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How to shop for inspiration instead of clothing


The other weekend, I went on a shopping expedition to Steven Alan, a branch of which recently opened up in Portland.

I came away with a whole lot, and I didn’t spend a dime.

Inspiration shopping is one of my favorite activities. It turns the act of spending, which is usually loaded with difficult decisions and stress for me, into something creative and inspiring. Not only that, but I actually learn how to improve my sewing and expand my options by looking at really well-made garments.

There are a few things I do to maximize the inspiration I gather while I’m out shopping. Here are a few of my techniques, and I’d be interested to hear yours in the comments.

Where to shop

The most important aspect of snoop shopping is deciding where to go.

If you choose middle of the road or cheap chain stores, you might glean a few things about how garments are mass produced quickly, but not much beyond that.

I look at sewing as a way to produce garments I otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford (at least not often). So when I shop for inspiration, I go high end.

This is my chance to shop at my dream stores. I go for independent boutiques that stock emerging designers, or stores that stock high quality fashion forward basics like Steven Alan. It’s always interesting to me to see how basics can be elevated with small details and fabric.

What to look for

I love to really examine the clothes to look at the choices the designer made, and think about how they could be used in different contexts.

It isn’t a matter of knocking off any particular garment for me. It’s more about seeing what makes something interesting and how it could be incorporated to solve a different problem. That’s the heart of creativity, taking in inspiration and using it in a new or different way.

Here’s what I look for:

  • Fabric. Seeing what fibers nicer garments are made of, the weight and drape of the fabric, and how different fabrics are combined will teach you a lot. You can carry that knowledge right into the fabric store. It’s interesting to note when unusual fibers or blends are used.
  • Style lines. Examining trends in the silhouettes and shapes of garments can give you new ideas and take you out of your comfort zone a bit.
  • Finishes. Take a close look at how seams, hems, and necklines are finished. You’ll be surprised at how many of these you can recreate, and you’ll be inspired to switch out finishes when you sew. Note where facings are used, when bindings are chosen, what types of hems you see on various garments. This can get really fun.
  • Details. In addition to the overall shapes and finishes, you’ll discover a wealth of interesting details you may not have thought to use.

Keeping track of your inspiration

Unlike online window shopping, in-person shopping is a little harder to keep track of.

Here are a few ideas for utilizing what you observe:

  • Photos. This can be a little awkward in a shop, but it’s pretty common to take photos of yourself in a dressing room when trying things on. You can even upload your photos to a site like Pinterest, or use Evernote to keep track.
  • Notes. I always carry a little moleskine notebook in my bag, and have for years. I use it for everything, but that includes notes and ideas for things I’d like to try with my sewing.
  • Sketches. Sketching is my favorite way to quickly jot down sewing ideas.
  • Go online. If the shop has an online store, you can sometimes go online when you get home and find the garments you saw in person. Save photos and take notes about what you observed when you looked at the garment up close. This combination of in-person observation with clear photos can be a great method for tracking inspiration.

Where do you shop for inspiration? Do you have any other tips to share?

Sarai Mitnick


Sarai started Colette back in 2009. She believes the primary role of a business should be to help people. She loves good books, sewing with wool, her charming cats, working in her garden, and eating salsa.



July 30, 2014 #

Training us to have a creative eye. One trick is also to shut off the words in your head and look at it with your heart. Something will spark when you see something that inspires you. Then turn your words back on and ask what was it that made your brain/heart light up? This takes practice but you will come up with some pretty amazing details like general color combinations, fabric content, pockets, collars etc. Whatever excites you. That notebook will come in handy.


July 30, 2014 #

Beautifully put, Lisa.


July 30, 2014 #

My grandmother always talks about how embarrassed she used to be when her mother (a fantastic seamstress) would turn things inside-out in Marks & Spencer to see how they were made!


July 30, 2014 #

I love this post, Sarai! I love to shop for inspiration online, but have never really tried it in person; will have to try for sure! I wonder if anybody would be interested in getting us all together to compile a list of good places to go for inspiration shopping– I am new to all this and don’t really know where to start. Do you have any favorites that you could recommend? Thank you!

Sara A.

