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!

A Brief Plot Summary of My Thesis: The Ephemeral Museum

There and Gone

Postcard, circa 1968 (eBay)

Postcard, circa 1968
This postcard was found on eBay. The auction for it ended on Dec 11, 2012 10:45:59 PST, so by the time you see this, it will be gone or the auction page relocated to a new url. This link will survive for 90 days before it will be deleted from the eBay servers.

The most comprehensive museum in the world is not the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Louvre or any other brick and mortar complex. That glory goes to the Internet: the most comprehensive museum of human culture ever devised. You can “google” for almost any information, artifact, or opinion and receive informational responses in minutes. Images uploaded onto now-dead websites can be “dug up” with a few easy-to-learn computer tricks and “preserved” on multiple computers belonging to a wide range of folks around the globe. Of all the websites archiving information, the best artifact database system in the world is the plethora of auction/storefront websites like eBay, Etsy, and Ruby Lane. These sites are ever-changing and chock full of amazing artifacts in their rawest forms. Here is an exceptionally small sampling of iconic historical items found on these sites gleaned from only the one hour’s worth of browsing:

Embroidered Waistcoat, circa 1770-90 (Etsy)

Embroidered Waistcoat, circa 1770-90 (Etsy)

Black Dot Paste Buckle, circa 1780-1800 (eBay UK)

Memorial Ring for Elizabeth Cox, circa 1818 (Etsy)

Silk Jacket, circa 1866-73 (Ebay)

Silk Day Dress, circa 1869-1874 (Ebay)

Straw Bonnet with Silk Ribbons, circa 1875-1885 (Etsy)

Silk Velvet Dinner Dress, circa 1880 (Ebay)

Leather Lattice Button Boots, circa 1860-1870 (Etsy)

Mythological Shell Cameo, 19th to early 20th century (Ruby Lane)

Wedding Dress and Photo, circa 1920 (Etsy)

Leather Peep-Toe Heels, circa 1940 (Etsy)

Halter Dress with Bow, circa 1955-60 (Etsy)

Mini Dress, circa 1960 (Ebay)

Wedding Dress, circa 1960 (Etsy)

1970s shoes

Platform Shoes, circa 1970 (Etsy)

All of these item photos are linked to their current listings, but in 90 days, the eBay listing links will become defunct while Etsy listings may last for a year or more even after the item sells. How long Ruby Lane listings last is dependent upon the individual sellers.

With such a wealth of human culture changing hands in the span of a 3 day auction, these websites have become the most ephemeral museum in existence. Every trip through the thousands of pages yields a fresh exhibit crammed with items that are often untouched by the restorer’s hand and newly discovered after years of lying in a trunk, forgotten. Unlike a physical museum that keeps objects for years–carefully archived and cared for–an item in the “museum of the internet” can disappear from the public view faster than you can say “Buy it now!” The sales pages and images may vanish after only a few days, leaving nothing but residual code and memories of an amazing item that is now, once again, out of reach.


There are a few wonderful websites that are dedicated to preserving the information found on the internet. One of these precious few is Isabella’s “All the Pretty Dresses,” which archives exemplary examples of antique clothing found on internet sales websites.  No doubt you’ve come across a fair share of “Golly, I wish I had the money to buy and save that dress!” listings in your lifetime or even watched an item only to find that it ended an hour ago, before you could get a bid in. Hopefully the gowns themselves went to caring bidders, but what about the information?

Embroidered Button, circa 1740-1780 or 1860-1890 (Etsy)
“It’s taken me a lot of research, this beastie! Though replications are still made by hobbyists today and there was a resurgence of this style as a hobby in the early 1900s, the fact that this one has a wood mould (bone was used after the late 18th century) and is rather large, I’m concluding it is from the mid 1700s or earlier.” – faginsdaughter, Etsy seller

The information, you see, is just as valuable as the artifact itself. The goal of a museum shouldn’t be to squirrel away expensive artifacts so that no one can see or study them. The goal of a museum is quite the opposite: to educate, save, and preserve so that cultural items can be shared with posterity. Collecting and archiving isn’t about owning the the item; it’s about sharing the knowledge contained in the item. With so many rare and wonderful artifacts passing through our servers each day, as history lovers, museum workers, or caring hobbyists, aren’t we responsible for the preservation of such knowledge no matter where we find it?

Mother of Pearl Buttons in Box, circa 1880-1910 (Ruby Lane) 

Combing through such a large swathe of internet for relevant artifacts is a huge task that would take a coordinated team of people to complete. There’s a massive amount of raw data to process. How do you decide what’s worthy of archiving? I am an obsessive history hoarder and would want to archive as much as possible, but even a “real” museum has parameters to follow when it comes to collecting. Not every twisted old Victorian boot or 1950s bow-covered prom dress needs to be meticulously archived, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore such items all together. Designers and name brands are important, but exceptions and common goods are important, too.

International Flags Windbreaker, circa 1985-95 (Ebay)

An all-too-common 1980s windbreaker jacket in hideous colors may not seem worthwhile to us because many of us have clear memories of wearing them, but what about our children? I was born too late to witness the Gunne Sax trend of the 1970s first hand, but my mother remembers coveting one in a store window.  Yet, as time passes, fewer and fewer Gunne Sax dresses will survive.

Maxi Dress, circa 1970-80 (Etsy)

Imagine that disappearance factor multiplied for 1950s cat-eye glasses (now 60 years old), or 1920s beaded collars (80 years), or 1890s watch fobs (120 years). Every generation sees our contemporary common goods become scarcer until that item becomes a mysterious object from a bygone era.

Bobbin Winder/Thread Holder with Pincushion, circa 1870-1930 (Ruby Lane)

Thousands of these cultural items are passing through our internet portals each day. We’re generating tons of archival information. If only we could document it all!