7 MIN READ

Here’s How You Can Get a Closet Full of Clothes You’ll Love — for Free

Tara Ollis sorts through jeans during a clothing swap at Stephanie Bolling's home in St. Petersburg, Fla. Tina Russell/The Penny Hoarder


The red terry cloth dress my mother wore in a 1984 family portrait hangs in my closet. To the left is a Missoni dress my sister-in-law gifted me one Christmas, and to the right, a seldom-worn long-sleeved bodycon dress from Shein, a total impulse ad-click purchase.

A space saver bag full of clothes for when I weigh 10 pounds more or less hides on the shelf above.

Clothes often have stories, which makes them easy to keep and harder to part with.

I felt that way until my first clothing swap.

What is a Clothing Swap?

 

A welcome sign on Stephanie Bolling's home greets guests who participated in her in annual clothing swap. Tina Russell/The Penny Hoarder

A welcome sign on Stephanie Bolling's home greets guests who participated in her in annual clothing swap. Tina Russell/The Penny Hoarder

Clear your closet like you would for a Goodwill donation, but then bring your clothes to a swap meet soiree instead.

Basically, you rid your closet of unwanted clothes and swap them with others doing the same.

A swap can be at a private residence or a business. I’ve seen local cafes do it, and I’ve hosted a handful at work and most recently held one at my house.

I invited a bunch of friends, set up the space, laid out some snacks and enjoyed an afternoon of socializing and swapping.

This eco-friendly and economical approach to your wardrobe makes for great fashion, friendships and finances. 

How to Host a Clothing Swap

Hosting at home lends itself to a relaxed “party” atmosphere that encourages participation and camaraderie.

Swappers are hesitant at first, but once they start — or have a sip of wine — the allure of free clothes takes over. Watch and revel.

Invite

I invited friends, coworkers and family and allowed them to invite guests.

Casting a wide net of invitations ensures a variety in clothing styles and sizes. About 15 ladies showed up, or a third of the number I invited, which is an exceptional turnout.

Around 10 swappers is a good number, depending on the space.

I created a Facebook event page, but you can use Evite, email or any free invitation platform.

State all the basics of the swap in the invitation, including time, place, rules and if it’s a potluck.

You can make your swap coed, gender specific or kid-friendly. There’s no right way. I’ve had the most success with women and allowing kiddos in the mix.

Since I donate anything left over at the end, I always accept all forms of clothing, including children’s and men’s (even if they’re not attending the swap). That’s optional of course.

Set Up

A woman sets up hangers on a clothing rack as she prepares her home for a clothing swap.
Stephanie Bolling prepares clothing racks she borrowed for for her clothing swap. Tina Russell/The Penny Hoarder

You’ll want space for folks to offload their mountains of clothes, a full-length mirror and some nibbles for guests.

I cleared my coffee, dining room and high-top breakfast tables to use as surfaces for clothes.  I had a compact folding table and borrowed a large folding table and two clothing racks from friends.

If hosting with friends, ask them to bring any of these items, including hangers, and help set up beforehand.

Arrange the setup to best fit the space. Give people room to sift and sort as well as privacy to try on clothes.

I set up finger foods and drinks in the kitchen to create a clothes-free place for conversation and much-needed swap breaks.

I went to Aldi and Trader Joe’s and picked up a couple inexpensive bottles of wine, chips and supplies for a cheese board. I already had most of the plateware and nonalcoholic beverages on hand.

I encouraged others to bring to snacks and beverages to share.

Organize

A woman places a Bottoms sign on a wall in her home as she prepares for a clothing swap at her house.
Bolling made signs to help swappers sort and find items. Tina Russell/The Penny Hoarder

Grouping clothes by type makes it easier for swappers to sort their clothes on arrival and easier to pick through the selection later.

Having swappers sort their own clothes alleviates pressure on you and drums up excitement.

I made legible, handwritten signs that helped swappers find and sort items. There were dedicated spaces for tops, bottoms, dresses, jackets, accessories, intimates (bras, bathing suits), beauty products and shoes.  

Most swappers arrived with several bags of clothes, so keeping it organized made it much easier all around.

