Archive for the ‘January’ Category

January post-mortem

January 31, 2009

So how am I feeling at the end of month one?  Pretty good, to be honest.  It wasn’t nearly as hard to buy nothing new as I expected.  Granted, I did have that one slip up due to a combination of unusual circumstances, not planning ahead well enough, and general unwillingness to put myself through the torturous experience of shopping for pants.  But I didn’t feel constrained this month, as though trapped in some bubble world where I could watch the rest of society move about normally in realms I could not access.

Did I miss shopping?  I cannot lie, occasionally I thought of all the money I could save on stuff I don’t even need.  But life has been very full this month.  Instead of dumping hours into online sites or wading through stores I cooked.  Read.  Wrote.  Caught up with friends.  Began jogging again.  Sent some letters, actual handwritten notes on stationery I’ve had since middle school.  Found an internship opportunity.  Started a collaborative photography project with friends.

I like this version of my life.  It’s closer to the lifestyle I’d like to lead.  It’s also more balanced.  Towards the end of last semester I grew increasingly dependent on shopping and sewing to balance the stress of school.  Remove shopping from the equation, and other hobbies flourish.  Without the material distractions that create an external definition of self, I’ve been able to focus on internal recalibration.  This is not a radical departure from the Jessica of 2008 but rather a distillation process.  Remove the dead wood to let half-hidden gems shine through.  2009 is about chipping away at the soil around those half-hidden gems, buffing them, learning to work them seamlessly into daily life.

A balanced approach to life means spreading the self-worth eggs into multiple baskets.  It means identifying with multiple parts of my personality.  Just as a three-legged chair is more stable than a two-legged chair, the more identities we create for ourselves the more stable our self-identity becomes.  Baker, crafter, student, friend, runner, photographer, daughter, volunteer, and yes, maybe even writer.

Balance is especially helpful in a society that places so much stock in careers to define who we are.  In my case, this means my identity defined by measures of student success (Grades!  Classes!  Collaborations with professors!), and, by extension, my post-graduation plans.  To solely define myself along these lines, particularly when I’m just acclimating to this program and have quite woolly plans at best, is to throw open the door and invite in self-doubt, anxiety, and depression with wide open arms, particularly if I kick sanity out the door as well and compare myself to my fellow students, an impressive lot to say the least.

Classes start Monday.  I’m excited.  It’s going to be a good semester.  I’m also excited for a new challenge in February.  January accomplished everything it was supposed to accomplish.  I’m ready for more.


Even more shopping parables to demonstrate the value of improvisation

January 28, 2009

A couple days before the end of 2008 I was standing in line at Joann’s, a crafts and fabric store, waiting to get some fabric cut.  A woman ahead of me had bolts and bolts of trims spilling out of her arms.  When she reached the front of the line she proceeded to drop them all on the table with a triumphant, “Half a yard of each, please!”  As the clerk busied herself, the woman held up the lengths of lace to the light, inspecting them, mental calculations evident on her face.

“What are you making?”  It is the standard question to ask at the cutting table.  This time, though, everybody in line was curious to hear the answer.

She laughed.  “My daughter loves Abercrombie & Fitch.  They have these $30 tank tops with lace on them.  I told her, ‘No … you can have the $8 tank tops instead’,” she gestured to the trim that the clerk was busy measuring, ingredients for tank tops at one third the price.

I admire her approach.  Then again, I’m the one standing behind her in a fabric store, so maybe I’m inclined to admire her approach.  Still, with the recent decline in the economy, I’ve read all sorts of reports of parents who must cut back on teenager’s spending money, how tween stores are not faring as well as they used to; doomsday articles foretelling the psychological damage economic uncertainty will inflict upon impressionable young teenagers, articles fretting about the best way to broach the topic of money with children.  After working with children and teenagers for two and a half years now, I’d argue that our children and teenagers are a lot more resilient than we give them credit for.  Challenge them and they will rise to the occasion.  Parents, put your foot down.

