How to shop for sewing supplies at thrift stores and rummage sales

by contributor on 22/03/2013

in Green Crafting, Guest Editors 2013

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Introducing Abby and Stacey for the month of March.

Guest editor: Abby Glassenberg :: Blog :: Twitter: @abbyglassenberg

Buttons

I’ve stocked much of my sewing studio from local thrift stores and rummage sales. Reusing materials you find secondhand is eco-friendly and usually much cheaper than buying new. Here are my best tips for a successful shopping trip to the resale shop:

1. Don’t buy thread
Thread becomes brittle over time. Old thread will fray and snap so you can’t sew with it. Because I love wooden spools I buy old thread, but just for display purposes.

2. Find the “holiday décor” section
People who organize rummage sales often stick the fabric and sewing supplies in the holiday décor section. Search for the Santa figurines and Christmas ornaments. I’ve found tons of awesome fabric shoved in bins under the holiday table.

3. Look under the table
Fabric is bulky and hard to display. It often gets shoved into garbage bags or cardboard boxes and is underneath the table at the sale. Be sure to pull the bags and bins out and have a thorough look inside.

4. Head over to the “linens” section
Large cuts of fabric are often mistaken as tablecloths and may be hanging with the linens. Old linens themselves are also awesome sources of fabric. Vintage cloth napkins, linen placements, and tablecloths make great fabrics for tote bags and all kinds of other craft projects.

5. Check for stains, weak spots, holes, and smells
Items often end up at a thrift shop for a reason. Be sure to look things over carefully. But just because something has a stain, or a moth hole, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t buy it, but do assess how much of the piece is usable before making your purchase.

6. Finish what other people start
Half completed needlework canvases, quilt squares that have been sewn but not assembled, embroidery kits that were never begun… these are all wonderful treasures! Don’t feel limited by the work that has already been done. You can disassemble or cut up what’s there and use the materials in a new way.

7. Don’t buy stuff just because it’s cheap
Having too much stuff crammed into your studio space is demoralizing. Just because fabric is cheap doesn’t mean you need to take it home with you. Evaluate your finds and try to think clearly about them. Do you need 3 yards of zebra print canvas at a $1 a yard? Maybe not (or maybe yes!).

Soft Toy Sewing Books

8. Don’t forget the books
I learned to sew stuffed animals from vintage soft toy books. Be sure to peruse the book section of any thrift store before you check out. Craft books are often shoved in with the gardening titles and cookbooks. Vintage craft books are like gems, full of crazy color combinations, antiquated language, and terrific inspiration.

9. Keep an open mind
Thrifting is a treasure hunt. If you have time, look at everything that’s for sale. Those leather gloves could be cut up and used as teddy bear paws. That skein of yarn would make awesome doll hair. And the funky fleece scarf could become an excellent elephant. Think broadly and embrace the thrill of the hunt.

Do you shop secondhand for craft supplies? If you’ve got story of a great find, we’d love to hear about it! And please share your tips for successful thrift store shopping.

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{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Nan March 22, 2013 at 8:40 am

YES! I always completely check out bedlinens at yard sales and thrift stores. Sometimes people toss out practically brand new items which make wonderful utility fabrics such as linings, comforter backs or material to “model” a pattern for more expensive fabrics (think gowns…) My scores have included a suede shower curtain (winter tote purse) and a pink & white striped 100% cotton flat sheet (summer skirt), and bags of yarn leftovers (pom-poms and plastic canvas projects). Additionally I have been most fortunate to be GIVEN unframed, yet finished, cross stitch projects at yard sales simply because I admired and obviously appreciated Mom, or Auntie’s handiwork that the current owner really doesn’t want. !

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2 Lisa March 22, 2013 at 10:38 am

I enjoyed this post, thank you! I often find vintage lace and trimmings that I use in my art (felted fish pillows – https://www.etsy.com/shop/Bloomingthorn) – often whole bags for next to nothing.

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3 Ann March 22, 2013 at 10:42 am

Great tips! I shop a lot at yard sales, especially the big church/community-wide ones that start here in the late spring (can’t wait!). I have a couple of other things too. 1. Look for notions and tools which are substantially cheaper. Don’t be intimidated if they come “packaged” with other things. If the package is priced less than the item, you can always send those other odds and ends back out to the second-hand market and keep your treasure. 2. If you don’t see a lot of fabric at a large sale, ask. Fabric really *is* confusing to categorize and sometimes the volunteers squirreled it away somewhere (once, they hadn’t even put it out because, as a nice lady told me, “we didn’t think anyone sewed anymore”). 3. Binding, bias tape, stretch lace, ribbons, etc., are worth picking up at deep discounts. They don’t take a huge amount of space in your work room and it’s great to have them on hand. Cutting and sewing your own bias tape makes a lot of sense when it’s a feature of your project, but if you’re just finishing off a child’s pant waist, it’s so much nicer to dig through your stash and find the perfect thing.

This is my favourite way to shop! Great topic!

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4 Crys March 22, 2013 at 12:42 pm

I’ve learned it never hurts to ask the employees if they have any fabric in the back. From my conversations I’ve gathered the warehouse workers hate sortig it so it just sits in a big pile in the corner. On numerous occassions they’ve let me rummage through the back room. One store I frequents even gives me a bag to fill for $2 because they are so overloaded with fabric!

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5 Angela Watts March 22, 2013 at 1:37 pm

I thrift ALOT. Both for base pieces such as onsies and shirts as well as fabric and crafting supplies. Our local Savers actually has a crafting corner where the vintage Singers and other craft supplies get sorted into bags for purchase. Lots of fantastic vintage bias tape, ricrac and lace have come from there. I keep hoping to snag some nice vintage buttons though.

