charity shop

Charity shop behind the scenes

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I have been a life long charity shopper and prefer to use 2nd hand items wherever possible.

This is for several reasons, probably the least important of which is cost. I have always disliked waste, it upsets me, and view buying second hand items as reducing waste.

I prefer the shopping environment in a charity shop, no pushy and snooty assistants.

You never know what you might find and there’s always the possibility of finding something unique that probably only you will really treasure.

Anyway, I’ve recently starting volunteering and here are my behind the scenes experiences.

I know some writers focus on gross and disgusting stuff which they have found amongst donations but my experience is that most people are well meaning and donate what they consider to be quality items.

My shop is in a fairly poor area of London but there are some more wealthy customers and donators as well. We are situated next to a supermarket which is to our advantage as people pop in for a look without having to make a special trip.

The main fact to be swallowed is that supply of donations far exceeds demand from customers. This means that the vast majority of donated items can not be sold in the shop. Even if something makes it to the shop floor it may not be sold, but replaced after a few weeks by some other item.

In our society most people already own everything that they need so to buy more stuff either means they must clutter up their small properties or get rid of things that are not yet beyond use. Most people do the latter, assuaging their guilt by donating.

Here are some facts about donations we receive, and this is specific to the shop I work in which is part of a small local chain.

1. People donate loads of stuff at a time, typically a bin bag or more full.

2. The quality of the bag is usually quite homogenous ie all good or all poor.

3. Our typical bag would consist of cheap womens’ clothing from Primark or H&M in a small size barely worn ie bought and quickly discarded by the very demographic which is supposed to care most about the environment. These items are largely unsellable, or go in the 50p bin.

4. Men donate more clothes than women but buy less. I say if you donate you should buy a few items as well.

5. Anything dirty, broken or stained can not be sold. This sometimes causes dilemmas when we receive a designer item which needs a wash.

6. Some people are incredibly generous and donate high value items, for example today we received a brand new mens’ suit with a tag of £300. In the same bag was a jacket which had been newly dry cleaned.

7. What applies to clothes also applies to books.

8. Electrical goods should go to specialist centres that can test them before sale.

9. Staff don’t like donations right at the end of the day and your donation is more likely to make it to the shop floor if given early morning midweek.

10. All staff take some things home, especially things that can’t be sold such as slightly damaged goods or partly used toiletries.

11. We still get ‘rag’ money from unsaleable clothes, currently £4 per bin bag full, so its still worth taking unsaleable clothes to donate, just tell the staff they are rags.

12 . Most of the purchases are not from poor people buying essentials they would not otherwise be able to afford, the typical customer is buying more things they don’t actually need to clutter their homes with – how do I know this? because they return weekly and buy large volumes of the same type of stuff. The regular customer however, is out lifeblood and we are always pleased to see them.

13. Generally we have oversupply in all areas except mens’ trousers, cutlery and vinyl records.

Finally please, please buy. If you buy an item second hand and only use it a few times the charity will have got some money and you will have made the shop staff very happy – they have sales targets and get stressed out if they are not met. Chances are if you did not buy, the item destiation was landfill.

You can have fast fashion the charity shop way – buy, wear a few times then re-donate, and help a good cause at the same time.

Helen’s closet Pona jacket from upcycled jeans

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If asked what my favourite stash fabric was the answer would be used denim. When offered an old pair of jeans I can’t say no and used jeans were starting to dominate my fabric pile.

There was also this vintage Laura Ashley curtain fabric, 5 metres bought for £8 in a charity shop. I’d already made a dress from it but there was a lot left.

Two pairs of jeans and some of the Laura Ashley fabric were used to make my Pona.

It always makes me feel slightly guilty that you can never make a garment from just one pair of jeans, it always takes two, but then there are some areas you would like to avoid like the crotch (usually worn) and the knees (stretched into a knee shape) and jeans only come in long narrow pieces, and I did have 7 pairs of jeans waiting for a new life.

Selecting a small pair of Levi’s for the collar and facings, and a lighter coloured Marks and Spencer pair for the sleeves, the rest was to be completed in the flowery fabric.

The Levi’s had a small amount of stretch which I didn’t think would make any difference but it did actually stretch out a bit when being sewed to the other fabrics which had no stretch.