It won’t create a sense of deprivation.  This woman is teaching her daughter the value of a dollar, and demonstrating creativity, improvisation.  She could have brought her daughter along to match trim to tank tops to involve her in the process.  Even without that, she’s showing her daughter that she doesn’t have to stay loyal to a certain expensive retail brand.  She can create her own look.

The thing about dressing to one company is that you’re no longer just buying clothes.  You’re buying an image.  In some ways this is easier; you can achieve instant cool with “the A&F look” or “the Gap look.”  Some careerwomen I know like the cache that comes along with certain expensive suit retailers, and shop accordingly.  In the impressionable teenage years, though, when spending habits are often set, it is dangerous to blindly fall into the trap of brand loyalty.  It is expensive.  You’re not creating your own style, your stamp on what you like and how you view things.

Even more benefits of buying used

January 26, 2009

The last time I took it upon myself to buy nothing new I was in the process of moving from my parent’s place to an apartment to be closer to work, and I decided, in the spirit of the challenge, that I would only furnish my apartment secondhand. January is far from yard sale season but luckily Craigslist still dredged up a couple moving sales, and I spent an entire Saturday driving up and down the peninsula in search of something, anything to help me set up camp in an unfurnished 10’ by 12’ room.

I was looking for dressers, a desk, bed tables.  I found a small bookshelf and a TV stand instead.  Nothing else was the right price (cheap), the right size (small enough to fit in the back of an Accord), or the right weight (light enough to be manhandled by one person).  Along the way I happened upon an estate sale where most items were out of my price range, but discovered a really great antique-reproduction lamp that I picked up as an impulse purchase.  “Ah, lighting,” I thought.  “That could be useful.”  Total spent that day: $34.

I packed up a couple weeks’ worth of clothing and bedding, borrowed a folding card table, folding chair, floor lamp and foam futon pad from my parents, squeezed the TV stand into the backseat and the bookshelf into the trunk, placed the thrifted lamp as my prized possession in the front seat, and drove off into the heart of San Francisco.

I laugh whenever I think of those first few months in the apartment.  I was living in a drafty converted dining room, folding up the futon during the day for a place to sit.  My clothes were stored in the bookshelf, my crafting supplies in the TV stand; my shoes lined the fireplace and my laptop sat atop a rickety table that was barely large enough to hold the computer.  I stuck books on the ledge in the fireplace, placed photo frames on top of the fireplace.

It was good as a temporary solution, but lacked that feeling of “home” to really settle in.  I still had piles of clutter on the floor that had no permanent storage place.  The card table made it difficult to craft or write, activities I usually used to decompress from work.  A natural homebody, this forced me to spend more time socializing with friends to relieve the stress of work, and as a result grew much closer to new friends than I otherwise would have.  This period of time also illustrated the importance of home as sanctuary in my life.  It was a trade off, but taught me valuable life lessons.

Still.  It was livable.  I hadn’t broken my vow to furnish the apartment second hand.  In May I bought a couple pieces of furniture off my brother’s graduating college friends, picked up more lamps, took the card table home and brought up my sewing machine instead.  I nailed hooks into the walls to hang up clothes and purses.  I borrowed a bookshelf from my brother to eliminate the final piles of clutter on the ground.  My room saw every furniture rearrangement possible.  And so, through improvisation, thrifting, scrounging and borrowing, the entire apartment was furnished secondhand, albeit in stages.

As I learned in furnishing my apartment, the used market can successfully fill your needs.  It requires advance planning, improvisation, patience, and the ability to “get by” as you sift through what’s available to suit your needs.  Part of the fun of thrifting is the thrill of the treasure hunt – you never know what you’ll find, like when I stumbled upon a matching pair to the abovementioned reproduction lamp while looking for a desk.  The flip side of the coin is that it can be quite difficult to find an exact piece of item at any one given moment in time.  This is where it helps to put the word out to family, as it was my brother who eventually tracked down not one but two desks for me (it worked for me to have a writing desk and a crafting desk, and then I really had little space for anything else).

