higher quality garments tend to come with spare buttons sewn onto their care label. For more complex work such as replacing zippers search for a local tailor. And generally speaking, stains on second-hand garments are more than likely irreversible. Assess staining on a case by case basis.

Where possible opt for natural fibres which are less impactful

Cotton An everyday fabric, cotton is exceptionally soft and relatively easy to care for when compared to other natural fibres. It’s also the most affordable. To determine quality in a second-hand cotton garment, in particular, look at the overall garment shape. Pilling is also indicative of poor quality fibre. Misshapen cotton pieces are also characteristic of poor quality cotton. Seek out substantial cotton garments, the more fibre, the more likely it’s going to last longer.

Wool Garments made from wool are, I think, practical long-term investments. Wool is biodegradable, and if cared for correctly, wool pieces will last a lifetime. When purchasing second-hand wool garments, there are obvious signs of wear to look for, holes, excessive pilling or shrinkage. And as with cotton, check if the garment is misshapen. Quality wool garments when stretched will return to their original shape, if not they’ll continue to lose their shape. If you have ever accidentally washed a wool sweater in hot water or placed one in a clothes dryer, you will be familiar with shrinkage which creates a more solid appearance. In a second-hand item, if the garment fits correctly, wearing a shrunken garment is perfectly acceptable. Felted or boiled wools are achieved through fibre shrinkage. Wool, any wool whether that be lambswool, merino, alpaca or cashmere, requires hand washing and will continue to soften over time.

Silk Ownership of silk garments requires continual investment in professional dry cleaning. If you are prepared over the garments’ lifetime to spend many times over the cost of the garment in laundering — quality silk is beautiful to wear. You’ll want to look for any visible signs of wear and or lack of care. Silk is absorbent, and any perspiration will result in fabric rippling and discolouration. With silk, you will also be looking for thickness and draping qualities. Quality silk is heavy, and high-quality silk shouldn't allow undergarments to show through. If possible, hold silk garments up to the light. Ideally, you should not see clearly the outline of your hand through the material, indicative of a more durable silk garment.

Linen Although authentic flax linen has a low GSM — grams per square metre, the fibre itself is noted for its sturdiness and durability. And as such, gently worn linen pieces should not show noticeable signs of wear and tear. Linen garments become softer with laundering producing beautiful, natural creases throughout the fabric. You should also look for ‘slubs’, tiny raised imperfections throughout the weave. Slubs are naturally-occurring — part of linen’s organic appeal and are the mark of high quality, authentic fabric. Machine-made linen manufacture from polyester is identified through the absence of slubs.

My wardrobe consists of pieces that I have had for a long time, hand me downs and items purchased second-hand from eBay or thrift shops. Ethics aside, there is a certain quality and uniqueness inherent to thrifting. In particular with vintage and here I am referring to items which are at least twenty years old. Some of my favourite pieces of clothing once belonged to my partners’ father. I could never identify with purchasing clothing produced in mass, only to look like everyone else. I would far rather invest in well constructed, cared for second-hand items than poorly made clothing acquired from a chain store. When purchasing something new, I always research the brand first and would encourage you to do the same. I want to understand their sourcing philosophy and manufacturing processes — to seek and support transparent brands creating a more sustainable and responsible industry.

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