The jacket was quick to make up, you could easily complete it in one day. It took a long time to tape the PDF pattern pieces together though.

I finished the edges with zig zag but binding would have been better for the facing edges at least. Many sewists have bias bound all the edges and that does look neater.

Having originally planned to use the back pockets of the Levi’s as the jacket pockets I changed my mind because I thought it could look a bit too busy and in fact omitted pockets altogether.

Although the instructions are very clear I wasn’t sure about the facing construction and the collar/facing/jacket sandwich and had to watch a sewalong from Penguin and Pear dressmaking.

The Levi’s tag was tucked into the collar – can’t resist details like that.

The machine hemmed sleeves didn’t look great so added a trim from my stash which was hand stitched over the seam and learning from this mistake I hand stitched the main jacket hem.

I am very pleased with this make and am sure it will be a very useful addition to my wardrobe. Also I used my favourite fabric.

I wasn’t sure how warm a short unlined jacket without fastenings would be but the double layer from the over sized facing adds weight. It’s possible I may add some sort of fastening though because the Pona does tend to blow open annoyingly in the slightest breeze.

Having never owned a jacket this short or without fastenings before its a departure from my normal style but I was keen to sew a jacket as it was one of the few gaps in my wardrobe and therefore justifiable right?

I normally have some dilemma about which size to make and whether to do a FBA but as the fit is loose, went with the suggested method of choose a size on the basis of high bust measurement and cut that size straight (in my case size 14) and its roomy enough to take another 2 or more layers underneath.

Curtain to dungarees dress refashion

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I bought this curtain from Oxfam at Earl’s court for £5.99. Strictly speaking I think the price should have been for the pair but the assistant wanted to charge me £5.99 each curtain so I just bought one as it gave enough fabric for my project.

The project was a Tilly and the buttons Cleo dungarees dress which requires a denim weight fabric so I thought a curtain would be ideal.

Of course not all curtains are suitable and they were actually quite hard to source as a lot of charity shops did not appear to have any on sale, however sometimes if asked, they would bring something out of the back room for me to look at.

This particular curtain was a good quality one from Debenhams , fully lined with a lightweight plain polyester cotton fabric.

The curtain fabric is 100% cotton, it has a herringbone type weave. Washing instructions were dry clean only so I bunged it straight in the machine on my normal cycle and there were no ill effects.

There then followed and extended and relaxing time of seam ripping, which I actually quite enjoy, to separate the lining and tape. Once this was done there were immediate concerns about the suitability of the fabric. Although reasonably thick, once removed from the lining it seemed much more floppy, and this pattern requires a fairly stiff fabric.

I had a think for a few days then came up with the solution of interfacing the whole thing. This would also mean lining the whole thing, suddenly this project was not so quick and easy. There was a suitable lining fabric immediately to hand, which was the curtain lining.

I had studied the finished garment measurements and made a size 6. The design of this dress means there are no fitting issues as the top is just a bib and the hip area is loose.

The pattern is printed on paper rather than tissue which makes cutting out much easier. Both front and back are cut out in 2 pieces then stitched together as a faux flat fell seam, and although I can see this would work well on denim, and could save fabric, I didn’t think it added much to my version.

There are several pocket options and I chose the large front bib one.

I was concerned that after using interfacing all over the main pieces it would end up too stiff, and with the added lining be too warm to wear, but its actually OK and has worked quite well.

Because it was lined, there is no visible hem which was pleasing, I don’t think I will be scared to line again in the future.

I had already bought some buttons and while I don’t think they especially go with the fabric, decided to use them anyway.

Overall its been a good result, slightly tight at the knees when I’m walking but if I’d gone with the optional front split that wouldn’t have been a problem.

Those curtains would probably make a good version of this dress too

I’ve already got another pair of curtains waiting for the same treatment. This second pair is more curtainy but won’t need lining.

Scalloped hem top refashion

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I’m trying to perfect a FBA for myself and this simple top pattern seemed like a good one to use as a practice, and I could learn how to make a scalloped hem as well. I was making view E but added approx 2 inches to the length.

My starting pieces were these two items, both of which were just used as fabric.

The nice medium weight cotton skirt was bought last year in a charity shop sale for £3. Although it’s short, the gathers yielded a decent amount of fabric, originally from Zara.