In return, you gain as much from the end results – fuller wallet, helping the environment, providing loose change to the former owner or supporting the charities that benefit from thrift shops – as you do from the process.  Thrifting is not just a treasure hunt but also fosters creativity through improvisation, the ability to look at old materials in new ways.  And whose career hasn’t required that same skill?  Parenting, keeping the magic alive in relationships, handling life’s day-to-day problems, managing a household all benefit from this outlook.  I carry these lessons with me every time I move to a new place, in crafting, in finding new ways to bring friends together.  The benefits of buying used, as with so many other aspects of wellness, carry over into all aspects of life, and continually pop up in surprising places.

Creative ways to trim the budget: your monthly TV bill

January 24, 2009

In the spirit of improvisation, here’s a cheap source of entertainment: an analog television set.  With the upcoming conversion to digital television slated for next month, there are bound to be more and more analog televisions popping on the used market. A cheap analog television paired with a government coupon for a converter box costs no more than several trips to the movie theater.  Better yet, the television is an investment that continually provides entertainment, as opposed to a pair of movie tickets that are only good for 2-3 hour’s worth of entertainment.

I’m generally not a fan of television.  It’s too easy for television to become the default form of entertainment.  Then it goes from entertainment to filler and becomes the path of least resistance to fill the nights and weekends, rather than spending the time engaged in other activities that actively engage us with the world.

Even though I advocate for a television-free lifestyle, I admit television offers some excellent programming and educational shows.  It provides fodder for small talk or weekly viewing parties with friends.  I myself have a couple guilty pleasure shows, including anything on the Food Network and Project Runway for the seamstress in me, but only the first twenty minutes of actual garment making.  I could live without the snarky comments and drawn-out elimination.  I’ve only seen a handful of Food Network and Project Runway episodes at my ex-boyfriend’s place, because my parents, to this day, have nothing more than basic television channels, and I have never owned a television.

One step beyond cheap is free, and this, too, is a growing possibility as more and more television networks stream episodes from their websites.  The advantage of this approach is it forces viewers to consciously choose the shows most attractive to them instead of defaulting to mediocre shows because they are available and convenient.  Online programming can also be adjusted to busy schedules.  Another free option is to rent an entire season’s worth of episodes from your local library, assuming they have own your show of interest.

Before you write this off as completely ludicrous or entirely too inconvenient, ask yourself: how much do you spend on cable or satellite TV each month?  $30?  $60?  $30 every month is almost $400 every year, and that doesn’t include the cost of going out to movies with friends.  Are you getting $400 worth of entertainment out of your television, and what else could you do with $400?  Of all the shows you get, how many do you genuinely love and are they available via another source?  Even if you must cobble together a combination of online streaming, basic TV for the news and sports coverage, borrowing DVDs from friends and purchasing one or two seasons on your own, that’s still cheaper than your current annual television costs.  So axe those shows that bring middling pleasure, turn off the tube, and go celebrate the extra change sitting in your bank account.

The psychology of shopping: how to avoid the slippery slope

January 24, 2009

As I mentioned in my last post, I had to break my January challenge to buy a pair of dress pants.  This confession has a Part II, though.  While I was there, I was severely tempted by a knee-length gray wool coat.

I’ve wanted a knee-length wool coat since high school.  It’s been nearly a decade and I’ve never found one that fit, but this one did.  Bodice, sleeve length, hips, knee length – it fit like a glove, flattered my body, had some fantastic detailing, and best of all, was on sale.

Ooooooh.  I hate it when this happens.  You walk into a store looking for one thing and come out with another.  Worse yet, you come out with several others, none of which are the item you initially sought.

I stood there in the dressing room, staring at the best-fitting pair of pants, which paled in comparison to this fantastic coat, and wanted to hit myself over the head.  In fact, I spent more time staring at the coat than at the pants.  I kept rationalizing to myself “Do you know how long you’ve looked for something like this?” “When’s the next time you’ll find something that fits so well?  You’ve been looking for ages!” “You’ll use this enough to justify the price tag!”

