If You Find This Thrift Shopping, Buy It

Vintage Levi's "Big E" denim jeans
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Shopping thrift stores, flea markets and estate sales can be overwhelming. With the sheer volume of stuff, how do you know where to start? How do you spot gems amid all the junk?

As a professional reseller who has been combing through thrift stores for the better part of 30 years, I can help. If you’re ready to cut your shopping time in half, score bigger bargains or walk away with brag-worthy finds you can flip for cash, read on.

From hard-to-find household items to resale money-makers, everything featured in this series qualifies as a BOLO (“be on the lookout” for) item. When you find it, buy it!

Featured find: Levi’s ‘Big E’ denim

Sometimes the smallest detail can make an everyday item worth hundreds — even thousands — of dollars. In the case of vintage Levi’s jeans and denim jackets, that detail can be found on a tiny ribbon of cloth.

The iconic little red tab on the pockets of Levi’s jeans and jackets was the brainchild of the company’s national sales manager at the time, Chris Lucier. First used in 1936, the tab serves a single purpose: to distinguish Levi’s from all other denim quickly. In a dimly lit movie theater or wild rodeo, that flash of red tells every observer, “I’m wearing the original.”

But some red tabs are special. On garments made from 1936 to 1970, the tab features the word “LEVI’S” in all capital letters aka, “Big E” Levi’s. An update in 1971 made the “E” lowercase.

Today, vintage Levi’s with the Big E tab are highly prized by resellers and collectors. And the best part? For patient thrift shoppers, Big E Levi’s can still be found in secondhand stores, flea markets and yard sales across the country.

Why buy it?

Levi’s are well-made, and vintage pairs have a cool factor that’s tough to beat. But Big E Levi’s are in a category all their own — “the most coveted jeans on the planet,” according to Robb Report, a publication covering the luxury goods market. And that level of sartorial celebrity makes Big E Levi’s a dream find for resellers.

My last find was two years ago. At a local Goodwill, I spotted a denim jacket that had that unmistakable fade from years of use. Once I saw the capital “E,” I couldn’t buy it fast enough. That $10 jacket quickly resold for $380 on eBay.

But other resellers make that profit margin seem modest. On eBay, this pair of Levi’s 501 jeans with a Big E sold for $2,002. And on Etsy, a seller is asking more than $600 for this heavily worn Big E denim jacket. With prices like that, it may be time to hit the racks again.

What to look for

Though valuable in its own right, that Big E tab is often an indicator of other quality elements. Keep an eye out for Levi’s with these additional features collectors love:

  • Redline selvedge: Selvedge refers to the finished edge of fabric, a feature that prevents unraveling. Levi’s products with redline selvedge have a tiny strip of red yarn woven into the white selvedge. Determine the presence of redline selvedge by turning the garment inside out and examining fabric edges near the seams.
  • Blanket lining: Some vintage Levi’s jackets are insulated with a striped wool fabric. Because it resembles a repurposed blanket, the lining is often referred to as “blanket lining.”
  • Hidden rivets: Originally, the back pockets of Levi’s jeans were secured with exposed copper rivets. But by 1937, mounting complaints about rivets damaging saddles and scratching furniture prompted the company to cover the rivets with a layer of denim. In 1966, Levi’s eliminated the rivets altogether and began reinforcing pockets with heavy stitching known as bar tack stitching.
  • Single-stitch inseam: In the collecting world, older is usually better. Most Levi’s made before the mid-1980s feature a single felled inseam, meaning a single stitch running down the inner thigh.

Though red tabs are classic and seem to sell best, don’t pass up Big E Levi’s with these other tab colors:

  • Orange tabs were reserved for Levi’s fashion jeans.
  • White tabs were used on corduroy and on a product line called Levi’s for Gals.
  • Black tabs indicate the pants are Sta-Prest, a wrinkle-resistant feature.

For more tips like these, check out my article “11 Secrets to Finding Quality Clothing at Thrift Shops.”

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