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How To Organize Off-season Clothes And Hand-Me-Downs.

by Meagan Francis on May 12, 2014

seasonal clothing, kids' clothes, hand-me-downs

My seasonal transition and hand-me-down system used to be impossibly complicated. Going by popular advice, I’d keep separate bins for each clothing size, each season. It sounded good at the time: in theory, that would mean that every season, I’d only have to pull out that season and that size’s bin…right?

But in practice there were a few things wrong with this system:

  • We rarely have enough kids’ clothes in a single size to fill an entire bin, and especially not if we separate them out by season. So a bin for each size, each season, cost too much and took up a lot of space.
  • Too many bins meant too many opportunities for bins to get buried or shoved too far back in the closet or basement storage area. Every year I would lose track of at least one bin, then go buy a bunch of new clothes and later uncover the bin and realize I’d spent a lot of money I didn’t need to.
  • All size 6’s are not alike. Sometimes clothes in a certain size – especially when we’re talking about baggy t-shirts and adjustable waist pants – fit a variety of kids. There is way too much variety in fit and sizing practices to predict which child will wear which sizes, in which brands and types of clothing, at which age.
  • All seasons are not alike. A kid who is an athlete or doesn’t like wearing warm pajamas may need shorts and t-shirts in rotation throughout the year. And t-shirts are winter wear for kids who like to layer.

I also attempted to keep a detailed written inventory of all clothing items we own, but somewhere along the line my head started to spin around and I abandoned that idea quickly enough!

So what I finally settled on is a simple, streamlined system for organizing hand-me-downs and off-season clothes that allows me to factor in my actual kids and their actual clothing needs, right now. By keeping everything together in one place, there’s less risk of a size going missing.

Basically what I do is store everything together – all off-season clothes and all in-between sizes – and, twice a year, commit to going through every single item of clothing to make a decision about what to do with it for the upcoming season.

If you live in a climate that has seasons and you have multiple kids who are no longer growing out of sizes every few months, and/or handing down clothing to a younger sibling, this strategy can help you keep the task of organizing all those clothes manageable.

Organizing Kids’ Clothes:
Seasonal and Hand-Me-Down Storage Made Simple

Note: for the sake of this post, “off-season” refers to the clothing I will be putting away for the upcoming season, while “in-season” refers to the clothing I’m working back into our wardrobes for the upcoming season.

Bins, bags, boxes, and baskets (what you’ll need):

  • Enough bins with lids to hold all off-season clothes for the whole family (We usually need one more bin for winter/fall clothes than for summer.)
  • Bags or boxes for donations
  • Every laundry basket in the house

Before you begin (inventory & planning):

1. A few weeks before the weather changes, I start slowly collecting clothes out of the clean laundry that I intend to put away for the season and put them in a basket, which I keep in my room. Anything that the kids will have outgrown in the next six months goes into a donation pile.

At the same time, I go and pluck a few extra items per person out of the off-season bins and wash them so we have a variety of clothes to wear during the transitional months. This just gives me a head-start on the whole process.

2. Once I can tell that the weather is heading quickly in the cooler (or warmer!) direction, I choose a day that I can set aside several hours to work on the project of doing the big transition.

Gather all the clothes in the house (yes, really.)

3. We keep off-season clothes in plastic bins in our basement, which is also where our laundry is. So the first step is to start taking all the clothes out of the bins and washing them. When they’re dry, they go in a laundry basket.

If your clothes went into an airtight bin while clean, they might not need to be laundered, or maybe a spin in the dryer with a dryer sheet would freshen them up. I find that ours get a bit musty being in the basement and with all the dust and mold allergies in our family, washing them is best for us.

Whether or not you choose to re-launder the clothes that have been stored,  you will need to make sure all the clothes in the house are clean for this system to work well. Think of it as incentive to get caught up on the laundry!

