Fleamarketing 101

As a frequent contributor to True Up’s Vintage Fabric Flickr group, I’m regularly asked where I find my fabrics. The short answer is anywhere and everywhere, but the long answer is anywhere from Etsy and eBay to yard and estate sales to thrift stores and antique dealers (both online and off). Simply stated, there is no substitute for seeing textiles in person, and getting to feel and fondle them. And interacting with the vendors who sell them. There are amazing flea markets all over the country and world, but in California’s East Bay, where I live, we have the Alameda Point Antiques & Collectibles Faire. It’s held the first Sunday of every month, rain or shine, and I look forward to it like it’s Christmas morning. Because, without fail, I always score as much loot as a 5-year-old with all four grandparents and twice as many doting aunts and uncles in town.

{ Tip #1: Wear Comfortable Shoes! }

For many people, these kind of venues are truly overwhelming. And until you get the hang of it, they are! There literally are hundreds of vendors, lined up and down dozens of aisles, which in turn means thousands of people just like you and me, looking to score special deals on special somethings. But if you think of it as an outdoor antiques mall, where everything that doesn’t sell needs to get packed up and relocated at the day’s end, things will work to your advantage. Vendors want to lug home as little as possible. And if it’s, say, Easter Sunday or the 4th of July, then the crowds are lighter and thus the deals can be even better. I’ve learned to look forward especially to attending on holidays.

{ Tip #6: Ditch The Cart So You Can Speed Shop. }

Here are a few basic tips when heading to your antiques flea, in search of vintage textiles:

1. Wear comfortable shoes. The walk from the parking lot alone requires this!

2. Bring cash, even if the market has an ATM. Sometimes there’s a really long line, while other times it’s out of order. Ouch.

3. Bring a few tote bags with you for schlepping your haul.

4. Bring a small snack, like an energy bar.

5. Bring a small tape measure. A narrow selvage width is one of the easiest ways to date fabric.

6.+Avoid bringing anyone or anything with you that might slow you down, i.e., kids or a reluctant spouse. Or one of those wire carts that takes up as much space as another person, but doesn’t have the ability to step aside when asked nicely (or rudely, as the case may often be). The market might offer them for rent, but they’re not worth it unless you plan on buying a small store’s worth of fabric.

7. Only pay the early bird arrival fee ($10-$15 versus $5, at the Alameda flea) if you’re absolutely desperate to avoid crowds or convinced that you’ll otherwise miss out on the deal of the century, because there are also far fewer vendors set up. But do plan to arrive promptly for the general admission opening.

The Lovely Miss Robin, Vendor Extraordinaire

{ The Lovely Miss Robin, Vendor Extraordinaire }

Now that you’ve arrived prepared, it’s time to get to work! In my experience, the key to a successful scavenging trip is to be flexible. If I set out looking for vintage buttons, I invariably stumble across a pile of feedsacks instead. But if I’m seeking feedsacks, that’s likely to be the day that I find loads of awesome vintage quilt blocks. Or some kickass Luther Travis tea towels. In other words, go there to do some stash building, and if you’re looking for something in particular, keep an eye out for it but don’t walk around with blinders on. My guiding principle is first, “Good things for great prices!” and second, “Will my husband kill me if I walk into the house with this?” (Which means no collection of vintage quilts for me.)

Vintage Quilt Temptation

{ One of Many Gorgeous Vintage Quilts }

8. Be careful not to completely empty out your pockets at the tables closest to the entrance. Tables further back get less foot traffic, so some really good deals can be found there.

9. Move quickly! I don’t mean run as if you’re after the last Tickle Me Elmo the day before Christmas, but I do mean don’t dilly-dally. Sort through things quickly, and as neatly as possible, and then move on. With so many vendors and aisles, you have to be frugal with your time.

10. That said, do take the time to greet the vendors, and be friendly. It could make the difference in getting a discount. It also helps in establishing a relationship with a vendor on subsequent visits, which definitely makes the difference in getting that discount.

11. Speaking of discounts, don’t be afraid to ask politely, for instance, “Would you be able to do $8 on this?” or “Could you do better on this feedsack, since it has holes?”

12. Know your stuff, and don’t be afraid to discreetly let the vendor know that you know. For instance, I earned a vendor’s respect (and a discount) when I dated some fabric to the 1950s based on the selvage width and the quality of the thread count.

13. Share what you know! On my way out of the flea market, a big pile of vintage 70s calico yardage caught my eye. I was already overloaded, so decided against snapping it up for the $3 listed — but ended up advising the seller, who specialized in anything but textiles, that she would make considerably more selling it on Etsy. In exchange for this tidbit, she rewarded me with a free baggie stuffed with vintage 70s woven trim. Sweet!

14.+Enjoy yourself!


  1. Jenny says:

    Ahhh – that looks like sooo much fun! There’s a huge flea market here in Denver, but I’m overwhelmed by the thought of it. Maybe your great post will motivate me!! I’m just learning and I’m very curious about: “5. Bring a small tape measure. A narrow selvage width is one of the easiest ways to date fabric.”

  2. very good tips! i hope you don’t mind me chiming in with a few more based on my experience (err, not to overwhelm flea market newbies!):

    :bring a manageable (not too big) bottle of water.
    :make sure your shoulder bag/purse or backpack is comfortable to wear.
    :if it’s sunny bring a hat and sunglasses; wear sunblock.
    :o h, check the weather!
    :don’t be shy, smell the fabric. (i know i look like a crazy when i do.) strong smells may not come out, esp. out of synthetic and delicate fabric.

    (btw, i love the tape measure tip; i try to make sure to bring mine and it’s always been useful!)

  3. strikkelise says:

    This was a great post, useful to me even though we don´t have those huge flea markets here in Norway (I wish we did!). Very well written, and funny, too.

    You now have me a little less sad that the end of summer holiday is rapidly approaching, since that means that fleamarket season 2.0 is also approaching in early autumn.

    Thank you!

  4. {kimmymade} says:

    So glad that everyone is enjoying it, and everyone should absolutely join in with tips!! Jenny: A narrow selvage width (which means anything narrower than the current standard of 44/45″, though I’m especially excited by fabrics in the 35″-36″ range) is one easy way to authenticate that fabric is vintage. Looms were smaller way back when, and so the fabrics weren’t made as wide.

  5. Alma says:

    Thanks so much–many could apply to big quilt shows, too. Only wish I could get my sister not to dilly dally (sigh)

  6. Kathy says:

    Thanks for the great info! I live on the SF peninsula, and have heard of this flea market, but have never been there. It makes me want to gear up and see what it’s like!

  7. You know the World’s Longest Yard Sale along the 127 Corridor from Michigan to Alabama is coming up August 5-8th. My parents sold a pick-up there once! I can’t go this year (I’m in Sweden!) but one of these days I’ll do it…

    For those of you who can go, here’s the link with more info: http://www.127sale.com/

  8. jodi says:

    Thanks so much for this post! I love vintage fabrics and have finally found some locally. Because of the bad luck I’ve had locating any, I called a particular antique consignment shop before I schlepped over there for nothing. The woman who answered the phone said they had “some. Not a lot, but some.” So I went with my hopes down low, but what a surprise! Bonanza! I wish I could have bought more but had to restrain myself! I posted my pics this morning on my blog, if you’re interested in checking them out.

  9. Nan Jaeger says:

    vintage feedsacks can be a real find and deal. Many are 1 yard long (36 inches long) and people may mistake a feedsack for a yard of fabric. Look for little stitch holes that curve at the ends