Trash, Transform, or Treasure: What Should I Do with My Thrifted Finds?

Taming the Habit


Every object has “potential,” just make sure that the potential isn’t in the form of vase at the edge of a table!
(Oooo…science jokessssss…)

I binge on eBay, indulge in second-hand shops, and glut myself with rescued vintage from all sorts of places. I am addicted to thrifting! Many of my purchases go directly to my costumes, others to my collections, and some I take apart to make into other things. But how do you know what to keep and what to pass over? Or what to preserve and what can be recycled into something new?


…or you could just lay it all out on the bed and let me wallow all over it. That works, too…



The first question– what to keep and what to pass over– is the easier of the two questions to answer. Clearly useful things like nice clothing that fits you, chairs or bookshelves, or craft supplies with a project immediately in mind, etc. are all practical buys if there is a need for them. However, for the longest time, I fell into the trap of buying things either because they were really nice (and I would be a fool for passing up such a good bargain), or I needed to “rescue” a sad item from being unappreciated. I ended up with a lot of really good quality items that usually didn’t fit my needs and lots of really shabby items that just weren’t usable. I could sell or gift the nice items I couldn’t use, which was fine, but many of the items beyond my help just sat around, withering away, just as sad as ever. Eventually I came to an agonizing realization: If you can’t use/repair something, don’t buy it.


I have learned that things I plan to transform are better searched for and bought as I need them. I have a serious case of the possibility bug, so I often buy things I plan to transform long before I need them, if ever. For TLC items already in my closet, I decided that if I don’t use them within a year, they need to go. Now, many items I could repair or re-purpose, like if a brooch was missing a few rhinestones I could replace them or I could turn a worn out pillowcase into a stomacher.  When I find silk or linen shirts at the local Goodwill, I will often buy them regardless of whether they fit me or not. Why? Because I can recycle the fabric from the shirt more cheaply than I can buy the fabric new, especially if I only need a bit for a bag, trims, or in this case, a coif:

Embroidered Shirt107_4250

Learn how to transform a shirt into an Elizabethan coif here!

I have lots of these shirts stored away, as well as other notions like vintage ribbon trims and buttons. These kind of things fall more into my “fabric stash” category which is a whole other project (mess) in itself!


Other items might have some damage, but still be collectable, like this Edwardian dress with a shredded skirt and loose stitching:


Despite its condition issues, this dress is mostly sound and has great character! It wasn’t very expensive either, and it filled in a gap in  my collection. A few well-placed stitches and a repaired button later, it has been shored up and stowed away.



What is suitable to reuse and what should be kept as it is? This is the harder of the two questions to answer. There is a lot of argument about how much responsibility we have as crafters, collector, and costumers alike to preserve history, and an equal amount of hoopla about proper protocol when it comes to reusing, wearing, or collecting antiques. What’s museum-worthy in one person’s eyes may appear to be a useless piece of junk to another. Collectors and crafters have been fighting over this distinction for centuries. Our ancestors were infamously crafty when it came to reusing antique materials, even if they were already 100 years old at the time:

BEFORE: Polychrome Embroidered Jacket, circa 1616


AFTER: Shoes, circa 1685-1735
These were made from an embroidered jacket (circa 1600-20) during the early part of the 18th century. Similar incidents include many 18th century silks and even whole gowns being made into new dresses during the Victorian era.

I have to admit that I float between the “save it all for posterity” and the “make everything new again” camps– I want to save every single antique that falls into my hands, but I also see the possibilities it might hold for other uses.


Generally, completed items (i.e. things in their final form, not raw materials like fabric) with only minor condition issues or that have historical or personal significance are considered strictly collectables. If you are looking to collect antiques or vintage, condition is important, but often it is highly subjective. A “cutter” to one person is a perfectly good tie/dress/quilt to anther person.

I have bought so many items from online and in antique shops that have been sold “as-is” or “for parts” that turned out to be in excellent shape besides a few minor scruffs. Not that such labels usually matter to me anyway: I can’t bear taking these things apart! Imagine how terrible it would have been if this 1890s dress had been hacked up just because the front trim is loose and there are a few breaks in the lace:

Dress Size Comparison

Even major cosmetic imperfections like stains or structural condition issues like missing sleeves (or in the case of this poor sleeve, missing everything else) can be forgiven if an item is rare enough to be historically significant. Most of the things I find, though, aren’t Roadshow worthy. My favorite Victorian piece in my collection is my 1890s fire engine red bodice. Before I found it, the beautiful silk moire ribbon from its collar and bust-line had already been removed, but I still treasure it nonetheless:


To fill in for the missing ribbon, someone glued thin polyester ribbon onto the silk. Old clothing, especially Victorian and Edwardian gowns, often has later alterations–the biggest culprit being zippers added to turn great-grandma’s dress into a Halloween costume.

The items I choose to save, even if I can see a thousand uses for if I took them apart or altered them, are usually those that are (over 65%) structurally sound and older than 75 years. It’s not a hard-and-fast criteria by any means, but one that works well for my heart and my storage situation. I’m a sucker for old things and I am also keenly aware that once-common items slowly become harder to find as time goes by. As bizarre as it seems to me, even my childhood toys have become collectors items, as have all those “hideous” 1980s blouses with huge shoulder pads and beaded fringe. Sometimes I find vintage items that I think are worth collecting rather than wearing or altering just because they have significant history, value, or beauty that I don’t want to risk ruining. Other things I keep because they are sentimental or make me invariably happy to hold.

I love jewelry!

Rings! Rings! Rings!

Age, however, isn’t an automatic excuse to impulse buy something. Just because something is old doesn’t mean it’s worth saving. If you find a beautiful 1920s dress but it is shredded to pieces (as antique silk often does), unless you are willing to restore it, it is better to save the trim pieces or pass it up entirely. It’s heartbreaking. It’s hard. It will make you feel like a terrible person. It’s better for your sanity in the end, though. Otherwise you end up surrounded by piles and boxes full of silk dust, loose beads, and garments that you can’t even touch without destroying further. That’s not healthy for you or the garment. It is better to let go.


What you do with vintage clothing is a matter of taste. Much of the younger stuff (under 75 years old) is often still wearable and many people take advantage of that to expand their wardrobe. I have clothes from the 1940s to the 1980s that I still wear. Others like to tweak older clothes for fit, like shortening a hem to “update” a dress. Hats, gloves, and other accessories lend themselves well to alterations. For example, Lauren from American Duchess transformed a vintage hat into an 1870-1880 bonnet with great success! Items are ripe for transformation if they are in need of serious repair or if you have a specific project in mind.

Vintage and antique fabrics are also wonderful for transforming into something fresh (though some may prefer to preserve older or rarer fabrics rather than use them). While my area doesn’t have much in the way of sewing or craft notions available in thrift shops, other areas do, often at great discounts. Fabric is expensive to buy off the bolt, but second-hand sheets, curtains, and tablecloths are excellent sources. Just wash them well as soon as you get them home!

Loose antique notions–for example buttons, ribbons, and lace–are fair game for transforming into something new! Antique millinery feathers and plumes are often some of the best quality available and many pieces, like beaded trim bits or old buttons, are tailor made (literally) for making an outfit shine.

Costume jewelry is also fair game, based on what you deem is appropriate for use. Don’t like wearing brooches but fall in love with one? Transform it into a pendant! Replace rhinestones, remove rhinestones, add pearl drops, solder things into a sculpture, paint over clear stones to turn them green, etc. If I find a piece of designer jewelry, I’m much less less likely to turn it into something else, but there are plenty of other pieces that benefit from a facelift!


BEFORE: 1950s Goldtone Pin


AFTER: 1590s-style Enameled Pin


I have seen lots of people recycle items that I believe should have been saved, and I have worn/transformed things that some people would be horrified to hear I didn’t leave alone. For me, it’s a fine, often agonizing, line to walk since I’m unabashedly enamored with museum science, yet equally passionate about utility and recycling. Whatever you do with your own thrifted items, however, is entirely your business. You are not required to collect items; there are plenty of museums for that. You also don’t have to rely only on authentic, period materials to make your costume creations great. What you trash, transform, or treasure is entirely up to you!

This Sucks: Cleaning an Antique Victorian Wool Dress

Wool is Hell to Clean
Cleaning the “Gabby” Dress

Wool is the most horribly impossible thing to clean because it will unfelt, especially in a modern washer. In fact, if you wash a wool coat in your washing machine, even on the delicate cycle with no soap, it will pill, felt up, and come out warped and stretched. DON’T DO IT. Wool gets exceptionally heavy when waterlogged.  The best you can hope for is a little spot cleaning or a trip to the dry cleaners. But here’s a secret: dry cleaning isn’t always so dry and gentle. For a sturdy garment that is lightly to moderately soiled, a good dry cleaner is your best friend. Seeing a 1970s beaded gown come back looking new even after you spilled shrimp alfredo sauce down the thigh is like welcoming home a lost child. There are some things, however much you love your dry cleaner, that you should never drop off (unless it is at a fabric restoration specialist). Antique wool garments are one of those things.

As I can’t seem to help myself when it comes to “sad” antiques, I purchased this dress off the ‘Bay, fully aware that this dress was going to “challenging.” The gown did not disappoint; when it arrived, it was in the saddest shape of almost any garment I have ever purchased.

The eBay pic of poor Gabby

It didn’t help that the box it arrived in was completely smashed in!

