10 ways to ace a clothing swap

Clothing swap victory! Photo by Jenene Chesbrough.
This is not the author. Photo by Jenene Chesbrough.

I’d heard clothing swaps are a great way to upgrade a wardrobe for free. Some people, women usually, love them—like Clothing Swap and Meet founder Nichelle Stephens, who says such events bring out her “Sagittarian hunter-like leanings as well as appeal to her sense of vanity and thrift.” I wanted to believe Nichelle’s claim that they are also fun, but feared that such feel-good events only existed in Jennifer Garner movies. After all, this is New York: there are ugly sweaters, raw emotions, and bedbugs.

So my friends and I got together and hosted one ourselves. The Great Swap included a potluck dinner and wine; these were the highlights. Unfortunately, the swapping part didn’t flow as freely as the wine. Our first problem: We forgot what we came for, and then the piles of clothes felt like a chore rather than an event. The other main difficulty was inequality: some of us brought real finds, others of us brought tired castoffs, and some people treated other people’s finds like old castoffs. (I’m never calling her again.)

But my Jennifer Garner moment came in giving one of my friends a sweater purchased on a day when I apparently thought I looked more like her. That felt good, and was enough to restore my faith in swaps. Since then, I’ve grilled a number of more seasoned swappers on how to do these events right, and next time we do one, my friends (the invited ones) and I will follow their unofficial rules:

1) Limit everyone to five items. You bring five, and take five. It will make for a saner swap and improve the quality of the merch.

2) Include accessories. One size never really fits all.

This is the author. Photo by Kate Burlingham.

3) Invite your chic-est friends. People with clothes you would want.

4) Make sure there are some size-matches. In other words, it sucks to be the big-girl at the clothing swap.

5) Hold your tongue. Note to small girls: never say to the big girl “oh, this will fit you.” Even if it’s just cause she’s tall, just don’t.

6) Offer something other than clothing. Those who can’t find a thing to wear can still go away drunk, fed or otherwise pampered. offers free spa treatments that include anything from mani/pedi’s to spiritual counseling. Green Brooklyn has a bake sale included. And at the Really Really Free Market, held every last Sunday of the Month by anarchist organization In Our Hearts, everyone is welcome to “bring skills” along with items.

7) Beware of uninvited guests. A friend of mine hosted a successful clothing swap, except for the fact that one of the participants called a week later, saying she was diagnosed with bedbugs in her apartment.  Take heed: don’t have unprotected clothes-swaps.  Know how to safeguard yourself against bedbugs. Take your new items from the swap in a sealed garbage bag directly to the Laundromat. Bedbugs and their eggs can’t survive past 120 degrees, so wash and/or dry any new garb on high heat.

8) Consider on-line swapping. On Dig N Swap, you bid on items you like and upload pictures of items you’re giving for $.99 per exchange. Or if you just want to sell but not buy, check out Linda’s Stuff on Ebay. Send her your stuff and she sells it, giving you about 70 percent of the profit. I’ve heard from multiple friends that she is 100 percent reliable, and really works it to get her 30 percent.

9) Have a plan to get rid of the overflow. There will be some. It could be Salvation Army, or another charity, but make sure to figure out where the orphans are going afterwards and how they get there.

10) Don’t let your friends talk you into the overalls. You won’t wear them.


  1. Courtney

    A five item swap sounds REALLY boring. We host a quarterly swap at the Macon Library in Bed-Stuy (next one on October 10th) and it brings together people from all over the community. If you make it big enough, there are no problems with sizes and styles. It is quite a free for all, but we always have lots to donate to charity afterward.

  2. I have a questionWondering if someone here can help me out. I am going to buy a pair of maternity pants for one of my girls and I wanted to ask if the general type with the elastic inset belly part are still considered ok or are the ones with the under the belly style really that much more comfortable? I would think that the under belly type cut in a bit when moving around. Anyone have any input who has tried both?

  3. Julia

    I love this article, it’s so very true! I’ve been to 2 swaps so far and always had the problem that I didn’t really like anything there. So I returned back home still with my own bag of clothes.
    I find swapping online much more convenient and you have a bigger range to choose from. works for me, because you can reciprocate with whatever you like, even babysitting!

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