the mothering arts

Speaking of systems: Clothing Storage…

Elise asked if I could share my secret to finally getting the great big clothing swap under control.

I'll have to describe it without pictures, because *ahem* 8 DVDRs, 2 CDRs, and 11,760 photographs away from a hard drive crash waiting to happen…the Mac is currently "under repair". See, I told you I had a photo problem


As a family of seven, with four boys of varying ages and sizes, I've got significant amounts of clothing to track. This doesn't include the many hand-me-downs we are so very blessed to receive (that is, clothes given to us not in the current or previous sizes). Ben and Isaiah are practically the same size and can wear the same size clothing, with some of the things being either a bit big on Isaiah or bit small on Ben. David is in 2T/3T clothing now, and Josiah is spanning the newborn/ 0 to 3 month divide. The younger boys seem to bridge clothing sizes at the oddest times, usually smack in the middle of a season (my older boys did this too, and sometimes still do to an extent). I also have Lorelei and all her dresses, but since that is what she primarily wears her clothing requirements are not so dynamic.

As any mama of a large-ish family can tell you, that's a lot of clothes.

Remember this?

I'd estimate two thirds of the monster was the fact that we were getting over-run by clothes. Something had to change.

Problem #1: Not knowing what I had. Clothes were stored in no particular order in three different places- the children's room, underneath the stairs, and in the garage.

Problem #2: Not being able to quickly access what I had. When the weather suddenly turned cold and I needed long sleeve shirts for all the kids, there was no way to get to them (or even know where they were) without some serious frustration (or bruises from knocking head on stair!)

Problem #3: Too many clothes. This is hard one. I don't think I've bought but maybe $100-$200 dollars worth of clothing in my kids' lifetimes. Most of their clothes are hand me downs from other families, with a few special shirts and things (like John Deere branded stuff, my boys' absolute favorite thing to get for birthdays) added in. When people used to give me clothes, I felt this guilty sort of obligation to use and store all of it. Doing the math, however, doesn't add up: four different families giving me enough clothes for two boys (for a total of eight hypothetical boys) in one season is way more than I can ever use! I also had to think hard about how many outfits my children really needed in a season, because our active/closet clothing storage is pretty limited as well.

I am sure that these are similar problems for a lot of mamas. Another not so obvious part of the problem? Opaque storage containers, and storage containers of different sizes. 

Here's what I did…

Solution #1: I decided that my primary storage space for clothes was going to be in the garage. That meant I had about a 4 ft wide by six foot tall storage area. (I decided the area under the stairs was out- it was just to hard to get to and required gymnastic ability and patience I didn't have.) I then went and evaluated storage solutions. Now, I know this sounds a little backwards- shouldn't I know what I have first before I went and found storage for it? But in my case, I knew that area was the only practical space I had, so the clothes had to fit the storage, not the other way around. I found these containers, which are clear, and can stack on top of one another. I have five of them. They fit perfectly in that area.

Solution #2: During our epic last stand against clutter (so glad we won!) I had to bite the bullet and really go through all of our clothes. I imagine if you're a family just starting out, you could probably skip this step, but most of us didn't start out this way. I pulled every strand of clothing from every closet, every storage container, every place, and spread it out on the floor of the garage on a drop cloth. It took two days to process them all (this included items currently in our closets, current season). I was shocked to discover that both James and I had clothing for each season sometimes in triplicate, where we had bought new stuff because we couldn't find what we were looking for. This wasn't necessarily the case with the kids, but it was definitely and eye opener. It just illustrated how frustrating the process had become, because I would say things like "I swear we have such and such clothing item" and we did but I couldn't find it.

Solution #3: Size and sort.

  • Once I eliminated doubles and triples of things (we don't need three extra 2t/3t jackets, for example), I began to sort by size. NOT season. I'll explain that part in a second. I took a good long look at everything that passed through my hands. What was the condition? Where there any tears or rips? Stains? If it could be repaired easily, and we 'needed' it, I kept it and put it in its own pile (which I then worked through and repaired a few days later. That is key. Repair it immediately, or it will never happen.)
  • Secondly, remember the hypothetical eight boys? That was my reality that season. I literally had enough clothes for both of the older boys three or four times over. When I began to sort through all those hand me downs, I got tough. The jeans had to be good, thick quality, with a relatively dark wash, because after going through both of my older boys, they would have taken a beating and I still wanted them around for my younger boys. For shirts, I tended to keep those that were solid colors. One, we don't really favor cartoon characters and other branding. (We also don't have a tv, so nine times out of ten, the kids don't even know who or what those things are.) Two, solid color shirts are easier to wash and remove stains from. Same thing went for long sleeve shirts and "sunday" shirts (polos). The rest I happily gave to our local clothes closet ministry. This eliminated about two thirds of the clothes I had currently been storing.
  • Now I sorted by size. All the 2T clothes in one spot, regardless of season, and so on and so forth. It makes sense to sort by season, especially for adults. Kids, however, are a whole 'nother ball game. My children have been born at different times of the year, so I might have different clothes for different seasons. (Like 18-24 month summer clothes but not winter ones.) Secondly, my kids tend to outgrow things at odd times, not at seasonal breaks.