You can further sort your tables by size — or age for kid’s clothes — or create a chic display, but I’ve found making it pretty to be useless, especially if there are a lot of clothes. The constant shuffling mixes up sizes and presentation, and it all ends in a heaping pile regardless.

Donate or Sell

You’ll most likely be left with mounds of clothing.

You can wait until everyone leaves and try on everything while polishing off the leftover wine like I did or ask your friends to help bag up the clothes. It’s up to you.

I filled nine 30-gallon trash bags after the swap.

I donated the leftovers to a thrift store that supports domestic-abuse survivors and to a homeless shelter.

Inquire if any of your guests wish to take any clothes with them to donate to a local charity or church of their choosing.

Since I’m a Penny Hoarder, I considered reselling clothes online to make a little extra cash but decided to donate instead. How you deal with the leftover clothes is up to you.

Rules of Swapping

A woman places her old clothing in the appropriate piles during an annual clothing swap.
Heather Comparetto, center, places her offerings in the designated areas. Tina Russell/The Penny Hoarder

They’re pretty chill, especially if hosting with friends.

Everyone knows to bring clean clothing in decent condition and nothing with stains, holes or missing buttons, but you still need to state it clearly in advance. We made a side fixer-upper pile for the crafty, but that’s totally optional.

Schedule your swap on a weekend and give a month’s notice.

This allows for planning, hype and necessary purging. It takes time to part with some items. You’ll work up the nerve.

Giveth to the swap and you shall receive is my philosophy. I mulled over that Shein dress for weeks and finally put it in the swap mix. What I added back to my closet more than made up the difference.

Set a designated swap start time. If your event starts at noon, set the swap time for 12:30 p.m. to ensure enough time for people to sort their clothes and scope out their picks.

After the swap starts, everything is fair game.

A pile of jeans are sorted through during an annual clothing swap.
Participants are asked to bring clothing in decent condition without stains, holes or missing buttons. The best thing about a clothing swap: the clothes are free. Tina Russell/The Penny Hoarder

The basic rule is bring at least one item and take home as much as you want.

Some swaps put restrictions on item limits or use a token-based or turn-taking system, but those are boring. There’s no thrill of the hunt or vulturing when a newcomer arrives. I find setting limits doesn’t make it very much fun.

My swap had a five-hour window. Ladies came and went. When someone arrived on the late end, ladies swooped in and called dibs immediately. Second, third and fourth dibs followed.

Seeing friends who’d never met create an on-the-fly honors system and revel in the others’ fit and finds made my thrifty heart swell.

Why Swap?

There’s no cost. It’s free clothes.

“I cleaned out my closet and got some free stuff. It was a win win situation,” said Patricia Ramos, my aunt who I coerced to swap.

Free clothes entice you to take risks and try on items you wouldn’t consider in a store. There’s no worry over price tags — although many clothes at swaps still had price tags on them.

A few swappers brought clothes and refused to take anything home. The swap inspired them make space in their closets and drawers and they wanted to keep it that way, so they came to hang out and socialize.

A woman sorts through clothing during a clothing swap.
Maggie Hutchinson updates her wardrobe by picking out some items at Bolling's clothing swap. She left with bags of new clothing. Tina Russell/The Penny Hoarder

Maggie, a first-time swapper and new mom, pulled out armful after armful of clothes to fit her new mom bod.

“Every time I went through it [the swap], I ended up taking more. I had to stop,“ she said.

She messaged me several days later to share that her entire work outfit was made up of swap clothes and how good it made her feel.

Tina Russell, a Penny Hoarder photographer, reluctantly parted with an expensive vintage dress she was very fond of. We watched woman after woman pick it up and return it to the mix after it didn’t fit.

Finally, it fit a fashion-forward swapper and everyone cheered for the coveted dress and its new owner.

“It was really satisfying to see dresses work on someone else after three or four of us had tried them on with no luck,” Maggie said.

Combined, swappers took home more than 100 items without spending a dime.

Knowing your clothes might have a new life with a friend is sometimes all it takes to let them go.

As for that Shein dress — Maggie took it home.

Stephanie Bolling is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. A third of her wardrobe is from clothing swaps. Read her full bio here or say hi On Twitter @StephBolling.

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