That’s the catch.  I don’t need the coat.  Here in the Northeastern United States, it is far more practical to use a waterproof down jacket in winter than a wool coat that soaks up sleet and snow and is weighed down by wet.  The potential times I may need a long coat for formal occasions are few and far between.  I can get by with what I have now, and it will be years before I may come to a place in life where I’ll need a more formal winter coat.  In the meantime it will just sit in my closet taking up space and inspiring guilt every time I see it.

It was with great regret that I returned it to the rack, and meekly headed to the cashier with one pair of pants in hand.

Advocates of the pantry principle first introduced by Amy Dacyzyn in The Tightwad’s Gazette recommend stockpiling necessary food items as they go on sale, rather than purchasing food items as the need arises.  This allows you to take full advantage of sale prices to supply food needs, and decreases time wasted on “emergency” trips to the store to pick up an essential (like that pair of dress pants).

The difference between the pantry principle and a “closet principle” is that our food needs and clothing needs are different.  We have to eat every single day, and the food we consume is not reusable.  Though we must dress ourselves daily, our clothing is reusable.  This difference is the ability to identify necessities.  I can only guess when, if ever, I will need a formal long wool coat.  Given my current thinking about post-graduation plans, the odds are it will be a long time away, if ever.  On the other hand, I am darn certain that next week I will still need to eat 21 meals.  Stockpiling makes sense when future needs are easily extrapolated.  This is what separates the immense practicality of the pantry principle from the dubious wishful thinking of the nonexistent “closet principle” that I made up for the purpose of comparison.

This also points to a subtle point about consumer psychology that I think I first read about in Predictably Irrational.  The decision that has the greatest sway over how much we spend is whether we commit to making a purchase.  Notice this is not the decision over what to buy or where to buy it.  The single factor that holds the largest influence over whether we choose to pick up four sweaters from Target is deciding to buy that very first sweater.   Once we commit to the first purchase we surpass a mental threshold, which creates lowered resistance to making the second, third, and fourth purchase.

I’ve certainly found this to be true.  It took the greatest internal debate to commit to the initial purchase (in fact, this is why it was a night-before-the-flight shopping expedition, and not an afternoon-before-the-flight expedition – I spend a lot of time coming to this decision).  Once I had decided I would purchase a pair of pants it was much less difficult to cave in to just try on the coat, and then to bring it into the dressing room, and then to come up with all sorts of reasons to let myself purchase it in addition to the pants.

This is yet another reason to remain firmly resolved to stay out of stores when attempting to consume less.  In addition to eliminating temptation, it lowers the likelihood of surpassing that threshold of commitment to the very first purchase and thus the subsequent purchases that sneak their way into the shopping cart.

Short-term vs. Long-term decision making

January 22, 2009

I have a confession to make. I broke my January challenge and bought a pair of dress pants.

Let me explain. My January travel was for a winter session course involving a gaggle of grad students collaborating with several federal agencies. As a student working with mid-level and senior members of federal, state or local agencies, it is critical to be as professional as possible. This includes wardrobe considerations.

None of the jobs I have ever held have required formal outfits. They haven’t even required business casual because it didn’t fit with the culture of the organizations. There was no interview for a Masters program. As a result, I have very few formal occasion outfits, and the few that I have tend to be a stretch and not properly formal.

Thus, after the first week of the program I could tell I was going to have to step it up a notch to just keep pace with the rest of my classmates. I mean, I still don’t have a suit, but at least I have a decent pair of pants now.

I did plan ahead by purchasing some items during the Thanksgiving and Christmas sales. I scoured the pants racks of several thrift shops, something I never do. I admit, though, that I hate finding pants, particularly dress pants, and through the years I’ve constantly put that one off and mentally prayed that the khakis I have on hand would be sufficient for the occasions that present themselves. Pants rarely fit well (hence various techniques to tweak them), and I’ve never invested enough time in shopping to find the one brand or style that I can passably wear. Frankly, the thought of spending an entire weekend hitting up every single store with business formal clothing is not appealing to me. Hence the procrastination that has stretched out for years.

