Slow fashion: The beauty of charity shopping

Slow fashion, charity shopping

Illustration by Emma Block. Download more of Emma’s work here.  

Who needs new? Fast fashion is dead and slow fashion is in. Olivia Gordon discovers how to access constantly changing, original materials and tools for bargain prices at second-hand stores. It’s cheaper, more sustainable and will get you some truly unique pieces. Long live slow fashion!

Savvy makers have always been addicted to charity shops. But with our love for upcycling and all things retro showing no signs of stopping, second-hand shopping is hotter than ever. Charity shops now see makers as a key market, with many holding craft-specific events – the Blue Cross branch in Hale, Manchester hosts monthly textile nights selling material, while Returned to Glory, the Hospice of St. Francis’ shop in Berkhamsted, runs regular furniture painting workshops.

Buying creativity

embroidery essentials fabric

“Charity shops often have cool patterned fabrics you can’t find anymore, which make great raw materials,” says Mini Magpie’s Kimberley Golding. Kimberley is a professional maker for whom scouring charity shops is a vital task. She also notes that “curtains and bed sheets are great as they’re huge and often cheap. Look for special fabrics even if they’re on a dress or blouse. Cut them up to reuse for clothes or to make patchwork quilts.” Craft author Jane Brocket loves to find antique hand-embroidery on donated handkerchiefs and doilies. She gives them a new lease of life in her exquisite patchworks.

Iconic vintage dressmaking patterns can usually be found in charity shops along with unwanted craft kits. And, there’s no need to splash out on new knitting needles, yarn, or embroidery thread as charity shops tend to have these in abundance. Framed art is another great buy, as you can paint over canvases, reframe the painting, or reuse the frames. Illustrator Johanna Basford tells us: “It’s not the pictures I like, but what surrounds them. For me, the more ornate the better – I take the frames home, remove the artwork and paint them.”


Second-hand shops are the ideal place to find cheap furniture to customise. Some even sell paint for as little as £1 per litre! And, you can use the old foam filling from cushions inside toys.

Don’t dismiss anything that isn’t an obvious upcycle though – thrift store prices are cheap enough to allow for experimentation. Steb Selby from Furniture Matters, a used household goods store in Morecambe (search for it on Facebook), says £10 washing machine drums are popular: “These can be used to make decorative shelving, planters or fire pits.” Liz Silvester from St. Wilfrid’s Hospice shop in Eastbourne advises: “Old tennis rackets make an unusual canvas for embroidery – just make sure to use thick wool.”

Buttonbag’s Sarah Marks, a passionate upcycler, hunts down “bright acrylic jumpers to make quirky soft toys, lonely tea cups to turn into candleholders, and paper dressmaking patterns for découpage.” She adds: “I love finding beautifully patterned old silk scarves and wrapping them tightly round wooden bangles or chunky beads to create unique, tactile accessories.”

Slow fashion – where to shop?

Boutique charity shops in expensive areas, like Mary Portas’ Living and Giving stores for Save the Children in London, are famous for designer vintage goods, although Kimberley prefers “messy and chaotic charity shops, as they seem to have the best treasures and prices.”

Her top tip is to build a relationship with your local shop. “Go in at least once a week and you’ll see the new items coming in. Don’t forget to ask the staff if you’re looking for something. They often have stock out the back they’re saving to put out that might be just what you’re looking for.”

Holly Rothwell, manager of Oxfam’s online store, gives us a final tip: “Volunteer a couple of hours a week in a charity shop. If you’re lucky enough to be sorting the donations, it’s a golden opportunity to spot items. And, of course, it’s a great way to give back to these treasure troves.”

Check out our other sustainable blog to learn more about slow fashion below: