My Thrift Store Shopping Secrets

It’s taken me a while to have enough courage to create this post. Divulging your secrets is never easy… but I believe they can benefit you too! Come along for my thrift store shopping secrets…


To start, you need to know a little about me. Even though I am an artist/maker/blogger my roots come from a history of sewing. My mother who was a milliner was always making our clothes and reupholstering our furniture. It was really a useful skill for raising a family on a budget. At age 12 I got my first machine and have always gone back to some sewing in from or another. I also grew up during a time when it was embarrassing to admit thrift store shopping. I remember as a child how some would be taunted with that classification, it was not kind.

‘Hence, I now love going to thrift stores and old vintage machines! When I go to a thrift store I always look for sewing machines! There’s nothing like the ones that are metal and are easily maintained. This green beauty Husqvarna 21E is quite a find at my local Value Village. Check out the carrying case, complete with booklet and test swatch. I was squealing with joy when I found it.

Does it work?

You may wonder if it really works, how do I know? Look for obvious signs of major rust, water damage. If there’s none you are pretty safe to assume it’s running fine. Usually the risk is about $30 and I haven’t found one yet that does not end up running perfectly. Do check for parts like bobbin casing etc… There is actually a Facebook group for this model of machine so there’s always help to be had.

Old or Antique:

As soon as I saw that bentwood case I knew there was a treasure inside! The key for the case was even marked ‘Oma’ (german for grandma) ‘how appropriate! Often these machines are donated when the elderly pass away, and they kept them so well with all the booklets etc. I feel very honoured to let the machine live out more of it’s life with me.

This beauty was somewhat stuck, not moving at all but there were no signs of rust. In that case I assume it is just that the greases have solidified. It is usually quite easy to open these machines to get to parts that need to move. Sewing machine oil and heating with a blowdryer often lets the seized parts move. I have not had a machine that needed any mechanical fixing.

This Singer is 100 years old and since there was a hole in the case it was $15! If we run out of power I am ready with my handcrank machine.

I know it is not an old machine but sergers are invaluable! This machine was an amazing find since it is a 4-thread one with a differential feed. It was such a steal at $9.99 since somehow they misplaced the foot petal. Yes, sewing machines need their power cords and foot petals but often these can be replaced. So for another $30 I got a new foot petal and this baby has been buzzing along since! Janome is a good brand of serger.

Yes I could add a few more machines (like my great metal Kenmore machines) but this was my all time favourite find! This Pfaff Hobbymatic 955 is not as old as the others but was just about as new as you could get. It came with all attachments and book, it even had the original receipt for over $800. At Value Village this was priced at $9.99! The presser foot would not lift so they figured it needed repair. Again, a bit of heat, patience and oil did the trick. She’s a ‘beaut’! ‘And makes me smile every time I use her!

Ok, ok, on with the rest of my favourite things to nab at the thrift store…

Vintage Fabrics:

For much of my ‘making’ I use fabrics of all kinds. I do however rather use what might end up in a landfill than new yardage. There’s just something thrilling about the hunt and I’m not finding a shortage of what I look for.

Wool, in the form of blankets is one treasure. Sadly Value Village is starting to price them high now that they have discovered their value, as they used to be $5. I use them for my mitten making, slipper making and even the birdhouse pods. The super large thick virgin wool blankets are often somewhat felted from washing and have such a luscious thickness for so many uses.

Wool Blankets:

The great thing is the wool blankets are usually labelled quite well too. They may have some moth damage but since I cut them up usually that is not an issue. I have even dyed and eco printed them to make a jacket so there’s no limit to what you can dream up.

Since many of the older generation sewists are passing on, their stash also ends up at thrift stores so remember to check the fabric section. Their fabrics are often much better quality than todays. I have even scored hand-woven sheeting that I know must have come from Europe – if only they could talk!

Bedding and Sheeting finds:

Look at this sheet! It is a very expensive $775.00 silk sheet! I was so thrilled since silk is the utmost of luxury and perfect for eco printing!

