My rules for shopping at thrift stores (or, how to prevent being buried in craft clutter)

Like many upcyclers, I love searching thrift stores for one-of-a-kind treasures and vintage discards. I never know what I'll find, a sharp contrast to chain stores where everything is the same (direct from China). And I can tell myself I'm not consuming, but recycling. The low low prices are icing on the cake.

Of course, there's a dark side -- accumulating so many treasures that I spend all my time organizing, not creating. I, like many others, suffer from this disease, which I'll call "Ed Wood-itis". 
Plan 9 from Outer Space
Image from Wikipedia
Ed Wood was a mid-century filmmaker who was famous for producing extremely bad movies. Movies so bad, they're fun to watch. He did this because, ironically, he loved movies too much. He loved every frame of every film he shot and every outtake or B roll he could get his hands on (he may have been an early cinematic "upcylcler" or maybe "downcycler"). He also was willing to cast almost anyone in his films. This lack of discernment gave us Plan 9 from Outer Space.

When I go shopping, "Ed Wood itis" drives me to look at the saddest maxi skirt or most over-loved board game and think, "boy, this would make something cool!" Yesterday, in the midst of such a spell, I came upon an idea for a cure -- rules I could follow when deciding what to buy and what to pass by.

One blogger who has mastered the rules of thrift store shopping is Mandi at Vintage Revivals ( Before buying something she asks herself 8 questions to avoid buyer's remorse. I kept these in mind yesterday while I trolled the aisles of my local St. Vinnie's. In search of a skirt or dress that could supply fabric for ipad sleeves, I let my fingers do the "looking." They found two wooly plaids, one nubbly knit, and a retro checkboard pattern. Should I buy them all? They met most of Mandi's criteria -- good quality, fair price, nice condition. But I'm trying to buy less! Obviously, I needed more rules.
plaid skirt
Feels luxurious, but is it me?
I remembered the advice from another blogger, this time about branding. April Starr, who writes The Flourishing Abode blog (, suggests coming up with a tag line that incorporates a few core adjectives describing the "brand" you want your blog to have. What if I tried doing the same thing with the materials I was looking for (and ultimately, the creations I choose to sell)?

My words (actually, word pairs) would be:
  • nostalgic/retro (50s-60s-70s era)
  • mod/cool (appeals to 20-30 somethings)
  • humor, whimsy (makes me smile)

So if something catches my eye and I'm wondering whether to buy it, I ask if it's any of those things. Er, maybe 2 out of 3. I tested this rule on the items I'd picked up. The plaid skirts were nice, but not retro or cool -- so back on the rack. The nubbly knit was kind of retro, but more matronly than cool, so back it went as well. Finally, I was left with the checkerboard. I was about to throw it into my cart when I double-checked the label -- dry clean only. Oh, no you don't.

Armed with my new "magic" words, I took another lap through the racks. Two new pieces caught my eyes. See what you think:
paisley shirt
Not your grandma's paisley
Indian inspired print
I'd call this print "Vishnu"
I say they are both "retro" and "cool." (My husband disagrees about the second one, but so what.)

My new rules led me to choose the materials best for my "brand," and to avoid bringing home nice pieces that just aren't "me." The next step is to go through my stash and cull out the items that don't fit my criteria.

For example:
Retro? yes!
Cool? yes!
Whimsy? yes!

Retro? yes!
Cool? maybe
Whimsy? nope

Retro? no
Cool? no
Whimsy? no

If you need help pinpointing your own rules, check out April's tips on branding here..