Just as we are getting to grips with trying to live less wastefully (carrying reusable cups, eating less meat, flying less and buying less) along comes Christmas. The festive season is a frenzy of spending: in 2018, according to a survey by Deloitte, we spent an average of £299 per person on gifts in the UK, many cast aside on Boxing Day.
There are signs that shopping habits are changing. This year, more than 60,000 people pledged to take part in #SecondHandSeptember, a campaign promoted by Oxfam, which estimates that more than two tonnes of clothing are bought in the UK every minute, generating the carbon emissions equivalent to driving a car round the world six times. Extinction Rebellion’s Boycott Fashion group has more than 18,000 followers. Hashtags such as #buynothingnew, #lovedclotheslast and #secondhandfirst are sources of inspiration. This year, the message isn’t shop till you drop: it’s slow down before it’s too late. Some people, including the actor Emma Thompson, plan to eschew presents altogether. I’m not going that far, but without wishing to be Scrooge-like, I have taken on the challenge of buying nothing new for Christmas. We need to do our bit to stem the flow of plastic toys, cheap party clothes and throwaway electronic gizmos. All it takes is a bit of imagination and some forward planning.
You might need to spend time sprucing up your buys, but that is part of the fun. I spent an hour at a car boot sale unearthing a silk scarf printed with hearts. It cost £5. At home, I realised it smelled as if it had been in a damp lock-up for 20 years. After two handwashes, a day blowing about on the washing line and a night in the freezer, the smell had gone and I took great enjoyment in ironing it gently so nobody would know it was a car-boot orphan. Whoever unwraps it on Christmas morning will, I hope, be as charmed by it as I am and wear it for years to come.
The world is full of treasures like this – you just have to look for them. Shopping secondhand will reconnect you with the person you are buying for, make you value the item you choose and may even encourage you to develop and polish some good old-fashioned cleaning and repair skills along the way.
You will also enjoy some great community spirit as you shop. The volunteers at my local Cancer Research UK shop are super-friendly, unlike assistants at many ordinary shops, where I have sometimes left feeling unworthy of browsing the rails. I particularly enjoyed an exchange with the stallholder at the car boot sale who explained that all the money she makes goes to various animal charities: “Bears in Winnipeg, and cats in the UK.” Here are some of my finds; I’m feeling better about Christmas already.
Lego and construction kit
Online, eBay is toy heaven, overflowing with barely used Sylvanian hedgehogs, Toy Story rejects, Duplo and Brio train sets and enough Lego to build a life-sized skyscraper. There is more than enough Lego in the world not to buy any new ever again. I like the bricks you can buy by the kilo because nothing is wasted – the problem with boxed sets is that if a few pieces are lost, your Death Star is redundant – and once it’s built, that’s it. The original idea behind Lego was that the imagination led the creation: your construction ideas could be endless, not led by a series of instructions. I opted for a “buy it now” (to save my adrenaline levels from the bidding war) kilo of assorted bricks, plus surprise mini figures, for £17.99. I also found Making Stuff for Kids for £3.49 at an Oxfam bookshop in Liverpool, which is crammed with great craft and construction projects, perfect for my 11-year-old son (I hope he’s not reading this).
Teenagers are difficult to buy for at the best of times, but a love of trainers seems pretty universal. I couldn’t resist a pair of crazy-coloured Nike ID customised hi-tops hiding in a corner at the Royal Trinity Hospice shop in London. They were £30, which seems expensive but if they are looked after, trainers hold their value. If you want a particular brand or style, download the Depop app (a cross between Instagram and eBay) and chances are you will find it. Involve your teenager in choosing their dream pair (which you might not otherwise be able to afford). If they are unsure about wearing pre-worn shoes, tell them buying secondhand trainers will be a step closer to saving the planet, give them a budget, and let them choose a pair they love to unwrap on Christmas Day. Once they have finished with them, they can sell them on.