It may make your skin crawl to think of buying used bedding. I look at the sheeting and bedding for specific fibre content. I love to use bamboo rayon as a sewing fabric since it dyes wonderfully and is super soft. When it arrives home I immediately get to ‘scouring’ which actually strips it super clean, probably cleaner than what you’ve got right now!

Scouring for deep cleaning:

(for cellulose fibres like cotton, linen, rayon, bamboo, lyocell, hemp, plant-based fibres)

I use a large bucket of super hot water and add a teaspoon of Dawn dish detergent & a 1/2 cup of Washing Soda (sodium carbonate). Let the fabric soak at least 2 hours or even over night. (DO NOT USE washing soda on Silk or wool)

The high alkalinity of washing soda allows it to act as a solvent in removing a wide range of stains. Get ready to see a lot of yellow/dirty waterTry scouring your own sheets, . If that grosses you out, you’ll be amazed what things can keep building up in the fibre even though you think they are really clean! This also works well to get all the stuff out of new fabric…


Ya, cotton is nice but I find that it aggravates me sometimes as the various ones act so much differently. Some wrinkle like crazy, some just look cheap. and fall apart. Linen is my new obsession! Check labels on sheeting and curtains! I can’t tell you how much I love the feeling of my linen sheet! Go ahead, see how much a set of linen sheets sell for…

Linen loves water and can absorb up to 25% of its weight in moisture. It has great thermoregulation; it draws heat away from the body, keeping you cooler in the warmer months and warmer during the cold months. Linen is the second strongest fabric after the silk and is about 30% stronger than cotton. Linen is super durable and can easily last for decades. I made grocery bags from a linen curtain and they have lasted amazingly with all the slugging heavy items.

Linen also (you guessed it) eco prints great!

Leather in whatever form:

Trying to buy leather in the hide form does get expensive so I like to re-purpose garments instead. They mostly come in the form of jackets! Feel the leather with your hands, some are quite thin and some aren’t. The thinner ones can be sewn with a home sewing machine especially if it’s an old metal vintage one.

I strip the linings out and open the major seams to get the large full pieces. They are often so soft and hardly worn; the linings are usually where any soiling is. One of my favourite pastimes during the winter is sewing mittens with these up-cycled leathers and eco printed wool. It’s amazing how many pairs come from one jacket!


When browsing the jackets I also look for that elusive treasure; REAL shearling jackets! Yes, they are not that popular but once found they are a real treasure! Look at the inside to make sure it is not imitation fur bonded to leather, as true shearling is quite heavy. I have a couple waiting to become luxurious slippers or who knows what else!?

Faux Fur:

Soooo, I have a new project/venture that has been nagging my brain… It involves faux fur! That is probably since I would keep seeing such amazing faux furs that I just had to come up with a way of using it! The technology of faux furs has come a long way and I want to give it a challenge. The objects will be so unique as the furs I use to make them. I can’t wait to start but I need to tie up other loose ends first.

Unique Sweater knits:

I do not knit, it takes too long, so I look for nice sweater knits that I can use for other purposes like ‘Bernie’ mittens or even a whole sweater quilt. Hand-knit mohair sweaters are super warm and make lovely mittens. I liken it to finding art, as whoever knit them is actually an artist of sorts.

So next time you think about going to a thrift store, GO! ‘But remember my thrift store shopping secrets! I just hope most of you are not going to out-buy me in my own town.

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  1. Oh vintage Singer sewing machines have become my new obsession. I know have 3 Featherweights (one for each grand daughter) a 99K and a 185J as well as a 15-91 to restore for my oldest daughter. What a great hobby and so fun to fix up. Love it!

    1. That’s great! I have yet to find a featherweight! I do have the small Kenmore with the roses on the case! I just need more hours to play. ‘Nice to know it’s not a dying art!

