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  • B.Webster

How to Plan a Successful Clothes Swap

Whether you're hosting a living room clothes swap among friends, organizing a community event, or creating a preloved shopping experience for kids, a little prep work and publicity goes a long way! Here are some quick tips to keep you on track.

Hosting a clothing swap can be such a fun and rewarding experience. It helps foster connection within a community - whether that's a school, group of friends, or neighbourhood - and it gives another life to pre-loved pieces, avoiding the landfill.

"Secondhand September" Times of gathering (Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter) Seasonal transitions & holidays (Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter, prior to Reading Week & Spring Break) are all excellent times to host a swap.

Read on to discover a few of my favourite strategies to effectively organize, prepare and host a clothing swap, from intimate gatherings to large-scale events!

A neatly arranged child's closet showing books, toys and clothing.

In advance...

1. THE BASICS: Who, What, Where, Why, How

✓ Who

Put out a call for volunteers for accepting donations, sorting leading up to the event; advertising (this may include older kids visiting classes to remind others, social networks, handmade posters, or email campaigns); helping set-up and run the event, optionally offering a repair station; clean-up and donating or rehoming leftovers.

✓ What

Is the clothing swap themed? What time of year is it aiming for / are there any limitations as to what can be donated or anything specific you are looking for? *Consider how fully you would like to curate the swap, setting a minimum and limiting the number of pieces accepted can help with organization, visual consistency and encourage fewer, better donations (and less decision fatigue for shoppers). Between 2-10 pieces is a good amount. When asking for donations, use the simple rule "Would you gift this to your best friend?" as a guideline - you want to avoid stains, rips and items in poor condition. Do you want to ask for donations of backdrops / props / hangers / tote bags / mirrors / coat racks / shelves, etc. that can be useful for display, or would make the event even more fun?

✓ Where

If you are planning to host at a school, you will likely need to talk to the school board and may need to apply for a permit (i.e. gymnasiums and other rooms are often rented out for community use outside of school hours, so you'll want to reserve a spot in advance). *In our case, we submitted in June for a spot on a weekend in October - the approval took less than a week. If you are hosting in a community centre, church, small business, restaurant, etc. there may be a small fee involved for renting a room, or an opportunity to collaborate and give back to the community. It's worth asking if you can host the event for free in exchange for publicity or community outreach. If you are hosting in a public space (i.e. a park, beach or playground), check if you need permission from the city or community. Another option is to piggyback off a larger event with a small booth or area for swapping (just be sure to get the word out in advance by event organizers). ✓ Why

What is the purpose of the clothing swap, who is it serving? This is important when considering who your advertising is geared towards, optional add-ons and what happens to any leftover clothing. See A Guide to Recycling & Repair in Ottawa Part I: Clothing, Textiles, Accessories for ideas. You will also want to clearly communicate this to attendees in advance.

✓ How

Once you have a venue, date, time (we found a 2 hour window ideal) and volunteers lined up, you will want to prepare a few things in advance. Read on for your pre-swap checklist.

You'll need some behind-the-scenes storage, organizing, labeling and advertising - not just for gathering donations, remember to advertise for the event itself!

2. PRE-SWAP CHECKLIST: Storage, Organization & Props

✓ Storage for donations

For larger swaps, make sure you have an easily accessible storage space, labels (or paper, markers, tape) and large bins / bags / containers to organize donations as they come in. We found it useful to organize by size and type, keeping outerwear and shoes / boots separate from the rest of clothes. *Often school council will have a storage room available. *Containers could also be borrowed, rented or donated. *For our small elementary school of approx. 300 students, we used 12-15 bins and large Ikea-sized bags to house donations.

✓ Have a plan for leftovers

For larger swaps, ask for volunteers to help take away and re-home leftover clothing after the event. Have a few local charities in mind, consider thrift shops that can help raise some money for your school or community, or offer items to families within the school community.

*Call ahead to know what items are being accepted so your donations get used.

✓ Displays & optional add-ons

You will need plenty of tables and/or hanging storage, shelves, etc. A variety of displays, offering different heights and layouts, helps create visual interest and avoids mess. Ask at your school or event venue if tables, shelves or coatracks are available for use. If needed, put out a call for these items to be borrowed (ensure anything borrowed is labeled for easy return to its owner post-swap). To make the swap even more exciting, consider if any of the following options would be useful:

  • Donated tote bags to fill while 'shopping' or ask shoppers to bring a tote

  • A supervised repair station for quick repairs and lessons on mending

  • Mirrors, coat racks and hangers, hat stands, jewelry or accessory stands, shelves, easels

  • Music -prepare a fun playlist (and any extension cords, speakers etc. needed)

  • Signs, paper and markers to label, tape, scissors

  • Coffee for parents or volunteers, lemonade or hot chocolate for kids, light snacks (donated / potluck / BYO depending on the size and type of event) *Food and drinks can encourage people to linger longer, but keep an eye on snacks and drinks with younger kids - may be best to have a designated area away from the clothes.