4. While the laundry is running I take the basket of clean off-season clothes I’ve been collecting, and start folding and putting them away into one of the bins. I don’t worry about sorting them by family member – everything goes in together, because I always do this job all at once so the sorting happens on the other end. You don’t absolutely have to start collecting clothes ahead of time, but I find that it gives me something to do while I’m waiting for clothes to get clean.

seasonal clothing swap
5. Then I walk around the house and go through every single drawer, plucking out any clothes I want to put away for the season. Those get folded and put into the bins, too – remember, everything just goes together, no need to sort! Note: I always leave a few off-season items in each child’s drawer for layering, or in case we go on a vacation or experience unseasonable weather. 

6. When everything is clean, we bring all the baskets of clothes upstairs, and dump them all in the middle of the living room floor. Yes, everything together! It creates quite an impressive mountain of clothes.

epic laundry pile

Fold and sort. Fold and sort. Fold and sort. Repeat.

7. Now comes the epic folding and sorting session. I set myself up in front of the TV with a cup of tea and start creating a stack for each family member. As I go, I quickly make executive decisions about each item:

  • Is the item too small for Owen, my youngest son? If so, it goes in the donation pile unless it’s something Clara would wear (t-shirts, pajamas, and hoodies, yes; jeans and pants, generally no.)
  • Note: I sort Clara’s clothes separately because hers are mostly passed down to her from her older cousin Ruby, and when she’s done, we put them in a bin to go to Ruby’s little sister Luna!
  • Is it hopelessly torn or stained? It goes into a separate pile to be turned into rags.
  • Is the item a between size – for example, too small for Isaac, not yet big enough for William? If so, it goes right back in the off-season bin, even if it’s in-season.

This is an important part of my system – I keep off-season and in-between-sized clothes, regardless of whether they’re in season or not, TOGETHER rather than separating them into separate bins. I find that it keeps everything very simple and streamlined, which is what I need! Otherwise I’d constantly be losing track of where everything is.

I do give sizing some leeway here – if something isn’t quite fitting a kid yet but is likely to within the coming season, I go ahead and put it in their drawer.

8. The rest of this process is self-explanatory: just continue to fold, separate into piles, and then give to the kids to put away in their drawers. I usually have the kids take clothes up as soon as the piles start to get precarious, rather than waiting until they’re toppling over. This also helps keep the kids from getting too overwhelmed by the putting-away process.

laundry, clothes, storage, organizing

Put it away, store it away, or give it away

9. Donation bags go out to the car and I ask Jon to take them immediately to the thrift store so I don’t forget!

10. Now I put the lids on the bins, which are already labeled “off-season clothes,” and put them in a designated area of the basement…all except one, which I leave in the living room for now.

Why? No matter how careful I am to find everything I want to put away and get all the clothes clean before we start this process, inevitably a few items I meant to put away will continue to show up in the laundry over the next week or two. So I keep the least-full bin upstairs a while longer until I’m pretty sure the process is done.

Note: If you are incorporating this system for the first time, you’ll need to start your process a little differently than I detailed above…but either way, I recommend starting from scratch, as scary as it might sound: get ALL your clothes in one place and go through them a piece at a time.

Yes, it’s time-consuming, but I promise you will save yourself time and money not having to shop for something that it turns out you already have, or constantly shifting around hand-me-downs that nobody is ever going to wear again.

seasonal clothing swap - step by step
I’ve been using this strategy for three or four years now with a couple of tweaks along the way, and I have found that making personal contact with every item of clothing in our house greatly simplifies my seasonal clothing transition AND helps me save money on clothes shopping because nothing gets “lost” along the way.

And since I know I’m going to look at every single piece twice a year, there’s no reason to over-complicate the sorting, labeling, or organizing system.

Now that I’ve got this under control? This year, I’m moving on to getting our off-season shoes under control. If anyone has tips for THAT, I’m all ears.

Want more ideas
for creating a happier home life?

{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

Jennifer October 15, 2013 at 7:40 am

This is exactly what I do! It helps me to read that this is how you do the changeover as well, I’ve been thinking that I should seperate my off season clothing into size but it doesn’t work! Seeing that you don’t seperate them makes it okay for me somehow. I guess I need to remember to do what works for my family ad opposed to how others organize!

