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Rachel Ashwell: How To Flea Market

Rachel Ashwell is the founder of the iconic Shabby Chic brand. A native of London, she's lived in Southern California for 30 years. She is always on the look out for interesting pieces to fill her stores and website as well as inspire her own designs. A master at spotting diamonds in the rough, her design mantra is: beauty, comfort, and function. We couldn't agree more! She was kind enough to share her expertise on how to navigate the often confusing world of flea markets to find those undiscovered treasures.

I go to the flea markets often, to look for inspiration for my design work, plus with a long list of requests from my Shabby Chic stores and website. I started my quest for interesting pieces when I was a little girl in London and I would tag along with my mum and dad to the markets there. My mum taught me the value of the “beauty of imperfection.” That is, to understand the life of the object as the thing that makes it interesting, and to value evidence of love and life in a piece rather than to judge it as used. My father taught me to be decisive, to think quickly on my feet, to have my own set of standards, and to buy or pass with confidence. I still apply those early lessons to my process of searching for treasures today.

I pride myself on becoming a good editor as I shop. On first arrival, a flea market can be hugely overwhelming, but like with anything else in life, if you hone in on what is important and appeals to you, in the end that is all you will see, and you will find what you are looking for. It takes patience and endurance, but look under tables, in boxes, in the rafters. The treasures are there waiting for you to find them. Here are my tips for how to find those treasures:

Categorize. Sometimes I look for things by color, (in Shabby World: white, pastel colors, teal, and raspberry). Sometimes I look for floral things. Sometimes grouping of things like chairs or trays. Even though Shabby Chic is all about mixing and matching looks and styles, this way there is order in the chaos.

Be prepared with a mode of transport for your treasures. That could be knowledge that wherever you are going has delivery service, or you bring your own SUV/ truck, or maybe some hired muscles.

A piece that didn’t fit.

Good measurements are vital, for the size of the space for the piece, but also for access to doorways, halls, and stairs. There’s nothing worse than buying that perfect piece that fits the spot but cannot fit through the doors and hallways.

Always bring cash, especially if you’re looking for little things. While some of the more established vendors have credit card facilities, many don’t, and checks aren’t always preferred. Cash helps in a negotiation, too.

Be prepared for weather. Flea market vendors are a “come rain or shine” crowd. So whether it’s freezing cold or boiling hot, have the right attire. Many flea markets open very early. In the summer, have lots of sunscreen and a hat for sun protection. In the winter, this might mean getting there before sunrise, so bring a flashlight. Also, have a notepad or smartphone to keep track of where things were purchased. After a while, all the aisles look the same.


Edit. Don’t buy something just to make your efforts to get there worthwhile. Coming home empty handed is better than coming home with the wrong stuff. Sometimes you will fall in love with the potential of something. If you have the skill set, tools, and time to achieve the vision, that is wonderful. But be careful of buying projects that will just sit and sit and sit.

Pick a number. When I find a treasure I like, I immediately generate an amount in my head of what I will pay for it. Then I ask what the price is. If it’s less or similar, I happily buy. If it’s a lot more, I respectfully tell the vendor the price I have in mind. If they say yes, great, if not, I don’t haggle. I respect the work it takes for vendors to seek out the treasures. Remember to add any additional restoration costs you might incur, as you’re working out the value of a piece: reupholstery, rewiring lighting, fixing wonky drawers and cabinets, even buying a piece of marble and glass.

Enjoy the ride. Sometimes the biggest joys come from the smallest things—a little hand painted poem, a bud vase, a piece of inspiration fabric. All told, the experience of searching for treasures, and having genuine conversations on the way, is a great way to spend a day and an important part of The World of Shabby Chic.

For more on Rachel and her Shabby Chic world, follow her on instagram and pinterest

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1 Response

  1. I have been such a super fan for a lot of years now. I remember when Rachel had a tv show on the Styl network…I had to watch every day. I have just finished my collection of the Shabby Chic books recently….Well, till the next one. And I can’t say that I have been able to make it to her store or her inn…. but the store I am waiting for when it am ready to buy a house…soon!!! And I am going to her inn for my birthday with a friend…girls trip!!!

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