Which is why, when I was standing in the dressing room in my last-ditch attempts to find something, anything passable, I kept screwing up my face in the mirroring and mumbling, “I HATE pants. Hate, hate, hate.” Unfortunately Ohio in January is too cold to wear anything besides pants, so I was trapped into a purchase that, realistically, will only help in the long run, if only to avoid further night-before-my-flight excursions to the shopping mall to find myself screwing up my face in the mirror, growing desperate and angry over the lack of any decent prospects.

As much as it hurt to falter in my January challenge, I made the conscious decision to do so for two reasons. One, I was running out of time, and when you need something in a hurry, thrift shops and eBay generally don’t cut it. Two, it is more important to maintain a professional appearance than to maintain the sanctity of the challenge. These will be my supervisors and colleagues once I graduate from this program. This January challenge is but one piece of a larger, yearlong challenge to myself.

Although the best life lessons are the ones learned from handling the consequences of our mistakes, in this instance the consequences would have farther-reaching consequences for my career and the relationships built during these two weeks. That is very different from living with a smelly sponge for a month (I was only joking, though it didn’t hurt that I was gone for two weeks in January). Either way, in the future you can be sure I won’t cut it that close in the future. The choice to break the challenge was a matter of balancing priorities, but I don’t anticipate any other big emergencies coming up for the rest of the month. Furthermore, I am already reaping the gains that the challenge intended to produce.

More on that in my next post.

Lessons from the Great Depression

January 19, 2009

As we prepare for the historic inauguration of our 44th president, another moment from history weighs heavily on the minds of many Americans.  Although few predict a downturn whose magnitude rivals that of the Great Depression, there exists great uncertainty over just how much deeper the crisis will plunge before it bottoms out.  The Great Depression saw unemployment rates of 1 in 3, the demise of numerous businesses small and large, economic scarcity.  It was a time of frugality and thrift, imparting lessons the generation of the 30’s carried with them for the rest of their lives.

Today’s young people are several generations removed from the lessons of the Great Depression.  We’ve never experienced a major economic downturn, never known what it means to be thrifty or frugal.  Growing up, “thrift” and “frugality” were negative terms associated with poverty or with being a cheapskate.  The cultural landscape had changed much in the intervening decades, and we missed out on the lessons from our grandparents so that even if we thought we knew what “frugality” meant, it meant nothing to us compared to it they meant to those borne in times of true economic hardship.  I may willingly cut back on dinners out with friends and beef up my cooking repertoire to save money, but how can that compare to my grandmother at twelve in wartime China, shelling peanuts to support herself, her mother and her cousin?

Many of the tips that helped our grandparents survive the depression are strikingly relevant today.  In fact, they are universally relevant, in both prosperity and in malaise.  And so, as I anticipate tomorrow’s inauguration I take a moment to reflect on some of these universal principles.

Spend less than you earn.  It may seem so basic it isn’t worth mentioning, but with the average American household in roughly $8,000 of credit card debt, as a nation we haven’t been doing very well with this.  The glut of cheap credit in the past two decades has certainly contributed to the rise in living beyond our means, but so too has a shift away from savings and buying on credit.  The concept of saving up for a major purchase seems almost foreign in the current cultural landscape; so much easier to just put it on plastic and worry about it later.

The difference, though, is that putting it on plastic means racking up 20% or more interest, which creates a snowball effect of debt.  Down the road as the interest from the initial debt causes the debt to grow faster and faster, mounting debt payments mean even less money left over to cover basic necessities, let alone emergencies or other major purchases.  Thus even as the original debt accumulates interest, we are forced to take on even more debt to cover daily needs.

Saving up for major purchases solves this problem of snowballing credit debt.  It also creates a cooling off period that tempers the impulse purchase, allows us to search for a true bargain, and avoids buyers remorse.  Without this, we have become an instant gratification culture, and one that pays through the nose for the privilege of instant gratification at that.