Last year, the shops were flooded with new Polaroid cameras, an analogue novelty for a generation bred on selfies and digital images. So why not buy an original camera and be truly retro? I found this OneStep 1980s instamatic Polaroid camera on Etsy from a shop called Preloved Polaroid. It cost £25 (a carbon offset delivery service costs £3.99) and is in full working order. Far cooler, and cheaper, than buying new. Find Polaroid film at uk.polaroidoriginals.com (£17.99 for pack of eight pictures).
When Lady Hale made her historic ruling on the prorogation of parliament at the supreme court in September, it was her spider brooch that nearly broke the internet. I had endless enjoyment looking for similar jewelled arachnids, and finally found one for the princely sum of £2.99 at a British Heart Foundation shop in Ormskirk, Lancashire. Small market towns like this are great hunting grounds for charity shops – you will have many to choose from. To make it extra special, look for a beautiful box to put it in. The box might cost more than the brooch, but presentation counts for a lot – especially when a gift is secondhand.
It’s worth checking the resale site Vestiaire Collective for small luxuries. While a lot of items are pricey, set the guide to your budget and you may be surprised. I found this jaunty, canvas cross-body bag by Tommy Hilfiger for £25. You can pay a few pounds extra to have it authenticated. Allow for shipping time from Vestiaire; they suggest 10 days, but warn it can take up to 30. Another great bet for interesting bags is TRAID. I spotted a monogrammed Cerruti 1881 bag for £14.99 (find a local shop or use its online shop on eBay).
Cashmere is always a treat, whether new or secondhand. Keep a look out on eBay and Oxfam online but be warned, bidding can be fierce. You might prefer, as I did, to buy from The Nearly New Cashmere Boutique which has a new shop in Masham, North Yorkshire. The founder, Alison Orr, sources old (and some deadstock) cashmere which she washes, debobbles and, if necessary, reconditions and sells. Her prices are keen and the knitwear arrives beautifully packaged – as new. I opted for a soft striped Banana Republic jumper with three small holes that had been mended (almost invisibly). A bargain at £32.
Vintage wine glasses
I found a set of six 1920s engraved vintage wine glasses at a flea market in London. I didn’t even need to haggle for the stallholder to knock them down from £24 to £20, which seems extraordinary for something so refined and fragile that has survived in perfect condition for a century. I’ll be wrapping up these dinky wine glasses to accompany a bottle of my home-made damson gin, which I hope will be ready by Christmas.
There are so many good-quality shirts on charity shop rails. Depending on the taste of your shirt-wearer, you can find everything from Jermyn Street posh to high-quality hipster. I opted for this check flannel shirt by Patagonia, which is a credible, ethically minded brand with its own emphasis on reusing and repairing, so it makes perfect sense to buy its clothing secondhand. I found this from Vintage Folk on Asos Marketplace for £25, including delivery.
Christmas Day wouldn’t be right without a game or two. Vintage board games are worth seeking out for added nostalgia/curiosity value. Any charity shop is worth a browse (and bookmark Oxfam’s online shop). But I found Blast-Off!, a 1960s space age board game by Waddingtons, on eBay and couldn’t resist it for my sci-fi loving brother-in-law. It cost £16, plus £4.79 postage, and is worth it for the retro graphics alone.
Vintage gift tips
● Plan ahead and allow time for charity shop bargain hunting, and for deliveries, if shopping online. Check delivery dates before you order.
● Make a list and try to stick to it.
● Set a budget and stick to it. Don’t get carried away on auction sites – and don’t drink and bid.
● Use specialist dealers for items such as cameras, books, cashmere, vinyl – they’ve already done half the work for you.
● Use a local repair shop or cafe (repaircafe.org), or try a dry cleaner for alterations.
● Presentation is everything: wash, steam and iron clothes; collect old boxes to display jewellery in; keep an eye out for old tins and boxes to put jewellery in. ..
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