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Meagan Francis October 15, 2013 at 11:53 am

We’re all different! I think adding too many steps (labeling, inventorying, separating everything) just confuses my brain. I’m a big-picture person and the details got in the way. If it works, it works!

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Melissa October 15, 2013 at 10:20 am

I don’t know why I find this topic so fascinating, but I do! As my kids have gotten older, my system has evolved. With a boy/girl/boy family, I only store hand-me-downs for my younger son. (My daughter sometimes receives some from friends, but they are usually the right-now size and can be absorbed into her wardrobe immediately. If they’re not to her exacting specifications, I immediately pass them on to someone else.) For the two older kids, who are big on layering, I store all out-of-season clothing in their rooms, since we are blessed with plenty of space. Once the season is well underway, I do swap items from the dresser drawer to the top shelf of the closet (exchanging sweaters for tanks and shorts), and remove everything that is too small. That gets sorted into donate/hand-me-downs/rags.
For the little guy, I have also stopped sorting the too-big clothes by size or season, but just dump it all into a couple of bins in the basement, and sort through it twice a year when it’s time to update his wardrobe.
I tend to organize one child’s closet at a time (whatever I remove from big brother’s closet isn’t going to fit little brother for a couple of years), so it only takes 30 minutes or so.
I do have bins for snow and swim gear for the whole family. I think it’s time to check the fit of everyone’s snow boots!

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Meagan Francis October 15, 2013 at 11:54 am

If we didn’t have four boys passing down to each other I would totally store each child’s out-of-season clothing in their own closet – that’s what we do with Clara. Your system totally makes sense to me!

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susie October 15, 2013 at 10:50 am

I read your article about this from a few years ago and started doing it like this… it is so simple! I do the same thing with shoes, just get a tote and switch with the seasons.

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Meagan Francis October 15, 2013 at 11:54 am

Susie, I lost that post from the 4Kids site and had to re-write it from scratch. I was so sad. :)

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Meagan Francis October 15, 2013 at 11:56 am

PS – you’d think I would follow my own advice when it comes to shoes, eh? My problem is that I got in the habit of storing boots with coats and shoes with clothing and it just got too confusing. DRESS SHOES are a big problem here – the boys only wear them a handful of times a year and I still haven’t figured out a good way to keep them straight. Working on that next :)

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Lori October 15, 2013 at 11:27 am

I had to laugh- I’m sitting here reading blogs putting off the task of doing the summer to winter clothing rotation!! I have always sorted by size and it has worked really well for me, but I only have 3 boys and everything is passed on down. I have never thought of doing it your way. I will have to think about it as I’m doing my rotation today!

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Meagan Francis October 15, 2013 at 12:00 pm

Lori, when my boys were younger I found that it was easier to do the sort-by-size thing. They seemed to all grow at a pretty predictable rate. Then they all started hitting crazy growth spurts at different times, so some kids would skip over an entire size in a year, while others would wear size 10 pants but size 8 shirts, and yet another would wear completely different sizes depending on the brand.

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Ashley October 15, 2013 at 11:43 am

I can see how this would work brilliantly for larger families with lots of hand-me-downs. My only DS’s old clothes keep piling up in bins (mostly organized by size), waiting for somebody else, whether that’s another sibling or a cousin. I still keep it pretty simple, though. I always have an open tote in the bottom of his closet. If I notice he’s outgrown something, I throw it in there after washing. That way, the “like sized” items tend to stick together, even if one t-shirt is a 3T while its neighbor is a 4T. And it doesn’t take a big time commitment, since I’m doing it as the need arises. I tend to take a closer look at things when the seasons change, but it’s a pretty quick, simple process since we don’t have the hand-me-down issue to deal with.

What I’ve gotten bad about is remembering how much I’ve purchased for the upcoming season. I tend to buy things as they go on sale, in fits and starts. It’s easy to overpurchase in one area while neglecting something else. I need tips for dealing with that!