  2. Thank you for this great post Barb! I sense a kindred spirit 🤗 I’ve been a thrift shopper / treasure hunter for decades too.
    Once snagged a beautiful, mint condition, cream, mink stole for $20. I love searching for interesting furniture to redo and interesting jewellery to dismantle for other projects. Some of those big glass bead necklaces make beautiful windchimes! Another favourite section I like to explore is the “world / ethnic” section (not my label) for beautifully embroidered and bejewelled fabrics, as well as the fabric and textiles section. I look at it as being environmentally responsible and creative repurposing / recycling😍
    Thank you again, for always inspiring articles and project tutorials ❣
    Deborah P

  3. Hi Barb, I have my Grandmothers pedal Singer and my Aunt gave me a 1930’s Singer Featherweight compact that got me through design school and sewed everything from leather / suede to delicate fabrics. I would not buy a new machine at all even though these two are straight stitch machines. You probably have done your research on your hand crank Singer. If not you will be surprised at what a good working machine goes for. I am glad in Canada the gouging has not started. Here in my area of New England the thrift shops, Salvation Army, Habitat for Humanity etc. Have started the practice of gouging prices which is a shame because they receive all their items for free. Some of the prices are close to newly purchased items of the same or similar kind and quality. That being said I still like to see what I can find for a decent price. As always thank you for sharing your projects and ideas. Happy New Year.

    1. I do notice that some prices have been climbing and also that it’s the supply for some peoples own shops. But, I am glad it is now considered something not to be ashamed about. I have more excitement for hunting a treasure than the mall! That hand crank machine even came with it’s original booklet and works so smooth without a sound. Happy new year!

  4. Thanks for the post, it made me smile, as I do the same thing. I have so many sewing machines that I have rescued from Thrift stores along with fabric and other tools that are useful in the crafting process, toaster ovens, portable electric ovens, warming trays, etc. I have a friend who finds all she needs for her zentangle habit at thrift stores. There are always treasures waiting to be rescued, my latest, a beautiful wool skirt that will become a handbag.

    1. I was explaining that we get addicted to things that make us feel good… wine, chocolate, whatever. Well it can also be thrifting! It’s a bit kinder on the liver and weight gain! Eventually anything can be used for creating!

  5. Barb, thank you so much for this. I feel so inspired, and validated, considering myself a 2nd hand store shopping addict that would need a 12 step program to stop hunting and gathering in these places. Bravo for you for setting such an example of recycle, reuse, repurpose! It is so important in these times that we consider this very seriously. It is the Eco-friendly, sustainable, and a financially smart thing to do. I can’t begin to count the treasures I have found which have saved me thousands of dollars had I purchased things new (not that I could really afford much of this stuff new).

    You are a terrific role model for us all!

    1. You are just too kind! I often think that this site is an homage to my mom who could ‘make a silk purse from a sow’s ear’! She taught us how to be amazingly resourceful! I’m glad we have that in common!

  6. You are very lucky, the Value Village stores around my area (Montreal / South Shore) are much more expensive: wool blanket go for 18$ (not expensive compared to the price of brand new, I know but they use to be 8$ or 9$ a year ago). And I have never seen sewing machine!! An other key to finding things at thrift stores is to visit them often!
    Question about eco printing wool: do you cut your pattern pieces before you eco print or eco print the whole blanket and they cut?? Is there a chance of shrinkage if cut before eco print??
    Thank you soooo much for sharing your knowledge

  7. I love second hand shopping, and except for the sewing machine buys I always have an eye for wool blankets and sweaters, linen and 100%cotton sheets, and shearling, which make great soles for slippers. I made all my grandchildren slippers this year with those soles. Where did you pick up the serger? It’s always great reading your posts. Thanks for all your ideas.

    1. Yes, the serger was also at a thrift store! They priced it cheap since the presser foot was seized down and I now know that some heat and oil will pretty well un-stick any part! $9.99 and I needed to buy a new foot control. It’s so much fun isn’t it?!

  8. Hi Barb,
    Does your deep clean method work on polyester clothing as well? What do you use to “scour” or deep clean your wool blankets when you get them home? I have used my wool blanket stash instead of cotton batting inside handmade quilts. Many thanks for sharing your wisdom.

    1. Yes the washing soda in hot water works on the polyester as well. The wool blankets can be washed with a wool wash or a mild soap, no soda ash! Wool is like hair so I sometimes also use a simple shampoo. I have thought of using wool inside but was worried about shrink factor. Happy making!