This is how the system ended up: I have those five containers packed with the clothing sorted by size. One of those containers is Lorelei's. Since I don't have any other girls, I have been passing her clothing on as she outgrows it. Her container has some heirloom keepsake items that I want to keep, but mostly it is filled with the size (and season) ahead of her. She's currently wearing 3T clothes, so her storage has 4T clothes (and some 5T). The other four are dedicated to the boys. Right now, Josiah has half of a container's worth of storage, which has 12-24 month clothing. The rest of that container is David's old clothes that he just came out of (due to the season)- primarily 18-24 m clothes that may or may not work next season. The container below that has 2T summer clothes and 3T-4T ( both seasons). The container under that is the older boys summer clothes from this year (XS/5 and 6). There is a good chance that they will wear most of that again next year. The bottom container holds clothes that are one size ahead of the boys (M/ 7 and 8). I don't organize by kid. (Well, sorta.) But I don't label by kid. 

I packed the containers by type. Short sleeves together, long sleeves together, jeans, pants, by stack. I literally can tell at a glance how many jeans are in the box because they are all together in one place. Think of it as a sort of extra large filing cabinet, and you'll "see" it.

When everything was finally packed in, I very clearly labeled what was in each container. I have changed these labels with each seasonal change. (I've gone through spring and fall now with this system in place.) On it I mark roughly how many of each thing in each size is in there. And if I notice that I'm low on something, I mark that too, like " only 2 Long Sleeve shirts". That way, I know what to look for at the store or what to keep when I am given hand me downs. It's another visual way to verify exactly what I have. It also makes it easy for anyone else (like daddy or grandparents) to find the clothes too.

Hand me downs are dealt with immediately. I just got a batch from a friend at church with a slightly older boy, and I quickly went through them and 'filed' them in the right container or put them in the closet to wear immediately. I probably only kept about a third of what she gave me, and then I handed it off to another friend who has a boy Isaiah's age. 

The beauty of this system is that it literally takes about ten to fifteen minutes to completely switch over the clothes. I basically go to the right 'file drawer' and grab the clothes they need, switch the current clothes out, and put the out of season, out of size clothes back into the right "drawer". Then they are ready for the next kid. I realize that this works, in part, because I have kids that are pretty close in age. I'm not sure how this would work for kids that are farther apart. I can do a switch at any time- if I notice some clothing is getting small, I put it through the wash, and then when I am folding laundry I just walk it over and put it in the right container. Sometimes I pull out a set of clothes while I'm there. 

 I'll try to get pictures up ASAP, as it will make it so much easier for you to understand how I did this. Hopefully I've explained it well enough that it makes sense! I definitely hope it helps others- this was one of those things that really, really stressed me out up until this last year, and now it's a non-issue. I'm all for peace of mind and a little bit of sanity! *grins*


  • Sandi

    I just posted about my switch over in a lot less detail. I have less kids which does make a difference. Each kid has a bin and I fill it with whatever season it is “not”. When the bin is full something has to go. I dont like laundry so I don’t usually keep to many clothes except for the baby…don’t know why. I have all of Eli’s 0-9 month clothes that need to go. I might do a swap or Craig’s list. I sell his stuff to then buy him new clothes. I also determine what I need to buy for my big kids when I make the switch. We don’t really get hand me downs for the 6 and up crowd very often.
    Great ideas. I like the clear bins…I label mine but sometimes they fall off. Not pretty but practical :o)

  • Alisa

    I’ve had a system set up since the beginning (because I knew how crazy it would get otherwise! And because I had the money to do it at the time, so I jumped on it. ;^D)
    But I certainly need to get this season’s clothing exchange underway; both my kids have suddenly outgrown nearly all their clothes! And shoes. It’s time.
    That’s awesome that you received so many hand-me-downs. I’m not in that position so much, so thank goodness for eBay! ;^)

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