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Meagan Francis October 15, 2013 at 11:51 am

Ashley, I do something very similar with Clara, since she’s the youngest AND the only girl. She has a tote in her closet that receives all the stuff she’s outgrowing, and it gets passed down to her cousin when it’s full. Since we get a lot of her clothes from her older cousin, I keep the next-size-up bin in her closet and we start pulling from it as she grows/seasons change.

Totally hear you on over-buying. I try not to do much shopping until after I’ve done my big swap-over, for that very reason. The kids get new hoodies, a pair or two of new jeans (since they seem to always need those no matter what) and a special t-shirt or two at the beginning of the school year, but I don’t buy anything else until I’ve had a chance to see this year’s big picture. We do somehow always end up with a glut of t-shirts, but I think that’s because they don’t get as worn out so there is always a fresh supply passing down to the younger boys in addition to the fun ones I buy them when they go on sale really cheaply.

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Ashley October 15, 2013 at 2:48 pm

I swear, t-shirts must multiply on their own because I don’t know how we end up with so many. :) Truthfully, I think that’s one of my shopping blind spots. We end up with tees because they’re easy and I don’t have to think very hard about what goes with them. Also, they’re cheap and I don’t feel too bad if one gets a permanent stain at daycare.

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Alison October 15, 2013 at 11:47 am

I have a similar system. However, in our extended family there are 8 girl cousins that all live near-by so the bins get passed from one girl to the other and back to me and so on. It’s crucial we all label the bins by size so we know who to give what bin. But the seasons are mixed and they are typically filled with a bit of range of sizing. Some kids are just bigger than others at the same age. I have a big bin labeled “Winter Wear” and it is filled with everyone’s hats, gloves, etc. Boots I keep lined up in the basement and do a try-on each season. As for warm weather shoes, I have a laundry basket overflowing in our storage closet. It’s exciting to go through the clothes and shoes with the kids. We call it ‘shopping at home’.

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Meagan Francis October 15, 2013 at 11:57 am

Wow, I can see how with that kind of hand-me-down system, labeling would be important. Isn’t it fun to “shop” in your own basement and find great stuff you forgot you had?

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Alison October 16, 2013 at 9:29 am

When the younger girls see something they remember their older sisters wearing they always say, “you mean this is MINE now? Yeah!” It’s really cute. And getting hand-me-downs from cousins that are practically new makes it enjoyable for me, too. Fortunately one of my SILs is a major clothes horse. Bonus!

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Victoria October 15, 2013 at 4:02 pm

How do you handle when a kid outgrows their current size mid season?

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Meagan Francis October 25, 2013 at 8:42 am

Hi Victoria, sorry I just saw this comment! Usually if a child outgrows a size mid-season I either put it in his younger brother’s drawer (if they are close in size- this works particularly well with some of the brothers, not others) and if that won’t work, it depends on the time of year. If it was close to the time I’d be doing the swap I’d just pull the item out and put it aside until we did the transition. If there were still months to go, I’d take it down to the basement and put it into the off-season bin.

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Becca October 16, 2013 at 3:35 am

Hi there,

I love this topic too. I love to organize! I think my system is probably similar to yours, except I live in CA where we only have two seasons so I don’t really *need* to fill a basement with Winter clothes. That said, I do keep all the ski stuff together in two bins for the entire family and another extra ski bin with the hand-me-downs waiting if they are in good shape and appropriate.