Some argue that credit card debt has become necessary to deal with the great economic pressures on the middle class.  Car payments, school loans, personal computers, iPods, fancy cell phones and cable TV deals … never before has the definition of “middle class” included so many material possessions.  Items once deemed luxuries became inflated to necessities, and we’ve had to work harder than ever to spin our hamster wheels and stay afloat.  Yet this, too, is symptomatic of an entire nation that has lived beyond its means, if the material definition of “middle class” is truly beyond the reach of those it is supposed to encompass.

Part of the scope of this problem lies in larger societal forces that are invested in the creation and propagation of a nation of consumers.  Part of the solution lies in individuals taking a stance to living within our means, as generations before us once did.  To paraphrase my dad (a quote worthy source if I ever saw one), the difference between spending $1 less than you earn and $1 more than you earn is peace of mind.

Improvisation. Growing up, my favorite books included the Little House on the Prairie series, in part due to the descriptions of the household items built by hand.  These days when we need something we go out and buy it; in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s time and through the first half of the 20th Century, the first instinct to fill a need was to make an item or to improvise a solution.  Creativity comes not just from artists, musicians, or the “go to idea guy” at work; the word “create” lies at the root of “creativity.”  To create is to stimulate both hemispheres of the mind, to improvise is to meet the challenge of filling a need by alternative means.  Our economy may have evolved to the point of filling wants more than filling needs, but constant engagement in this challenge of creation keeps life fun, exciting, and produces amusing results.

Self-worth is not solely defined by material possessions.  This point is thrown into sharper relief during a time of economic scarcity, but it bears constant reminding that there are multiple ways to define worth: both self-worth and worthwhile pursuits in life, in both career and leisure.  In the last century we have created entire new industries.  As a result, the sheer breadth of career and leisure options are wider than ever, yet we’ve narrowed the scope of our leisure activities and measures of self-worth.  A job has become a major marker of identity, leisure activities are primarily dominated by the entertainment industry to the detriment of civic engagement, reading, interpersonal relationships, pursuit of personal interests.

A classmate once said to me, “‘Hobbies’ sounds so 50’s.”  I beg to differ; I love my hobbies far more than all combined products of the entertainment industry (and yes, you may include video games in that category as well).  Among other benefits, they allow me to define multiple parts of myself, so that I am not just a “student” but also a “crafter,” “baker,” “runner,” “reader,” “occasional writer,” “photographer,” one who loves to invite friends over to make a meal and share in the fruits of our labor.  Many of these pursuits have fallen by the wayside in favor of entertainment that must be consumed with hard-earned dollars.  In the process, we limit the avenues by which to create a sense of self and procur a feeling of accomplishment.

The tangible and intangible lessons of the Great Depression are many.  For me, wellness means bringing balance through development of multiple areas of our lives.  Money shortcuts this process by buying a product we might otherwise be forced to make or to improvise.  And yet often it is the process, more than the end result, that creates the greatest lasting impact on our selves and our personal well being.

On the road: eliminating temptation

January 17, 2009

Although being on the road holds its share of challenges for buying nothing new, it has several upsides as well.  First of all, I’m not tempted to buy all sorts of useless souvenirs that create great waves of buyers remorse every time I look at them back home.  It would be nice to have something for friends, but I may tweak this month’s rules to include postcards as a compromise option.  Most of my friends are far more excited at the prospect of a handwritten postcard or letter in the mail than by a t-shirt that reads, “My friend went to [insert tourist trap] and all they got me was this stupid shirt.”  They’d rather read about the tourist trap than advertise it on their clothing, and I don’t blame them.  Then again we trade letters on a semi-regular basis, so it may just be that birds of a feather flock together.

For these two weeks, at least, I’m participating in an intensive class that lasts 9-5 each day.  Our hotel is situated in a remote area; other than the conference center, the closest restaurants, convenience stores, and grocery stores are a mile away.  Suddenly placed in a vacuum of stores and the temptation to purchase goods, I don’t experience many urges to consume.