This dress I would say, has a lot of typical features of a charity shop item

a) Its smaller than my size.

b) Its a going out item which has seen a few wears and is no longer in tip top going out condition.

c) Its from a mid range brand (Next)

d) There’s not really much refashion potential…. but wait, the skirt is quite full and in a useful floaty but non transparent tencel and as it was on the £1 rail it was duly bought.

I cut the skirt off the top half of the dress, there’s also a useful long white zip and a fancy button from the neck fasten which I’ll keep. The zip was good quality and white. It straddled both the white and black sections of the dress but the insertion had been so perfect that the white of the zip was completely invisible against the black fabric.

The roses skirt fabric was a slightly heavier weight than the black dress and was going to be easier to sew and work with, all the better to cut the sleeves and neck facings from.

FBA done, sleeves waiting to be inserted

As shown above I split both the front and back pattern pieces a couple of inches above the dart. The now rather large dart was a bit lower than in the original pattern due to the FBA. I’d also added a couple of inches in length to the top as it looked a bit short on the pattern illustration.

The instructions for the scalloped hem involved cutting and sewing an extra strip, interfacing it and sewing it onto the bottom of the top before sewing and cutting the scallop shape. I found other tutorials online which suggested making the scallop hem by cutting the top extra long then turning a long hem to make the scallop.

Probably because I’d messed around with a FBA on the pattern, even though I had widened the extra strip for the scallop piece, by the time I’d sewed it in place it was slightly wider than the actual hem which made one side scallop slightly imperfect but I decided to accept this collateral damage and move on.

I think adding the interfacing makes the scallop hem a bit stiff but the interfacing did make it easy to draw and sew the shapes, it would have been much more difficult on the black.

back view
On the hanger
Scallop hem close up

The FBA is not perfect yet, the darts are slightly too big and too high but its difficult to tell with the black matt fabric.

Bonus feature – the detail of RTW zip insertion.

Already mentioned is how well the dress zip was inserted by the manufacturer but the skirt zip (a lap zip this time) deserves a tribute as well. The bottom stop wasn’t just a few stitches sewn across the teeth but a neat tab made from lining fabric – I’ve preserved that feature for when I eventually use the zip myself.

Just look at this loop for the button, not made from twisted thread like I have done, but from a teeny tiny piece of lining. How on earth did they turn that through? Sadly that came out with the zip stitches so I won’t be able to re-use it.

Dress to skirt refashion

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This dress was a longstanding inhabitant of my refashion stash, in fact it had been in there for maybe 4 years, how long was this going to go on?

I had bought the dress for next to nothing at a jumble sale, which had reached the ‘fill a bag for £1’ stage and I was swept along in the buying frenzy. I picked it out due to the Berkertex label but despite pulling it out of my refashion stash and examining it on several previous occasions I always found myself lacking in inspiration.

The dress was at 2 sizes too small for me and constructed of several panels running right down its length. Re-donation was looking like the only option but honestly, there are probably not many buyers out there for this type of dress in my local shops. I decided that I could make a skirt from it using my new favourite pattern, view D.

Fabric was a light weight viscose with mother of pearl buttons.

The pattern includes side pockets below the yolk but I decided to change these to side seam pockets, less cutting through panels involved. I had made this before what could go wrong? Here are all the elements before it was sewn together.

I had to move the buttons – more around the waist and toward the hem and split the front yolk to incorporate the front fasten – the pattern has a rear zip fasten. The yolk ended up a bit short so I had to add a small extension which made it somewhat untidy but as I rarely wear tops tucked in that won’t show.

On the hanger
On me

It’s a bit mumsy, but I suppose that’s my look.

Cruise wear to cool wear

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It was the generous meterage of fabric which first attracted me to this odd garment when I spotted it on a charity shop hanger.  I couldn’t work out what it actually was but £3 for this amount of fabric, unimpeded by few seams, seemed like a bargain not to pass up.

At home trying this contraption on, I wasn’t much the wiser.

Looking like palazzo pants with a wrap around skirt incorporated, you could also wear it as a sarong or halter neck dress.

It had a label ‘Moira C’, it’s 100% polyester, no country of origin, with a lot of small pretty purple flowers maybe violets?