  • Draw for a local gift certificate (ensure contact information is included to get in touch with winners)

  • Fun decor (garlands, lighting, artwork, flowers) & photo area with backdrop and props for selfies (to share and promote the event on social media)

✓ Publicity

1-2 weeks ahead of time, make sure to advertise donation drop-off and the clothes swap with kids, parents and the school community. Some ideas include:

  • Emails and social blasts (Facebook, WhatsApp, class emails, weekly school updates or newsletters)

  • Handmade posters and signs by kids

  • Have the older kids go class-to-class to talk up the event as it approaches

  • Morning school announcements

Day of

3. SET UP 2-3 hours, TAKE DOWN 1-1.5 hours

✓ Inventory

Be prepared to set up beforehand and depending on numbers and availability, you can have things in place the evening prior. Our clothes swap took place in the school gymnasium. We included an entrance table with tote bags and a large sign welcoming shoppers. For our elementary school of 300, we used:

  • 14 tables

  • 6 boxes

  • 5 shelves

  • 2 clothes racks

  • 2 mirrors

  • 2 benches

✓ Helpful Tips

  • As shoppers entered, we greeted families, offered tote bags, explained how things were organized and kept track of numbers for reporting to school council (and for future reference).

  • We found hanger donations, borrowed clothes racks and shelves very helpful to display some clothes vertically, adding visual variety.

  • Though we asked for 'clean, gently pre-loved' donations, some clothing needed repairing and cleaning. It was helpful to have some volunteers setting aside anything with stains or holes, as well as a mending station on-hand for small repairs.

  • Totes, mirrors and music were helpful in creating a 'shopping' ambiance

  • We had helpers on-hand to re-fold, organize and help find sizes throughout the event *An opportunity to offer older kids to complete 'volunteer hours'

Though we had washrooms available to try things on, most kids just held up clothes in the mirrors to decide on sizing. For older kids and adults, a change room or washroom with mirrors will be helpful.


5. RECAP: Congratulations, thank everyone for a job well done!

✓ Re-home leftovers

Have someone ready to take away any remaining items with a clear plan for where they are going (or hold onto items for a future swap).

✓ Draw names

Get in touch with winners for any local draws and thank your donor(s).

✓ Return props

Clothes racks, hangers, etc. can be returned to their owners.

✓ Thank volunteers

Make sure to thank all your volunteers and report on the success of the event and numbers.

5. FURTHER OPPORTUNITIES: Collaborations and beyond

✓ Swap currency & timing

For larger swaps, to help keep the clothing swap organized and control the number of items people are allowed to take, it can be helpful to lay some ground rules such as capping the number of items people can take or amount of time people are allowed to browse. One way to do this is by handing out tokens or a similar 'currency' in exchange for each piece of clothing brought in - attendees can then use each token towards a new item. Alternatively, at smaller more intimate gatherings such as a house party, you may consider dividing attendees into groups and drawing lots for time slots browsing or capping items at a certain number. You want to ensure everyone is given an equal opportunity to browse and bring something home.

✓ Event add-ons

A clothing swap is an excellent opportunity to discuss wider topics such as fast fashion, sustainable living, the evolution of a piece of clothing, 'who made my clothes' and the stories imbued in our most cherished pieces. Consider inviting a speaker to the event, hosting a workshop alongside, or adding a personal touch such as clothing 'tags' with some background on the piece of clothing. If you decide to charge a small fee towards an event space or entry, consider donating all or part towards a charity, or opting for a 'pay what you can' approach to make the event accessible.

✓ Join forces with a local group

There are opportunities to collaborate with local businesses or organizations; to showcase local designers, up-cyclers, menders, charities; to recognize an event space, drinks, food, music alongside the clothing. Sometimes the most unlikely of pairings can be wonderfully successful, as it encourages a different crowd to come together than each would attract individually.

Whether you are hosting a swap or attending one, remember to enjoy the experience, encourage connection between people and listen for the stories that may emerge. Ask people what brought them to the clothes swap, where their donated items come from and why they chose a particular piece to take home - that's what makes a clothing swap successful.


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