July 31, 2014 #

It depends on what you like to make. If you like to make big lacy frocks, head to Betsy Johnson. Men’s ware inspired Annie Hall your game? See how the big boys do it at Brooks Brother’s or Ralph Lauren. I tend to go to J Crew, Anthropologie, and Saks. If you’re really trawling for ideas head to the big pedestrian shopping area of your city and walk around you should get as much inspiration from the other shoppers as you do the shops


August 1, 2014 #

I love to inspiration shop at Anthropologie, but only for style ideas, because the clothes are very poorly made! I’ve got plenty of things into the fitting room and noticed buttons popping off, seams coming loose, etc. Same goes for Banana Republic and J Crew. As Sarai suggests, go higher end for better quality and more impressive garments.


July 30, 2014 #

I subscribe to Vogue for this reason, and also review the NYT for fashion info, but find it is less helpful. Some street fashion sites are great but most internet site associated with fashion are uninformative and pretentious. As for actual stores, I live in the rural south and the kind of store you use as an example just doesn’t exist here. Casual whatever is the order of the day. Asheville, NC has some upbeat modern fashion, but it’s stuff that isn’t worn in my little community. Moreover, I have an rice job working from home. No one ever sees my work wardrobe except a few times a year during trips to the HQ.

Library books on style, fashion, and costumes and clothing through the ages are pretty inspirational, especially from times when clothes were all handmade. This latter source helps give me ideas for fresh shapes not commonly found in RTW.


July 30, 2014 #

That was supposed to be office job, not rice job!


July 30, 2014 #

It’s so fun to shop for sewing inspiration. I also like to try on new silhouettes to make sure I like the way they look one me. It’s a great way to make sure I’ll actually like the garment before I spend a lot of time and effort making it. And it helps me figure out how I want something to fit. This can be done at almost any store (and price point).


July 30, 2014 #

I love Vogue and I often look in Ted Baker in store or online for inspiration. The tailoring is lovely and always has some interesting details. The more structured garments are beautifully finished off. I keep a notebook too and often make rough sketches of garments or details which I would like to include in future sewing projects. It is interesting how these ideas evolve!

sj kurtz

July 30, 2014 #

The old Ted Baker shirts last for decades (just look in my closet).


July 30, 2014 #

yes! i just did this at madewell in portland last week – i had been itching to go there because i love their style and wanted to see what they had, but had zero intention of buying anything. i noted fabrics (lots of chambray and eyelet), overall style (utilitarian/romantic juxtaposition) silhouettes (along with which patterns i’d use to make something similar), and most definitely turned a popover blouse inside out to see how they did the placket. came away totally inspired. i can hardly shop to buy anymore; making is a lot more fun.


July 30, 2014 #

The girls at Planet Blue routinely see me snapping quick pics of their outfits when I walk past on my way to the gym. It’s absolutely inspiring for both my sewing & workout. For clothing details I prefer the higher end Leon Max silk pieces from the place up main, Max something. Gorgeous pieces & that even at outlet prices are above what I can afford for more than a very special occasion. I’m getting better at draping because of their clothes & the pictures I take in the dressing room.


July 30, 2014 #

I love online shopping for inspiration – Boden is a particular favourite. I try to match up their styles with patterns and fabrics. Here’s a post I wrote with some RTW inspiration suggestions and the related patterns/fabrics!


July 30, 2014 #

I am regularly inspired by RTW whether that be window shopping or things I already own. My current project uses a strong geometric print which I would never thought would have worked were it not for a similarly styled RTW skirt.

Making my own clothing gives me the opportunity to wear outfits and fabrics which I couldn’t hope to afford in store. It’s always fun to take that inspiration away and apply my own twist to make it work for me.


July 30, 2014 #

I love this post. Great idea to check out the high-enders to analyze the differences between mass market and luxury clothing and applying it towards our own sewing skills. Thanks again for you brilliant blog!


July 30, 2014 #

My mother is an excellent seamstress who made most of my clothes as I grew up. I was used to her taking clothes off racks in stores to investigate them for the techniques used, turning them inside out to see how linings were inserted, etc. It didn’t embarrass me, I thought that’s what you did in clothing stores!


July 30, 2014 #

I love to shop for inspiration too. It’s so liberating not to spend money, except on fabric that is! I especially like checking out the inside of RTW garments. I love your ideas on documenting.


July 30, 2014 #

I love to do this at Anthropologie! I mainly look at silhouettes, ideas on unique fabric combinations, and clothing details(and also how they decorate the store out of unexpected materials). I also love looking at Boden online or in catalogue form as well as at vintage clothes and folk clothing. The more I look, the more I see how important detail and fabric choice is.


