The holidays: that time of year characterized by warm, fuzzy feelings and fueled by consumer madness.

On November 27th, 2013, while most Americans stocked up on cranberries, piecrusts, and yams, I paced the hosiery section at Target in a panic. Did I have enough socks? Would my feet be warm enough? How many socks are too many, anyway? I, too, was stocking up.

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. As a child, my aunt and I would walk while the turkey baked, gathering twigs with berries and collecting dried leaves, flowers, and acorns. Surrounded by the aromas of roasting and basting and butter, we’d create centerpieces for the table. Even then, I loved the idea of making something from nothing; we needed only a little creativity to dress up our table.

Last Thanksgiving, I took that concept to another level. At the prompting of a friend, I decided to try an experiment: a year without buying any clothes, new or used.

I’m not a particularly avid shopper, but still it seemed impossible; what if I needed something? What if it was a particularly terrible winter (it was) and my four pairs of wool socks weren’t enough? What if I lost or gained weight (I did) and my clothes no longer fit right? What if, what if, what if…?

This Thanksgiving marks the end of my year of clothing abstinence. I have not only succeeded at my project, but I feel utterly changed by it. It’s no longer a yearlong plan, but rather a life plan.

Beyond the warm, fuzzy feelings of achieving a goal and saving money, I also discovered a new reason to love Pittsburgh: clothing swaps.

Where I expected to find lack, need, and want, I instead discovered abundance, support, and community. In the spirit of giving, I share this idea with you here this holiday season; amidst questions of “what to cook,” “what to buy,” and “what to give,” perhaps you may also ask yourself, “what to give up?”

What don’t you need this year?

Clothing swap photo by Jessica Server.
Clothing swap photo by Jessica Server.

If you were offered an opportunity to “make friends, become more fabulous, have a better wardrobe, and spend little-to-no money,” would you take it?

Kelsey Peterson believes in the power of clothing swaps. She has been attending swaps since she was a student at Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP) and she organized October’s successful “Swap ‘Em If You Got ‘Em” event in Bloomfield.

While all clothing swaps take a slightly different shape, most follow the same basic principal: participants bring clothes (in good condition) that they no longer want, need, or fit into, and they leave with new items that others have brought. Most swaps are free, many are informal and held among friends, and they are gaining popularity across the city and country.

Peterson’s event took two months to plan and modeled itself after the well-orchestrated swaps at IUP. She and a team of volunteers arranged the space at The Bunker Projects on Penn Avenue like a mini, pop-up store: racks organized by type of clothes and from smallest to largest, pants folded and divided by size, and shoes neatly arranged in pairs on the floor. The $5 entry fee per “shopper” grew into a $230 donation benefiting the Women’s Center and Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh, as did the nearly 1,500 apparel items left over at the end of the event. The fifty attendees at “Swap ‘Em If You Got ‘Em” made out pretty well, too.

“Clothing swaps have it all,” says Julia Bursten, an attendee, “a semi-productive excuse to see friends, a reason to clean out your closet, a chance to try on clothes you’d never pick up off the rack [at a store], and they’re free. What’s not to love?”

Many swap participants, like Jessica Williams, also praise the events’ “body-positive” nature. “Taking off your clothes and playing dress-up with a dozen friends doesn’t happen enough [after pre-school],” she says. “It’s goofy and fun and for me, it’s very affirming to see how our bodies are put together differently, but all attractive in their own ways.”

The ability to try clothes risk-free also leaves swappers feeling more inclined to try styles they may be hesitant to buy in a store. “If you don’t [end up liking something], go donate it somewhere else,” says Peterson. “Pay it forward.”

Photo by Jessica Server
Photo by Jessica Server

For me, however, the freedom to try new looks pales in comparison to the freedom I feel in (finally) kicking my habit of cheap clothes. I now realize the sheer abundance of clothing already in the world, and my funds and energy can go into finding quality items—wool socks, a winter parka, well-fitting jeans—or pieces that are one-of-a-kind, made by hand, or bought along my travels.

Pittsburgh’s swap scene is strong and growing, linking more and more people together with every event. “It’s fun to see people around town wearing ‘my’ clothes,” says Sarah Shotland. “The other day I went to a coffee shop and the barista was wearing a sweater that had been hanging in my closet for years.”

I have long praised Pittsburgh’s D.I.Y spirit, and clothing swaps have proven yet another reason why this city is more than just a place to live—it’s a community.

“It’s all a huge collaborative thing, something I want to try again in the future on a larger scale,” says Peterson. Until then, keep your eye on social media for more swaps around town, or tap into the spirit and try a swap with friends or even family over the holidays. Think of it as thoughtful re-gifting.

Sitting down at the Thanksgiving table this year, I am grateful for the centerpieces of found twigs and fallen acorns. I am grateful, too, for my year of “doing without;” it was truly a lesson in abundance. I am grateful to be warm from head to sock-covered toes. My cup—and my closet—runneth over.

Jessica Server holds an MFA in poetry and a certificate in travel writing from Chatham University. She is currently the nonfiction instructor at Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts (CAPA) High School, and works as a teaching artist and writer around the city. Her first chapbook of poems, Sever the Braid, is currently available from Finishing Line Press.