Handmaker's Factory

Thrifty Inspiration

I know people who have been scarred for life by wearing their siblings’ hand-me-downs. The mere thought of going into a thrift store for anything more than a Halloween costume makes them break out into a rash. I have just the opposite reaction. I see possibilities. I see raw materials, inspiration and knowledge.

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Raw Materials

If you want to make cookie cutter projects, you can go into any major chain craft supply store and pay retail prices for mass produced materials. Sometimes you pay more for the supplies than you would buying the finished product. Of course, you wouldn't have the joy of actually making it, so if you are going to put in the time and effort, why not truly make it unique? And save money? And help the environment?

I designed and produced a whole line of bags using thrifted materials. Leather skirts became bottoms, handles and appliqués, I reused zippers for pockets and buttons became embellishments. The hardware (chain, D rings) for the bags came from belts. I mixed patterns from other skirts for the body of the bag. (We’ll deal with the leftovers in a future post.) When you don’t have to worry about size/fit or gender, it all becomes raw materials.

Using thrifted materials means working with limited quantities – of fabric, yarn, etc. - making each piece unique. Creativity thrives under such constraints and I take a 'MacGyver' approach to design. If you’re not familiar with it, MacGyver was a T.V. show where the main character solved problems using everyday materials he had on hand. In design, that means being resourceful by using what’s available. Sometimes the solution comes from using an item in an unexpected way. For example, I checked retail sources for handles and hardware for my bags. The cost, however, was prohibitive unless I bought in bulk. So I asked the question “How can I make the strap that's cost-effective, sturdy and complements my design?” A unique, elegant and inexpensive solution emerged when I found chain belts.

It’s a good idea to know retail prices when shopping. I stay away from the 'designer' racks that offer new (as in still has the tags on it) or popular brand name items because they are marked up more than other merchandise. Just because it’s at a thrift store doesn't mean it’s the best value. I always check the men’s sweaters. I rarely spend more
than $5 (U.S.) for a sweater’s worth of 100% wool yarn (once I unravel it). You can’t buy a skein of wool for that much.


When my creativity is drying up or I'm hungry for new ideas, I hit the thrift store. The advantage is that merchandise changes daily and it isn't limited to current styles. Inspiration can come from illustrations in a children’s book, the combination of colors used in a scarf or the stitch pattern of a cardigan. Ignore the sea of t-shirts and check out blouses, jackets or dresses for interesting details such as unusual closures, pockets or even embellishments. Depending on my mood or project, I may look for specifics, like neckline or cuff options or I’ll take a general approach and scan the racks until something captures my attention.

Inspiration can also come from the shape or silhouette of a garment by breaking it down into its individual pattern pieces. Does it have princess lines? Is the bodice divided up in an unusual manner? Is it soft and flowy or fitted? How is the fit achieved? Darts? Gathering? What kind of sleeve is used – raglan, set in, dolman? This leads to further questions that stimulate even more ideas. What if you combined the yoke pattern from that shirt with the unusual closure on that jacket?

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Thrift Store University

Perhaps the most overlooked use of a thrift store is the wealth of garment construction knowledge it contains. If you want to learn how to sew, examine how a garment’s made. Want to know more about tailoring? Buy a tailored jacket and take it apart. What is that lining covering up? How was the lining put in? How were the pockets sewn? What type of material was used to give the garment structure and stability? What order do you think it was sewn? Was it cut on grain?Ask a lot of questions, they facilitate learning and then examine the garment to find the answers. Ask yourself why you think they did it this way. You’ll get an incredible education for the cost of few garments.

Walking into a thrift store is the ultimate treasure hunt and you never know what you will discover. The best advice I can give is this – keep an open mind and you will be amazed at what you’ll find.

Lynn Burdick is a designer, author and Kaizen Muse Creativity Coach who loves the thrill of the (thrift store) hunt. When she isn't playing with yarn/fabric or helping others follow their bliss, she can be found jogging, cooking, drawing, reading, dreaming of her own garden or plotting her next adventure. You can learn more about her at www.LynnBurdick.com.

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