I buy from thrift stores not to augment my wardrobe but out of familial necessity.* That is, we can afford some stuff new but we could not come near clothing all four of us in entirety that way. There’s a matter of how often I want to have to buy things, too, because the “new” we can afford is often something that will need to be replaced soon. I’d rather spend one hour hunting through a good thrift store than commit to repetitive trips to buy from Walmart, Target, or Old Navy (the retailers in our price point) for two reasons: one, I buy used when it is no loss of quality to do so, to lessen the environmental impact of consumerism and production, and two, I can often find longer-lasting items than anything otherwise affordable.
Outfitting oneself in clothes when there isn’t enough to make it easy is a bit of an art. Clothes can be very cheap at some retailers (competition with sweatshops is one reason my sewing skills aren’t instantly a major source of income) but there is often a risk of poor construction, poor performance, or poor longevity – or all the above. Case in point: last winter I bought a coat from Ross – originally marked $130 but showily price-slashed to $49 (this coat, but fat-size). Upon my purchase I was pretty happy to have a “warm” coat but as it’s turned out, even though there is wool content the coat is not very warm at all; it’s also showing rather threadbare only a year later. In contrast, the Pendleton wool I bought Ralph a dozen years ago (when I was working as an engineer), even through his very rough and frequent usage, looks almost brand-new and performs wonderfully.
Why not just “save up” and buy the good stuff? Yeah, right. When it comes to clothing and a single and/or limited income, the curation of well-made items is quite tricky or impossible when at any minute several members of the family have needs. For example, recently during a period of clothing deprivation – I was down to two shabby bras, a pair of too-small jeans and a pair of torn jeans for pants, Ralph needed pants and socks and the kids needed socks and underwear – I purchased Nels’ current sock supply from Walmart. They’ve not lasted six months, but it was all I could do. I remember a few years ago buying the kids higher quality socks which lasted years. There’s some fancy economics term for short-term buying out of necessity, but it escapes me.
In recent months I’ve had even more interest in self-educating regarding fabric and clothing construction. I’ve also observed after years and years of purchasing or making clothing, mending it (or not), and passing it along (or not), that the clothes I make are almost uniformly much longer-lasting than anything I’ve purchased new. If you include the wear they receive by both my children then the wear they receive in other homes they are a good investment indeed. Not that I particularly need to justify my deeply-loved craft, but it feels good to know I’ve got something you can’t buy just anywhere. And most importantly to me at least, it feels like the mystery of Well Made is something Knowable and Workable. This is exciting for me.
I am painfully aware that people in my own community, and certainly the larger world, lack for clothing. I remember a snowy bus day a couple years ago when I was rather shocked at what everyone else on the bus was wearing – soggy cold jeans with holes in the knees, many layers of polyfill coats, and cheap or bedraggled footwear while I sat in my waterproof Keens with homeknit balaclava pulled low. In other words, “making do” means different things to many people, and in describing our process and our clothing I don’t mean to pull my mouth down about it; we are certainly in a position of ease and privilege when compared to many.
Today at Thrift City I purchased the following: for Phoenix, an Italian merino sweater, a cotton zip-hoodie, pair of striped slacks, and a pair of dragon-screenprinted Converse sneakers (seriously. Is there anything better-designed for my girl?); for Nels, two t-shirts and a Patagonia shirt that will be sacrificed for a homesewn Christmas present (shh!); for myself, four t-shirts, a pair of jeans, a pair of Ralph Lauren 100% wool trousers, and a 100% wool blazer.
I brought all of this for a little under $40. The converse, Patagonia shirt, three of my t-shirts, and striped slacks were all brand new; the rest were in excellent condition. The coat is a particular thrill for me – yes, it’s a bit “old man” in style (OK, like 100%), but if good clothes are hard to find they are very hard to find if you’re a lady of a certain height (not me) or larger than about a size 10 (I’m a 14/16). This coat buttons across my chest and is light and tailored and toasty warm. It shows signs of well-made as well: the undercollar is understiched at collar seam and handstitched at neckline and the expertly-applied satin tag reads: Daniel’s Department Store Inc. Moscow Idaho. The wool trousers, too, fit perfectly and are delightfully wool-itchy. The two seriously winter-savvy garments were about ten dollars together and I certainly couldn’t have sewn them for less (and it would have taken me hours). I’m looking forward to a lot more comfort out in the cold and wind.
In sewing news I’m currently planning some more projects to perhaps display in a maybe-fiber arts show at the Guild. I’m mostly a garment-maker and pattern-follower, so stretching a bit to find my artistic voice is exciting indeed. I’m currently working on a super-warm bunting and fashioning the shell on my old Singer, my trusty vintage machine that makes the best buttonholes and sews more pleasingly than any I’ve worked on. Both my sewing machines were gifts as well; it occurs to me one of my most treasured and loved occupations is a community effort; I owe so much of my craft and inspiration and materials to friends and family who’ve helped me along the way.
So far, my craft of garment-sewing and my job (among many) of clothing a family has truly been a blessed and humbling experience.
* Argh… this reminds me of an incident in Thrift City not that long ago. A couple very well-heeled hipster young ladies breezing through the store and looking for vintage frocks, talking loudly. I was admiring their style when one of them dropped one of the pieces of clothing they were thumbing through and either didn’t notice or didn’t care; my son Nels ran over and picked up the item and tried to hand it back to her. “EXCUSE ME,” she honked at him, clearly irritated he was “in her way” but not at all seeing what he was trying to do. She irritably moved a few inches away, continued to ignore him, and said, “Go back to your mom” without even looking up. Fuck! I wish I didn’t have this memory of Asshattery etched into my mind! Someone send me a link of something egregiously charming or silly so I can wash my brain out.
In my quest to pay down my debt, I am finding more and more ways to “make do” that actually make me happier than buying something I sort of want but won’t really wear. Lucky for me, the second hand store in town has one other woman client who is apparently six feet tall and size 16 with size 11 shoes. Because the woman that owns the store calls me everytime this mystery woman drops stuff off.
Oh, I just love things like that. Back in PT when the kids were littler there was a lot of swapping and hand-me-downs going on and it was a real joy. Oddly the hand-me-down stream dries up (as do interesting and rugged children’s clothing patterns!) after about age four or so. Hmm!
I have a couple friends who meet that physical description!
Oh, and I’d like to say again I admire you for moving on the debt and writing about it too. In my experience debt-paying can be incredibly demoralizing and (weirdly) lonely, even tho’ we know so many other USians are in the same boat! Good on you.