Reader Request: Easy Thrift Alterations

how to repair thrift store clothes

A few weeks ago, Gladys asked me this:

Have you or do you embellish your own thrift store or items in your closet to change them or make them more “current”? Would you mind showing us some of your tips?

When Husband Mike and I bought our house, we were SO EXCITED because it didn’t need any major repairs or cosmetic alterations. It was just what we wanted, as-is. When I shop, I generally buy an item if it’s just what I want, as-is, too. But thrifting does offer a wealth of almost-perfect options and, if you have an eye for embellishment and the right skill set, you can transform trash to treasure quickly and easily.

Here are some of the quick-fixes that I’ve used to customize my thrifted finds:

Shorten skirts or dresses

I’ve only hemmed my own once – thanks to Trinknitty‘s patient tutelage and steadfast sewing machine – but found it to be fairly simple, and a great way to give dowdy garments new zing. A dress made from gorgeous silk in a lush print that hits you mid-calf is updated instantly when hemmed to knee-length. Here’s a great tutorial on the basics of hemming.

Replace buttons

Love the fabric, fit, and cut but hate the buttons? Or love the whole design, but just want to add a little more personality? Swap out boring buttons for colors, shapes, or sparkles. Simple, quick, and cheap.

Add a belt

Not a bad idea to go thrifting WEARING a belt so that formless items can be better gauged for cinching potential. If you like to accentuate your waist, you’ll need to learn how to spot garments that might work belted: Anything that already nips in a bit at the waist or has some princess seaming is generally a good bet. It’s truly amazing how a flowy, tentlike shirt or dress can suddenly become chic and sleek with the addition of a defined waistline.

The belt that you wear while shopping is unlikely to be your final belt choice, but it’ll give you the general idea. Once you get home, try your actual belts, but also scarves, ribbon, even super long necklaces with your purchase until you land on the right garment-belt combo.

Hem/shorten pants

Unless you’re a fairly skilled sewist – or just want to hack some jeans into cutoffs and don’t care about fringing – this is an alteration that requires the aid of a tailor. But should you unearth well-made, classic pants that are merely too long, it’ll be well worth the additional $20 to get them reconfigured.

Add iron-ons, buttons, or other embellishments

Even the craft-impaired can print out a kicky graphic, stick it on a bright tee, and iron. You can buy iron-on paper that’ll go right through your computer’s printer, so it couldn’t be easier. (Please stick to your own original designs and photos, text messages or slogans, creative commons, or clip art.) Sewing a few colorful buttons onto the collar of a shirt or the lapel of a blazer adds a spunky, funky touch. And should you be in possession of a bedazzler, well, you know what to do.


How fun to pick up a $4 dress in a hideous shade, dunk it in a bucket of colored water, and end up with a fantastic new frock? Most pale to medium tones will take a dye, and many pale to medium STAINS can be covered up by a decent, fairly dark dye job. Rit makes home dyeing a total snap, and the Rit website has some great tips for easy fabric dyeing techniques.

Image courtesy Nessa Land.

Originally posted 2009-02-04 07:15:00.

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20 Responses to “Reader Request: Easy Thrift Alterations”

  1. Couture Allure Vintage Fashion

    Great ideas, Sal. I will make one comment on dyeing, though. Keep in mind that polyester will not take dye. Polyester fibers are colored while in their liquid state before being formed into thread or yarn. Dyeing is a good option for cotton and silk. Rayon is worth a shot, but rayon fibers become unstable in hot water, and the garment could shrink. But if you’ve only got a few dollars invested, why not give it a try?

  2. drwende

    You can sometimes prevent or reverse rayon shrinkage by taking the wet garment, getting a good grip, and pulling hard to stretch it. Use caution! This can also lead to permanent rips, but when it works, it works well.

    RIT + white cotton shirts from the thrift store = magic.

  3. lopi

    There are no thrift or second-hand shops in Greece, but I’m still interested in the matter, as I regularly beg relatives and friends for cast-offs that I can re-fashion.

    I think it all comes down to what one is capable and willing to do. Some people actually enjoy diving into a difficult DIY modification, while others get freaked out even at the thought of re-attaching a button. And even if one likes a challenge, the tools (like a sewing machine) are also a big factor. You may know how to sew, but are you willing to spend 1 hour or more hemming a circle skirt all by hand?

    Rational thinking at the time of the buy is crucial. Stand back and think “I am really going to spend two hours of my precious time working on this piece of clothing? Is it worth it?”. Most of the time you won’t and it doesn’t. But, if you believe the opposite, I have many stories of success on similar situations. Bless you, a LOT more are still on my modification waiting list.

  4. Sharon Rose

    Hi there-With me, I’m better off thrifting than doing alterations. I’ve had an Ossie Clark dress for over a year now, unworn, because I can’t alter it myself or find a decent seamstress. I even took my sewing machine out of the loft and put it in my bedroom, but still haven’t done it!!

  5. budgetchic

    Love to do all the things listed in your article. I don’t do this as much as I use too.

    I don’t thrift anymore, but I definitely have to hem or shorten any shirts I buy because of my short waistline. I occasionally change buttons and every blue moon add trim to a jacket or shirt to give it more of a wow factor or make it look like it cost more then it did. Thats a great way of personalized a store bought item that a lot of other people may have.

  6. First Lady of MADE

    these are great tips! i’m glad that i came across your blog 🙂

  7. kittyscreations

    This is a great review. And I agree that, for those with no or moderate sewing skills, taking something to a tailor is a great option. They really can work magic.

  8. ambika

    I have to say, unless you have a stash of buttons or another insane resoure (like antique shops in Walla Walla) replacing buttons is *not* cheap. I've done it many times for coats, shirts & dresses and, for something like a coat, which can have as many as 8 buttons, you can find yourself spending as much money on the buttons as you do on the coat (this has happened to me twice actually.) Of course, it's really worth it if you got a deal on the coat but just something to keep in mind.

    Also, being 5'1 means hemming is 2nd nature! It really is the best sewing skill to learn.

  9. Sal

    Totally true, Ambika. I have eternal access to my mom’s massive collection of buttons, so I THINK of button swapping as cheap … but if you have to buy new, it can be pricey!

  10. izzyinwonderland

    loved the tips! it’s really nice to just recycle something and then instantaneously have a new something lol

  11. enc

    I’ll take my things to the tailor if I need to, but occasionally, I can do things myself. Simple things. Like replacing buttons.

  12. Marie

    I love remaking and altering things, but I’m a perfectionist so I can lose motivation…my to-do pile is huge! My two favorite remakes were both thrifted. One was a huge housedress that I made into a cute skirt. The other was a frumpy polka dotted dress from the 80’s that I drastically altered, and I love it.

  13. Missa

    Ah, wonderful tips! So true about the belts too. Thanks for the link to the hemming tutorial, I’ll be needing that soon!

  14. fleur_delicious

    I actually just posted a recon on my blog, a blouse that I’d received in a clothing swap. I like it much better now.

    also, if you really want that dye to work, ditch the RIT and hit up your local art or craft store and find yourself some procion and a bag of soda ash. Results are incredible; I’m so sold on this stuff. Costs a bit more, but not too much more – not if you’re going to be dyeing a lot, that is.

  15. Beata

    When I thrift, I also look for items which I can rip apart to get bits and pieces for altering OTHER pieces I buy… If you want buttons to replace on a coat, look for a cheap coat with buttons you like. These items can be really cheap because it doesn’t matter if the item itself is ripped, stained or whatever. I find this cheaper than buying these things new!

    Great blog by the way!