I did some research and there is a video from Moira herself showing you how to wear this thing.  Apparently its ideal for cruises because of the unlimited food on offer you need clothes which are size flexible.  I’m mocking but actually I think I quite admire  Moira, a woman after my own heart.

Anyway, I was going to fabric harvest, and there was a lot of fabric, nearly 3 metres of it.

The plan was to make a top using the same pattern as in my previous post but sleeveless and with some gathers under the neckline band instead of bust darts, because I wanted to make something cool and loose to wear in the hot weather.

I slashed and spread at the neckline to make room for some gathers

The pattern was something of a dogs dinner once I had finished with it.

I was able to get the whole of the top out one of one leg of the pants, and with these pants there are 4 legs.

The fabric slipped and frayed quite a bit, it was a job for the walking foot.

I did have to neaten the seams in a rudimentary way.  Luckily I had left generous seam allowances and was able to fold each side of the allowance down then sew the sides together, it would have been better to use French seams in the first place.

Neatened seam allowances, I was afraid of fraying

The contrast neckband was made from ultra stiff Dutch wax, there was no way it needed any interfacing so I missed it out. I hope this stiff as a board fabric is going to loosen up once I’ve washed it a few times, which leads me to think that actually I probably should have washed it first before sewing, oh well, too late now.

Neckband back view

At first I thought it would be possible to use the pant ties as a kind of interfacing for the sleeves, but as they were not bias cut it didn’t work out, I had to cut them off and make some actual bias binding instead.

Cutting off this first attempt at sleeve binding meant what was left of the shoulders was perilously close to the neckband.



All, bar the hem, was done within one afternoon.


The gathers did give a bit of trouble, first attempt they were off to one side. I read later that you’re not supposed to use a walking foot for gathers, it squashes them, that’s probably what went wrong.  Actually they are still off a bit to one side but I’m not undoing them again.

I saw someone on the way to work wearing a top which had a straight hem at the front and a longer curved hem at the back, and decided to try out this hem idea for myself.

Side seam hemline detail


The hem is probably my favourite part of this top, and I referenced this method

from byhandlondon  to get the curved hem neat.  The inspiration top wasn’t quite as long at the back, but I’m happy with what I’ve got.

First stage of hemming, see how much this fabric frays

Finished hem, you can see the 2 lines of stitching where I missed folding exactly on the first set of stitches

I used a book as a tailors clapper when making the hem.

The weather in London is cooler now but I am off to Mykonos in September, hoping to wear the top there.





Tablecloth to trousers refashion

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Having already made a circular skirt from the middle of this tablecloth


I found there was enough left over to make a pair of trousers from the edges – it was a big piece of fabric.


I used a pattern I had already perfected for fit but omitted the pockets and changed the fly closure to a side zip.

The weave of the fabric was fairly loose which makes the trousers quite a light summer weight.


There’s still some tablecloth left over, and I am pretty determined to make something else with it.


Bonus feature – Golden Hands

In my local charity shop I noticed a set of red binders containing Golden Hands magazines, a weekly 1970’s series that my mother used to collect.


The magazines have lovely articles about sewing, knitting, embroidery, macramé, crochet and probably several other crafts I have missed out.


They are seventies beauties and I a joy to read through.


I bought the lot.





Polka dot dress to trousers

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This dress was a birthday present, I had asked for charity shop items to refashion.  One daughter presented me with this Marks and Spencer  dress.  Having someone else choose something for me added to the challenge and the fun.

The fashion pages tell me that polka dots are in this year so these navy and white ones were a good choice.

The 100% viscose seemed to be perfect for some lightweight summer trousers.  The fabric frayed heavily though,  needing generous seam allowances.


I used this pattern, given free with a magazine as the basis for my make, adapting it to be a side zip fasten with a flat front.

It was a good pattern to adapt,  the trouser legs being composed of 4 parts and the centre seams making fit adjustments easy.  (I made a toile shorts version to check the fit)

The skirt of the dress had large expanses of fabric but, not enough to accommodate all the pattern elements without some piecing together.

After spending some time struggling with the logistics of how it was all going to work, I  started cutting the most important pieces from the best bits of fabric to see where that led me. Polka dot matching wasn’t always possible.


Even after harvesting every possible part of the dress, including the sleeves, there was still not quite enough – trousers take a lot of fabric.