For the change of season I use this method. I am a no junk, no clutter kind of gal. Twice a year I go through every room in my house and only keep what’s beautiful or functional. Anything you can get at the library, borrow, or hasn’t been used in 6mos goes. Books and clothes included. This keeps my life clutter free while trying to live with a pack rat hubby and homeschool 4 kiddos. I go through the clothes twice a year. In our master bedroom where all 4 kids sleep someone put in a very long closet. It just happens to be partitioned into 3 smaller closets about 3 feet wide each, with a two hanging bars for clothes and some drawers/shelves. They are built ins. It works great because I hang long sleeved dresses/shirts on the higher bar and short sleeved shirts/skirts on the lower bar. PJ’s and pants/shorts go into a separate drawer each and shelves hold the off season pants/shorts or warm/cook PJ’s. This way the girls can reach what they need in season but I can also easily access something for a cooler night or warmer day in CA. Shoes get lined up waiting for them to grow into on the top shelf of their section of the closet. The boys have the same set up except my older son gets the higher bar for long/short sleeved shirts and my younger son uses the lower bar. Dress pants/shirts get hung at the end of the bar, PJ’s and off season stuff is dealt with the same as the girls. Since we are about to change seasons I just move the long sleeved stuff down, the short sleeved stuff up and take down any shoes they’ve grown into. If the shoes don’t fit and are decent i move them to the closet shelf above the child they are waiting for. I pull give away out as I go and for between size clothes I store them with the off season as well, on the higher shelf in the closet. I’ve also got those shelves simply labeled so my kids can find stuff if necessary since sometimes a pair of shorts that was theirs has gotten handed down and it’s confusing. My whole re-org happens in the bedroom with all clothes being washed FIRST so I know everything is accounted for and I bring down the off season, pull out and re-sort or move over to next child, or fold and put up. It’s pretty fast and streamlined. The hardest part is getting rid of clothes that I think are cute but might be worn out. Since we NEVER buy new clothes (I rely completely on gifts or hand-me -downs from friends or free cycle) I oftentimes end up with more clothes than the kids’ need to it’s really important for me to cull twice a year. I guess this system wouldn’t work for everyone, since not everyone’s kids sleep in the same gigantic room, but it could still work if each child had a small closet for clothes. Oh yes I forgot! Underwear and socks are kept together with tights and bandanas in open bins right in the bottom of their closet. Their shoes (except dress) are kept downstairs in the hall closet. They each have a basket in the laundry room with their name on it. When clothes come out of the dryer it’s sorted into their basket where they fold it and put it away or hang it up. OK, this post is too long. I LOVE TO ORGANIZE!

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Shana Norris October 16, 2013 at 11:03 pm

The big, dreaded seasonal clothing switch is on my list for this week. I think I’ll give your system a try!

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Cameron Cummings October 17, 2013 at 7:57 am

We keep all of the snow gear in bins in the attic- the heavy stuff like coats, boots and snow pants go in one bin. Smaller stuff like gloves, hats, scarves go in a separate bin. We have a variety of sizes which I hang onto for a while because friends end up over here on snow days and we always have plenty for everyone to wear!!

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StephJ October 17, 2013 at 11:37 am

I am still doing the by-size sorting, and it works for me. I have three girls, and the clothes pass down from one to the next. However, when I say “by-size,” I mean by ACTUAL size, not by what’s on the label. I.E. in my size 2 bin there might be anywhere from 18 mos to size 3T because those are smaller 3s or bigger 18 mos. I have 2 bins for youngest DD to grow into, 1 for middle (fewer hand-me-downs since DD#1 is rough on her clothes size 6 on), 1 for oldest which are hand-me-downs from my neighbour. I have enough room in the basement to accommodate them, so it’s not a problem for me. I also keep off-season clothes that still fit in underbed storage bins, one for each girl. My oldest DD has drawers under her bed, I put hers there. We often go someplace warm in the winter and need those summer clothes.

For shoes, I have two bins. One for middle, one for youngest. I put ALL my oldest’s shoes into the middle DD’s bin as soon as she grows out of them, IF they are in good shape, otherwise I toss them. This includes all dress shoes, winter boots, rubber boots, sandals, and dance shoes. I find that most of my oldest DD’s shoes are worn by the time she grows out of them lately, so there’s less and less in DD#2’s shoe bin. But those winter boots sure take up a lot of room!

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jessica October 21, 2013 at 2:40 pm

I want to thank you because I tried your approach and it really worked for me and simplified our process a lot! I have five little boys and was feeling like we had bins with various sized clothing everywhere! This way makes a lot of sense to me but I don’t think I would have thought of it myself. One of the reasons I love blogs :-)

Thanks!

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Meagan Francis October 25, 2013 at 8:24 am

Yay! I’m so glad to read this, Jessica. Thank you for letting me know!

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