I’ve felt this contrast strongly when having dinner the past two nights.  The first night a group of us walked about a mile to the nearest cluster of restaurants.  On the way back we stopped into CVS, a national drugstore chain.  Faced with row after row of sale candy, snack-sized packaged foods, weekly specials and other non-essentials packaged as essentials, my fingers started wandering.  Dark chocolate-covered cashews are a healthy snack, right?  Oh look, but there’s the fig newtons.  And food isn’t part of my challenge, so picking up a couple preventative snacks is totally within the rules.  I mean, I’m really saving myself money aren’t I?  And look, everyone else is getting something, I can’t egg them on and then turn around and buy nothing.  It wouldn’t be right!

Like I said, rationalizing is a slippery slope.  (I did wind up with the fig newtons; paired with the bananas I brought from home, they make a decent stopgap breakfast option)  Last night, though, a group of us took a cab to a restaurant surrounded by shops that had already closed for the night.  When we emerged there was no temptation to buy anything because there simply were no options available to us.  It’s hard to spend money if there’s nobody around willing to take it.

Likewise, if you’re trying to steer your mind away from hyperconsumerism, the safest thing to do is to stay out of stores, stay out of the malls.  Stay away from any place you love to stop, even if there are sales going, even just to check if they still have the pants in your size.  Just like that mental laundry list of sweaters I’m planning to knit one day, if you wait long enough some items may just disappear off the list on their own accord.

Goal-setting and planning ahead

January 16, 2009

I’m starting to wish I’d planned this out a little better.  Don’t get me wrong; for the most part I’ve been able to anticipate what I might need in January and to arrange to have them on hand.  I live alone, so staying stocked on daily necessities like toilet paper isn’t too difficult.  Of course, the minute I returned to my apartment January 2nd I took one look at my sponge and realized I should get a new one for the spring semester, but the situation isn’t dire yet.  I’ll just, you know, let the dishes pile up for a month.

On the other hand, I’m going to be on the road for several weeks this month, and there are times when my fingers itch for something to do.  I love a good book as much as the next person, but there are times when it doesn’t quite hit the spot.  I’m a crafter, and small handcrafting projects usually fit the bill perfectly.  Embroidery, knitting, crocheting, hand sewing all fall under the category of light, portable, little equipment, and projects that can be worked for a few minutes or a few hours.  As a crafter whose love affair with knitting has warmed and cooled through the years, several months ago I decided I was done with knitting and donated all my yarn to a thrift shop.  I was going to simplify all areas of my life including my hobbies.  Unfortunately, the handcraft I now long for more than anything is knitting, and there is this small problem of a self-imposed ban on buying yarn until the month of February.

I admit I’ve been tempted to break the challenge for yarn.  “But its just yarn!  I don’t have to include hobby supplies on the banned list!” or “Well, spring is coming soon anyways, so unless I get a start on my knitting now nothing I wear will be usable for long.”  But just as with my pinging experience, I know this is a slippery slope to travel down, one little infraction becomes two, then three, and wipes out the entire spirit of the challenge.

This also holds several lessons for myself.  Keep a backup on hand just in case.  Improvise – I brought some embroidery instead, and am making do without a hoop and without a pattern to follow.  I never knew doodling with thread could be so much fun.  Test your impulses with a cooling off period.  We’ll see if I’m still hot on knitting the five billion projects in my queue once this month is over.  If not, well, I’ll have saved myself a bunch of half-started projects, not to mention balls of yarn falling out of bins all around the apartment that I eventually tire of and purge in the name of simplifying my life.  Some poor thrift shop loving yarn addict out there will just have to count on another source of yarn.

9 Easy Tips for Making Over Thrift Shop Clothing

January 15, 2009

One of the beauties of thrift shops is that you never quite know what you’ll find.  Of course, one of the downsides is also that you never quite know what you’ll find, or worse yet, you’ll find something that is almost perfect but not quite there.  This happens to me all the time.  I used to automatically put the item back and keep foraging, but have since discovered the fun and magic of tweaking thrift shops finds.  This list focuses on clothing, but there are other websites that offer great improvisational ideas for furniture, toys, household decorations, and home improvements.  Most of these tricks involve basic sewing knowledge and may take up to a couple hours, depending how complicated your design becomes.