To make up the deficiency, and for the waistband, I used some Dutch wax which I have had for ages and has already featured in many previous projects basically because there was so much of it in the first place.  I made the waistband quite big and added a small amount of light elastic, comfort is important to me!


Introducing the second fabric introduced the complication of fabric symmetry.

There were so many pieces involved I approached it by cutting one leg then matching the second leg up with that.

The front and back legs were different as you can see here.



I liked this pattern and will be using it again soon.  The trousers are indeed lightweight and also very comfortable.



Tablecloth to circular skirt

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I bought this tablecloth in my local Oxfam, and as you can see it cost £14.99.  Wouldn’t normally have paid so much but could see there was a lot of fabric and I had a definite project in mind.

The fabric was a loose weave 100% cotton with a batik style pattern, made in India.  It was very nice and in good condition, I can’t imagine why someone would have wanted to get rid of it.


I bought it to make some trousers, but in the shop the cloth was folded up and it wasn’t obvious that the pattern radiated from a circle in the centre, and was therefore crying out to be made into a circular skirt.

In the past I have attempted a circular skirt but messed up the cutting out, quite upsetting.  This time it was almost impossible to mess up the cutting because I could just follow the pattern on the cloth, no folding or seams necessary.


Once the inner circle had been cut out, as it was on the bias it began to grow.  I had read about this and allowed a couple of inches for it but even that was insufficient for the growing capacity of this fabric.

Adding the waistband did seem to reduce the waist size a couple of inches but not enough.  I gave up and inserted some fairly insubstantial elastic inside it to take up the remaining slack.


In future if making another circular skirt ( I like this one so highly likely) I will cut a very small waist to start with and work from there.  Worst case scenario will be that the waist has to be enlarged a bit and the skirt ends up a bit shorter.

Only thing left was the hem.  This hem was miles long and probably the biggest job of the whole make.  Fortunately the fabric responded well to  steam so the hem could be turned up into shape and maintain the curve of the hem.



The whole skirt was finished in an afternoon, and that included going to the shops to buy the elastic.






And guess what? – there was still enough fabric left to make trousers from the edges, in fact they are already made, blog post to follow soon. It was a very big tablecloth so maybe £14.99 was a bargain after all.

Bonus feature – camera case

I bought a new camera but there was no case, so I made one – it involved a lot of hand sewing.



No time to waist

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I bought this skirt on a whim for £7.99  from Oxfam, a bit pricey if you ask me, but that’s Oxfam for you.


It was originally from the mid range ZARA brand, I liked the colour and the style, it looked in pretty good nick in this year’s colour of purple.


There was one problem, it was in a size smaller than I normally wear, but I knew I could fix that.

I would normally wash anything on my normal cycle before working on it but the laundry instructions for this garment were, shock horror, ‘do not wash’ – silk,  should have known.   Well here was a dilemma,  only a few days before a trip on which I wanted to wear this skirt.  It didn’t smell, there were no obvious stains so I decided to work on and wear it as is ie unwashed.

The style was flared panels with a secondary flared band at the hem.  Easy to make bigger just by shortening the skirt and therefore enlarging the waist a couple of inches.


Deconstructing a commercially produced garment is quite interesting.  The waist of this skirt gave up various items of piping cord and binding tape as I continued to unpick it, they will be going in my stash.


In the end, weary of unpicking just cut through the top 1.5 inches of the top of the skirt, outer and lining fabric combined, but unpicked around the zip.  This immediately unleashed the unruly nature of the slippery silk fabric and lining.  The new waist was turned under by about 1cm a couple of times to secure it.



The skirt ended up a bit shorter but I am a bit short so this wasn’t a problem.

The lining ended up sticking out from under the hem a bit, so turned it under to solve.  Those commercial manufacturers don’t miss a trick,  I could see that the stich length was time and thread savingly longer on the hem of the lining.

The zip was tucked under and finished with a couple of hand stitches and it was ready to go.20180313_105329

 I wore the skirt for the planned trip to Florence



Bonus Feature

Next to my fabric stash is a smaller but longstanding yarn stash.  I’ve had some of this stuff for 20 years and asked myself ‘if not now, when?’

So I’ve been through a bit of a knitting phase and produced this from some brightly coloured 100% cotton yarn bought a long time ago.