Thursday, July 14, 2011

What are Snake Eyes?

Many people struggle finding quality clothing at thrift stores. Five 10-foot racks packed with dresses can be a bit overwhelming. I witness at least one person painfully thumbing these racks item by item upon every visit. This is not necessary.

Develop a keen sense of Snake Eyes and those racks aren’t intimidating or time consuming. Stroll along them and items worth considering practically fly off the rack, like a pie in the face. It’s that obvious.

I thought this post would be an easy, quick write. But, it wasn’t. Thrift store Snake Eyes is a state of being. Like the unspoken rules of a family, it’s hard to document with an accompanying manual.

No, Snake Eyes isn't a cult. However, the hold American conventional retail culture has on many of us is rather cult-like. Snake Eyes is more of a meditation.

Snake Eyes quickly directs a person to their style preferences, quality and condition. Ah ha! Maybe poetry is more appropriate for explaining Snake Eyes because hitting the mark with prose is difficult.

Only in the thrift store
Snakes Eyes is NOT possible in the conventional retail world. All the items, (i.e. skirts, pants, etc.) must be on one rack for direct comparison. Think about the department store. It’s organized by brand and within that brand prefabricated ensembles are the key to section organization. All this might be great to boost the average sale, but it intentionally messes with a shopper’s concentration. That’s not nice.

Personal Style
Before you begin, consider style preferences. You have them, right?
  • What color families flatter your hair, eyes, skin? Note this is not, “What is your favorite color.” Big difference.
  • What styles do you like that don’t like you? We all face that annoyance, round hole with square peg.
  • What types of fabric do you prefer? I tend to stick with organic fibers avoiding rayon, acrylic, polyester, nylons, etc. Sometimes there is a compromise with a blend.
  • Solids or prints? If prints, what styles? Paisley? Floral?
  • What types of tops do you prefer? Most thrift stores sort by tanks, short sleeve t-shirts, long-sleeve t-shirts, short sleeve blouses, long sleeve blouses, athletic tops, etc. This directs you to the right racks to avoid the department store maze featuring tanks in twenty different sections.
  • Long, mid-length or short skirts? Fitted or elastic waist?
Knowing your style is important. It’s a giant metaphor. Think about it.

There are more considerations when determining style. One thing is certain; style is in the eye of the beholder. Please don't fall prey to those nasty trends. Trends are, by nature, designed to fail. Why buy in to something like that? When tempted, I want you to remember a recent event that nearly gave us Fashion PTSD: the attempted comeback of the stirrup pant. [Shivers.]

Modern Mommy did a post on the basic foundations of a wardrobe. Have them.

It is critical to know your current clothing inventory. Instead of a closet, I have a wardrobe. The clothes hanging in the wardrobe fit the season. I’ve no doubt my wardrobe is significantly smaller than the average American's. However, knowing inventory helps bolster your diversity of clothing. How many Americans have huge closets and end up wearing the same three ensembles ad nasuem? Makes no sense and loses cents. Plus, if you’re buying to your tastes and not trends, the odds increase you’ll wear what you purchase.

Once there is familiarity with style begin with an initial fly over the racks. When something striking your style comes into view, quickly look at the fabric to gauge its quality. If it is quality, pull the item for the next step, inspecting condition.

The thrift store often offers consumers an unusual choice. Quality and crap can be the same price. Oddly enough, when offered something of high quality for the same price as crap, some people buy the crap. Sorry to write so cheeky but this is testimony to the dumbing down of the American consumer. Follows are some off the cuff thoughts on quality.
  • T-shirt fabric: How is the color holding in the material? Is it the fabric pilled or soft? What is the weight of the fabric? Take Hannah Andersson children’s clothing. Excellent fabric. Items can be washed hundreds of times with little fading or compromise to fabric integrity.
  • Cotton and blends: Again, how is the color holding and what is the fabric weight? I prefer fabric with a high thread count. It’s soft, durable and has a nice sheen. Today I pulled a beautiful dress by Garnet Hill from the girl’s section based on its sheen. Unfortunately, it was the wrong size.
  • Sweaters: To me, knitted items are cake. Hundreds of sweaters can be eliminated just because so many manufacturers use a cheap yarn. This is a no-brainer. It’s also wise to learn to recognize hand knit items, pronto. 

Most thrift stores inspect and sort clothing before wheeling it out on the racks. To learn more about this, I spent a day volunteering at the sorting tables at Goodwill. The sorters inspect clothing for stains, rips and stuff that is just not going to sell. Items that don’t make the sales floor cut are sold in huge lots at low prices to buyers often purchasing for charities in third world nations. (I’ll have to write some day about that experience. I pulled a strand of pearls out of a huge bin among other eye-popping items, in just a few hours of volunteering. It was quite an operation.)

When inspecting condition, the construction this is a telling sign of quality. How is the stitching? Is it lined? Turn the item inside out, learn it.

Also look at signs of wear. Some quality thrift store garments might need extra attention (i.e. missing a sash, easily replaced with a scarf or ribbon, a button, etc.). If wool, look for moth eaten holes. Simple things like this. The reality? Shoppers should do the same for conventional retail purchases. I’ve bought many a new item only to discover it has serious defects.

If the item passes inspection, in the cart it goes and on to the dressing room.

Making the decision to purchase
Once fit is determined, a few more questions need to be asked. Is the item dry clean? Want to keep a dry clean item? You have two options: 1) Pony up for the cost, 2) Test the item at home to see if it is hand washable, many “dry-clean” items are. But when you pay $250 for something labeled as such, who wants to risk a hand wash test? When the cost is $3.49 and you love the item, eh maybe a hand wash test is not such a bad option. A funny sidenote on hand washing: When my hand washing experiments fail, Little Pie scores because the item is now her size.

