one gal’s trash: how to host a clothing swap

Just being trashy.

As a kid, I loved hand-me-downs. Nothing thrilled me more than a garbage bag full of our neighbor’s Old Navy dresses or my older cousin’s cool tops and skirts from brands I’d never heard of. Every time I received a fresh load of used clothes, I’d sift through, trying on every piece and daydreaming about how cool I’d look sporting my new outfit at school the next day. Each delivery had new styles and brands, letting me experiment with my outfits and find different ways of dressing myself. If I was lucky, these bags also included purses, books, and toys.

Unfortunately, at a certain age, the trash bags stopped flowing in—likely because the girls stopped growing so frequently and started to level out in both weight and height. Even so, I still miss those shipments and the process of literally digging through bags of the unknown to find something out of the ordinary, something capable of bringing out a new side of my personal style.

Just like my neighbors and cousin, the majority of us can relate to that moment when you look in your closet and realize there are at least a few pieces you’ve been neglecting. That romper you wore out once but never again. Or the jacket you thought you’d need for work, before you realized your office was casual AF. And then there are all the things we grow out of. Jeans that are uncomfortably snug or sweaters that have become unflatteringly oversized. Whether it’s the style or the fit, we naturally grow disconnected from some pieces. So even if we still hold tight to them, say because you think it’ll fit eventually or because it has some emotional association, the reality is those pieces aren’t getting the wear they deserve.

For those closet castaways, donating is a great option. Donation centers often support social services to uplift particularly vulnerable populations, such as those with a criminal history, helping them create a livelihood and reconnecting them to their community. What’s more, larger second-hand chains, like Goodwill and Savers, have programs in place that allow them to recycle or repurpose almost anything (yes, even your old underwear!) so very little ever ends up in the landfill.  

But donating your clothing isn’t the only way to do good by an unwanted item. After all, one gal’s trash is a another’s teasure. So if you’re up for something a little more involved, clothes swaps are a fun and cheap way to KonMari your wardrobe, not to mention a damn good excuse to get the girls together.

The Who’s Who.

The key to a great clothes swap is the guest list. When it comes to invitees, try for 10-15 people. Any less and there may not be enough goods to go around. Any more and your event may lose its intimacy and community-feel. However, if you’re hoping for a more public-facing swap and don’t want to be restricted to your home, consider expanding your guest list to 30-50 or even posting your event to Facebook or Eventbrite. Churches and community centers are often happy to open their spaces to events for little or no cost, especially if the events have a social or environmental tie in.

In addition to how many, another important element to consider incorporating in your guest list is diversity in both body type and style. You want every guest to feel excited about your event and that means making sure there’s something for everyone. As you think about who to invite, be aware of each guests’ style and size. It may not work out perfectly but try your best to feature some clothing that will appeal to and fit all your guests. Another way to be inclusive is by offering more than just clothing. At my event, people brought books, shoes, jewelery—even a flask. With more to offer, you can guarantee guests will feel comfortable and leave with something they’re excited to take home.

The moral of the party.

Whether you’re hosting the swap at your home or in a public venue, put your best designer on making cute e-invitations (save some trees!) to get the event on everyone’s calendar and remind them to start scouring their homes for things to bring. In the description, list off examples of items you’re looking for, like clothing, shoes, housewares, books, kitchen items, and accessories, so guests understand the scope of your event.

Another thing you’ll want to include in your invite is a mention of why you’re hosting the event. This objective is totally up to you. If you just want to have a boozy girls day, that’s totally fine. But you could also use the swap as a chance to support your favorite sustainable charity by having guests donate $5 for attending the swap. If you’re particularly interested in the impacts of second-hand clothing and goods, like me, consider making your event educational. At my house, I hung up DIY plant streamers and notecards with facts about clothing waste, fast fashion, and the benefits of recycling. Lastly, if you’re wanting to put forth something even more involved, consider showing a movie like The True Cost or creating your own short presentation that demonstrates the impact each guest has had because they chose to recycle their clothing. As for supplemental materials, you could make a list of local second-hand stores guests could shop at in place of popular fast fashion brands. Or, check with a local thrift or charity shop to see if they have any materials for you to share.

Decor-rate.

When it came to preparing my house for the event, I knew I wanted to keep everything as low-waste as possible. That meant no balloons or plastic dishware. Instead, I used my own dishes and prepared the refreshments myself. While the spread was not completely plastic-free, it was a far cry from the red solo cups and plastic plates I commonly encounter at parties.

On top of the refreshments, I also DIYed my own decorations. Do I have strong artistic skills? No, my own mother could tell you that. But by using what I already had, I was able to create a fun environment without buying or consuming anything new.

Let them shop.

On the day of your event, make sure you know where you’ll be displaying the clothes. Consider asking guests to bring hangers or a rolling clothes rack. If you want to keep it low-maintenance, just have guests lay out their clothes on your floor (I highly recommend vacuuming beforehand). Make sure each item is visible and displayed so guests can get a good look at what’s up for grabs.

Before anyone begins picking, have each guest take a quick sweep around to survey the goods. This will help keep the process moving more quickly. Once everyone’s had a look, have each person pick a number. Whoever has #1 chooses first and so on and so forth until everyone has gone through the cycle once. While each person takes their turn, I found it helpful to have activities on hand. I set up a small painting station and indoor potting area where guests could plant tomatoes, basil, and carrot seeds to take home with them. Again, you could also choose to show a film or—god forbid—let people talk to one another.

Depending on how many you host, I suggest having guests go through the full lineup three to four times before they’re able to choose out of turn. When you do get to this point, feel free to open up the floor to trades as well.

To the thrift.

Last stop—the thrift store. Once guests have gone, gather up all the leftover items and put them into sturdy bags. Be sure to fold the clothing to keep it in good shape and prevent wrinkling. Afterward, head to Google to find your nearest donation center. Most organizations will take everything but keep in mind if there are items one place won’t accept, there’s likely another organization that will. For example, many animal shelters collect old towels for kennels and cleaning. And children’s afterschool programs are likely to accept used sportswear, like golf clubs or cleats. No matter what is left over from your swap, its important to do what you can to move every item closer to a new and loving home.

I hope this article has left you inspired to throw your own swap. If so, I highly recommend you check out The Good Trades’ article on clothing swaps for more examples of how to make your event a sustainable success.

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