The state of the “Gabby” Dress:

Somewhere in it’s 100+ year life, it had not only been robbed of its buttons, but also of its nutritional value. Nutritional value? Well, if you are a small rodent or a moth, wool can be quite tasty. This dress must have made an excellent Thanksgiving feast because both the plaid fabric and sleeve had been gnawed right through in fist-sized chunks!

Originally, this dress was no ball gown. It was a utilitarian winter dress for a lower-middle class lady with long legs and a short torso. The lining is the gem of the set. It’s brilliant mauve and was probably originally even brighter. I’ve always wanted a sample of mauvine-esque material, so it was quite a treat to peek under the army-brown wool and find this flash of purple– in great shape to boot! The wool outside is structurally sound, save for those insect chomps.The waistband is shredded like cheese and cannot bear the skirt’s weight anymore. The plaid overlay, a woven plaid, was badly fuzzed and pilled. It was of mid-quality to begin with and probably had begun to fuzz up even during its first lifetime. It’s edged with wonderfully soft, good quality velvet ribbon in perfect condition along the points.

All of these fabrics require special care and are notoriously risky to clean yourself, but it can be done, even on a dress this crazy-bad! This method requires no water and no soap. It won’t clean set-in stains or exceptionally dirty pieces, but if you find a wool garment suffering from common storage conditions like mustiness, dust, stiffness, and set-in folds, this method can help perk it back up!

Step 1:
Lay out the garment as flat as possible on a clean surface.

I vacuumed the rug before laying out the skirt. You can see how huge it is: it fills the room!

Step 2:
Use an upholstry attachment, crevice attachment, or hand-held vacuum to gently suck up deep-set dust and grime.

When I was 5, I thought the vacuum was the Devil. How wrong I was! Don’t fear the vacuum. It’s a quick, museum-approved way to clean garments with surface dirt. It’s much easier to do this with a hand-held machine, but all I have right now is my giant K-Mart vacuum, which worked great once I removed the long tube and attached the upholstery brush. Use the “carpet” setting instead of the “floor” setting. Pull the vacuum slowly along the weave of the fabric, applying as little pressure as possible. If you can adjust the suction power of your machine, choose a low setting. Even over the rattiest of holes, the vacuum was gentle enough not to fray them further and it was magic to watch the fabric re-fluff and come away looking slightly lighter and brighter. The velvet especially benefited from the suction power!

The bodice was more difficult to vacuum just because of all the different shapes.  I just used my knee and hands to shape it as I went, getting into all the nooks under the capelet and underarms, but putting it on a mannequin might make it easier to maneuver around. DON’T vacuum a skirt hanging on a mannequin, though! It will stress the waist band and pull the fabric.

Optional Step:
Lint roller the heck out of the thing!

I have one black cat, one white cat, and one brown cat, guaranteeing me a mat of cat hair all over everything, no matter how much I vacuum. You can roller your piece after vacuuming or after the next step, airing it out, before storing it.

Step 3:
Air it out.

I was fortunate enough to catch a rare calm day to hang this poor old outfit out for a touch of fresh air. Since sunlight damages colored fabrics, I hung it in the shade of the apricot tree. Hang the skirt from the side, not the top or bottom. If the piece has gaping holes like this one, make sure the prominent ones are looped over the top so they aren’t being pulled by the weight. The bodice is hung from the bottom, like any delicate blouse. Hanging shirts by the shoulders just adds to the years of gravity pulling them downwards already.

I let this dress air for a full 24 hours: 8 on the outside line and the rest under the protective covering of the porch (it is possible for birds to poo on your fresh laundry, so don’t leave things out unattended for too long).

Optional Step:

I didn’t need to iron this piece because the folds had all hung out on the line, but for stubborn wrinkles and folds, use one setting below the “wool” setting on your hand iron to smooth everything out.

The “dry cleaning” vacuum method I’ve given here allows me to safely store the Gabby dress in a clean, proper place, carefully rolled up in climate-controlled storage– safe from water, mice, moths, and the postal service! It also works on other fabrics and dresses and is super handy for touching up a dress after walking around at an event all day. A little fabric care can save you from heartache and trouble down the road!

There is no denying that the Gabsters is in a much happier state of being than before. It’s not a miracle transformation, but subtle. I liken it to taking a shower after a long day: it’s not a drastic change–I don’t magically turn into Sophia Loren–but I look and feel much better.

There are still the holes everywhere in the dress to contend with, many of them in awkward places, but I’ve already begun piecing over them while strengthening the original fabric underneath. The waistband will need interfacing and some serious stitch work, and the bodice needs 10 new buttons, which I’d like to be contemporary to the rest of the dress if possible. It’s going be to be a lot of tedious, but enjoyable work.