Another very cool thing about shopping thrift, you know how the item washes. Ever bought a new sweater, followed the instructions on washing and have it pill after the first wash? Oh is that annoying and just plain wrong.

The final question is, “Will I really wear this?” On the fence? Consider passing it up. A thrift store guru passes on steals upon every visit. Experience over time teaches you that possibilities in thrift stores never cease. You don’t have to buy that cashmere sweater for $4.99 with the retail tags of $250 still dangling from it. Why? Another will come around. Really.

Reviewing the steps
Let’s trim this down. The basic steps are:
  1. Know your personal style, what you like and what is flattering.
  2. Look for quality as you walk aside the racks. When spotted and it matches your personal taste, pull that item before someone else does!
  3. Inspect the item’s construction and wear.
  4. Try it on.
  5. Consider price and potential dry cleaning fees.
  6. Ask yourself the final question, “Will I really wear this?” If the answer is “Heck yeah!” then you’ve just scored big at the thrift store.
I realize this might be more of a living document in an attempt to explain this thrift store phenomenon. Thoughts on this will continue to pop up now that this is percolating on the backburner. Best to stop now before this becomes a tome.

If you have Snake Eyes, please help by adding notes in the comments. Or if you prefer, write some Snake Eyes poetry in the comments. Haiku is always fast; remember the formula, five-seven-five.


Elizabeth said...

I first enjoyed shopping at a local thrift store (the Red White & Blue store in South Pgh) when my oldest was a week over due. Found a Baby Dior outfit that I loved for $0.45 and I was hooked!

It took me a few years to learn to pass things up. I didn't realize that I could nearly ALWAYS find Little Tikes for pennies until I had way too much at home. Now I toss any likely items into my cart and then sort from "I love it!" to "meh" along the length of my cart before check out (and hanger removal). Putting things back is easy because the stores I shop are organized by category and color.

Other than staying on budget and looking for items that I know family members need, my personal rule is to ask "Would I be really sorry if I didn't buy this? Would I think of coming back to see if it's still here?" That helps me to decide what makes the final cut (I actually have come back for a few items in the past.)

As for the things that I think I want, but decide I can live without, my cell phone is my friend. I take a picture or two and then if the item's still on my mind after I leave the store, I check to see what it goes with or ask a friend or family member's opinion. I've been much happier with my purchases since I've started asking those questions, and much likelier to wear (and enjoy) what I buy.

I've earned the right to buy a whole new wardrobe by losing 40 lbs and I'm so much happier with what I've bought at thrifts (and ebay with the same mindset & flinch point including shipping costs) than what I used to buy at the mall for 75% off sales! I get so many compliments and I'm happy to share my favorite shops and strategies with friends. Keep spreading the word about thrifting!

Jana Miller said...

Excellent post...I think it's hard to pass things up when you first start thrifting and then you realize just how many great deals are out there. I've been thrifting for close to a year now regularly but I boys aren't that into it.

My teen sons and I hit up Buffalo Exchange today. They had a great time. Goodwill by us doesn't have great guys clothes so they were happy to find a new store to visit.

ox Jana

Daisy said...

I shopped for professional clothes (jackets, specifically) last week. We didn't thrift, but we went to three second-hand stores that sell on consignment or buy outright. I found several great jackets and one vest. Only one says Dry Clean Only, and I think I can hand-wash it. In fact, I posted pictures on Compost Happens on Friday!

Daisy said... If you're interested. :)

Anonymous said...

great post! check out my "pro thrift tips" post on my blog for some additional 'snake-eye" type of tips :)

- jeanette

Shopping Golightly said...


Cute finds! I bought an Anthro blouse for $2.50 this weekend - it was a Dry Clean Only and came out the gentle cycle just peaches.

I’ve been pondering a Gardening Golightly sister blog, My Partial Shade Life. It’s pretty astonishing how much biomass I’ve packed in to our city yard: seven trees for the partial shade life, countless hedges/shrubs, a vegetable garden, pond with frogs, four berry patches, loads of beds with old world herbs. All this mostly in the theme of a woodland garden suffering in the hot sun at 5,280’ on a high plain dessert. I figure if you can’t live in the woods, bring them to you. Laughed the other day when I noticed one of my gardens was packed with Valerian, Comfrey and Fever Few – must have been in need of sedation when I planted them years ago.

Ally said...

I love that you call it "snake eyes"! I disagree a little bit with the thumbing through racks item-by-item. I spend about 80% of my thrifting time going through clothing item-by-item and usually, the best things that I find are things that were tucked away or hidden where I wouldn't have found them if I did a walk-by.

For me, though, cobalt is the color that catches my eye and I have found items I LOVE in a last minute "let's just look at this because it's a pretty color" moment :)

Thanks for your great tips!

Jess said...

The hard part is passing things up, but just because it's such a great deal, doesn't mean anything. Love your advice. More people need to read that post. Very useful, especially if you're a new thrift shopper.
My sister and I are trying to start a blog to give people who might want to try thrift stores some advice and glimpses of the types of things they could find. More people should discover the wonders to be found at these stores.
Thanks for your execellent post!
Jess :)

Anna said...

For years I would be frustrated that it would cost me more to dry clean a thrifted item than to purchase it! I still tend to stay away from dry-clean only items, unless they're totally fabulous, because they're so expensive to maintain.

But I have a great tip for the rest of you.

For laundering all those lovely thrifted cashmere and hand-knitted sweaters I always use Eucalan. No agitation, no rinsing. Super easy and super good for the fibers. My friend is a knitter and she told me that other detergents, even gentle ones like Woolite will cause wool fibers to fade and become brittle over time. Now I feel empowered to wash all my wools as often as I want.