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6 sian March 22, 2013 at 2:12 pm

Great post, I love how you describe it as a treasure hunt! I really enjoy rummaging around in charity/thrift shops to find craft supplies, it’s amazing what you can find!.Some of the things we’ve upcycled are on our blog buttonsandpaint.blogspot.co.uk

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7 Teri March 22, 2013 at 2:17 pm

If you are lucky enough to live in the Kansas City area, there is a great fabric/craft resale shop called Fabric Recycles. http://fabricrecycles.com They buy secondhand supplies as well as sell them. My last several projects have been made completely with items that I found at their shop!

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8 Holly March 22, 2013 at 3:07 pm

i LOVE shopping for fabric and supplies at thrift stores! i especially like looking for cashmere sweaters – they’re often really inexpensive. i like to put them in the washer/dryer and then they’re perfect for mittens or stuffed animals!

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9 Beth March 22, 2013 at 9:12 pm

I enjoyed all the ideas. I am a cardmaker and rarely buy a lot of my materials. Old flat jewelry pieces turn into decorative punch on a card. Books can be torn apart, words, phrases and pictures used. Partially used spools of ribbon can be bought for next to nothing. I have purchased nearly all of my rubber stamps at garage sales and thrift stores. I look for ads in the paper that say “crafts” or “scrapbooking”. The joy is in the hunt!

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10 Becky March 22, 2013 at 10:32 pm

Here are a few things I keep my eyes open for:
1. Long linen skirts or dresses to be cut into everyday cloth napkins
2. Suede/leather skirts to harvest for light weight suede/leather
3. Buttons that can be harvested from shirts or cardigans

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11 Donna Rae March 23, 2013 at 11:42 am

I have found great stuff at yard/rummage sales and thrift stores. Especially lot’s of buttons. You can buy an item and take off the buttons for cheaper then buying buttons at a fabric store. And the buttons on some vintage clothes are just plain awesome.

I have however read that if you put older thread in the freezer it will rejuvenate the thread. I tried it and it does work. But I think it has to be cotton thread to soak up the moister. I am not sure about that. I have only tired on cotton. I will have to find some brittle older poly or rayon thread and try it. But it does work.

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12 Carmen March 23, 2013 at 12:36 pm

Awesome tips! Thank you!

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13 Connie March 23, 2013 at 8:17 pm

Wonderful post! Another great source of fabric at thrift stores is saris. A typical sari has yards and yards of fabric and it is usually beautifully embellished.

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14 Abby Glassenberg March 23, 2013 at 10:43 pm

Thank you, everyone, for adding these terrific tips. Thread in the freezer, saris at thrift stores, asking to poke around in the back…yay! I’m ready to head out thrifting again!

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15 Kelly March 24, 2013 at 10:53 am

I volunteer one day a month at our church thrift store. I get to know the employees and they get to know me. If I am in shopping and the store is busy in receiving, I’ll step in and help out for an hour. They save fabric and craft goodies for me and I have made quilts, totes and baked goodies for them. Everybody wins and I have made some very dear friends. Another source is our older folks in church. When someone downsizes or moves to a nursing home, nobody wants to deal with “craft crap”. I have gotten to know some of the older generation and listen to stories about making diapers for the new baby brother out of feed sacks. I’m honored that they share their stories and they are glad that their treasures will be used. I have started donating what I don’t use to a woman’s shelter. I also got a family to donate a woman’s sewing machines and a lifetime of sewing notions to the same shelter. The shelter has already had women use the sewing machines. Think outside of the box and share your abundance. I’ve found more than just fabric at thrift stores.

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16 Joanna @way2gomom March 24, 2013 at 12:12 pm

Wow, awesome tips! Great article!

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17 Krystle Wainscott March 25, 2013 at 12:30 pm

I grew up going thrifting & garage sale shopping with my grandma, so the treasure hunt was instilled in me at a young age :) So of course once I got serious about crafting the first place I shopped was the thrift store. I have found for my fabric hair flowers, clothes that are stained or have a hole are perfect fabric! The store wants to get rid of it (cheap) since no one wants to wear it, & I can just cut around those parts :) Win Win!
I also like to get books that aren’t in the best shape (once again cheap or even free!) and I make paper flower wreaths out of the pages. I always try to recycle supplies before trying to buy new! If you would like to see what I’m making my shop is at: https://www.etsy.com/shop/ScrappinArt

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18 clothespin April 8, 2013 at 11:22 am

I love vintage sheets for a fabric source!

My local thrift store also has a twice a year $5/brown paper bag sale… I pile in all of the linen dresses I can find. And, there is a huge yard sale once a year in a neighboring city… the last day is also the $5/bag day… this year (without the kids) I’m going back on that day just to load up on fabric! Dresses, fabric, sheets… I can’t wait for October for that sale!

Not only is this cheaper, it’s also a lovely way to recycle… so much of my fabric stash is what I’ve been given or found at thrift stores!

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19 Nicolle April 11, 2013 at 12:17 pm

Fun topic, good info. I’ve made so many pieces of clothing out of old bed linens!! ;>

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20 Donna May 3, 2013 at 10:04 am

Don’t forget to look for those quilt tops that were never quilted. But don’t forget to check the fabric piecing to make sure it’s still in good shape.

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21 Ethel Stark August 5, 2013 at 12:01 pm

Portland Oregon has a whole store devoted to previously owned fabric, notions, linens, and yarn, etc.

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