July 30, 2014 #

I definitely do this. There is a shop here called Gorman where basically everything looks like how I would want to make it, so it’s a great source of inspiration. Mostly when I go inspiration shopping I am looking at silhouettes, especially ones that I’m not yet sure about. It’s a great way to try on a new shape before deciding if it suits me enough to make it. I did exactly this the other day with some culottes. Now I’m in the hunt for a structured silk cotton!


July 30, 2014 #

Nice post, I do this too. The other affect I find this has is making me feel heaps better about my own sewing! I’ve seen Armani tops for $500 that aren’t finished nearly as nicely as mine are! Reason # 123058439846t739847923 sewing kicks ass. :)


July 31, 2014 #

Second that!
Sarai – once again, thanks for a thoughtful post:)
I’ve never been embarassed about examining the inside of garments – actually, when I used to buy clothes (haven’t for years now – yay!), I would always turn them inside out to check seams, finishing, fabric content and cleaning requirements – after once going home with something with a laddered seam.

Alice Elliot

July 31, 2014 #


sj kurtz

July 30, 2014 #

I have no issues with snapping away in department stores or chains with my phone. My phone is full of shots of store windows, photos of my hand holding up a hem, the grommet detail in a bag, the eyeball print on a shirt, it goes on.

I NEVER take photos of indie designer stuff. It would feel like shoplifting. If I can remember what I loved about it, I will borrow a detail, but if I really love it, I gotta vote with my pocketbook and find a way to buy it from them.

Lucky for me, I have been able to argue my way into trades for alteration work, or layaway. And I’ve made some good friends that way.


July 31, 2014 #

I also take photos with my phone in department stores. Usually the photos are for details I’d like to try and incorporate into my projects, or color combinations that catch my eye.


July 31, 2014 #

i’ve been meaning to take advantage of all the designer stores in walking distance forever… haven’t done it yet, but yes– it’s just as satisfying to “shop” and never open the wallet!


July 31, 2014 #

I feel terrific “shopping” a store and not spending a dime. I was in London UK and I shopped Top Shop and Gudrun Sjoden. I go look at Anthropologie. I try stuff on too.


July 31, 2014 #

I have my husband bring back French magazine when he travels. I also subscribe to W Magazine and WWD. For real world inspiration, it’s Nordstrom and Anthropologie.

Alice Elliot

July 31, 2014 #

Yes, yes, yes and again yes! I love to shop this way. In the Bay Area there are so many opportunities find inspiration. I love to do this on 4th St. in Berkeley, there’s the Chanel Boutique in S.F., Molly B in Berkeley, and on and on. I have gotten great ideas for finishing details for wedding gowns when I did custom dressmaking, and copied styles I loved but no way could afford. Taking garments into the dressing room and looking inside, sketching, and snapping a photo, now with our phones, boy do we have an advantage! Great post!

Nancy K

July 31, 2014 #

I can never understand when a sewer copies the mass market stores. I’m with you I am out to sew what I can’t afford to buy. I like to shop online at Net a Porter because they have such good photos of the clothing and you can easily get a pretty good close up. I like Saks Fifth Avenue for that too. In person I really like to snoop shop at Saks and feel the fabrics and like you I look at all the details and how the garments are finished.


August 2, 2014 #

This is very interesting. I also carry a sketchbook when I travel and sketch items I’ve seen that I like, partly because taking photos feels wrong to me somehow (I don’t know why!).

I’m lucky to be able to spend a lot of time in Florence, Italy, as that’s my partner’s hometown, so I benefit from looking at the classic, timeless tailoring that still goes on there (you have to dig a little bit, as even Italy has succumbed to globalization in clothing manufacture). My boyfriend, who is very old-school and knowledgeable about how clothes should be made and maintained, especially classic styles, is very interesting to window shop with. He often comments both on how poorly-made and poorly-displayed what you’d think of as high-end designer garments are these days. We have interesting conversations as we stroll in the high-fashion areas in the evenings, as well as with people in shops who have been in the making or selling business for many decades. That said, there still is plenty of positive inspiration in Italy, without any doubt, and I spend my fair share of time investigating garments and standing in front of windows, musing over design details. My latest obsession is the young generation of bespoke shoemakers that is cropping up. I almost want to train to do this myself!

Janet @ Ordinary Mom

August 5, 2014 #

Having just got back from England with my family, I found the greatest inspiration store in Cath Kidston. I was so excited to just look around and absorb all the details and patterns that just spoke to me. I know that personally that much pattern is TOO much but I am looking forward to inspiring myself to add little bits here and there!