Without further ado, 9 easy tips for making over thrift shop clothing:

1.    Shorten the hem.  This works especially well for pants and skirts; sleeves can be a bit tricky, depending on the type of garment.  The simplest is to just turn the hem under and sew it into place.  If you want less bulk, cut the fabric and turn under twice before sewing.  Tutorial here.

2.    Change the buttons.  Buttons can really date a garment, but they’re also cheap to come by and completely alter the look of an outfit.  Be sure to substitute buttons that are similar in size to the originals.

3.    Add trim.  Lace, ribbon, buttons, embroidery, appliqué, vintage trim, doilies are all great embellishments and really make a piece pop.  Ever wonder why Anthropologie can get away with selling their clothes for so much money?  The money’s in the details, and they use embellishment to their advantage like no other.  Phenomenal examples here, here and here.  I haven’t read this book myself, but it gets rave reviews for garment embellishment ideas.

4.    Take away ugly trim.  Thrift with an eye for potential, not necessarily the garment in hand.  Is it well constructed, made of high quality materials, or have a classic cut?  If so, it may be worth the half hour investment to freshen it up by removing sequins, an oversized collar or other decorative details.

5.    Applique over imperfections.  Applique, or sewing fabric shapes onto fabric, is perfect for covering up logos, rips, stains, and holes.  Examples here and here, basic tutorial here.

6.    Dress up a simple tee or skirt with fabric paint.  The paint bonds permanently to the fabric, and you can go crazy with all sorts of shapes that make your outfit perfectly one of a kind.  A popular technique is to cut shapes out of freezer paper for a one-time-use stencil, or you can freehand as well.  Tutorial here.

7.    Salvage jeans with elastic in the waistband. Have you noticed that woman’s jeans no longer curve inwards from the hips towards the waist, so that if your waist is at all narrower than your hips you’ll spend all day hiking up your pants?  This trick solves this problem in about 30 minutes.  Just snip a small slit in the inside part of the back of your waistband, thread a piece of elastic through it, and sew it into place on both sides.  This shrinks the waistline enough to keep the pants sitting on your waist.  Thanks to this, I’ve gone from 1 pair of functional jeans to enough pants to get me through winter.  Brilliant!

8.    Alter a dress to skirt but cutting off the top and making an elastic waistband.  This works best with dresses that are several sizes too large.  When thrifting with potential in mind, don’t forget that you can make one piece of clothing over into another, or that a garment that’s too large or too small may still be salvageable!

9.    Cut down a too-small waistband to make it fit.  Have you ever bought a piece of clothing thinking, “This will fit perfectly if I just lost 5 pounds!”  Come now, don’t be shy, I’ll admit to it if you will …  A couple years ago I found a great skirt for $2 that was just a tad snug but that I couldn’t pass it up.  It sat in my closet for over a year until I finally trimmed about an inch off the top of the skirt, then bound the raw edges with bias tape, which is a stretchy finishing trim.  Tutorial here.  Now I wear this skirt all the time and love it!  This tip is a bit trickier and involves more extensive sewing abilities.  Just remember, when cutting down a waistband even ¼” goes a long way, so trim conservatively!

If you’re interested in learning more, there are entire websites and books devoted to restoring, altering, and refashioning vintage clothing.  One of my favorites is Wardrobe Refashion, a collaborate blog that chronicles the efforts of people as they pledge to purchase no new clothing and instead refashion vintage clothing, make it from scratch, or make do with thrift shop finds.  I’ve taken a four month pledge this time around (over the summer I pledged for two months) so I may not be entirely unbiased in recommending the website, but you really should pop over for a peek – there is a whole range of projects that will change the way you see garments and everyday objects!