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The ultimate guide to cleaning out your closet without totally losing your mind

Photography By Ron Lach, Andrej Lišakov
Published 21.12.21

A closet clean-out is one of the ultimate “get it together for the new year” tasks. But it’s also kind of horrible. Don’t panic though: we have a system that might actually convince you to do it.

Dealing with an exploding wardrobe is one of those things you know you should do, but also recognise you almost certainly will not actually do. It’s a huge mission that few of us ever have the mental (or physical) stamina to take on.    

But, if you do manage to approach such a mammoth feat, we promise you will be rewarded with a feeling of satisfaction and relief (English currently doesn’t have words to describe the pleasure of gazing at an organised wardrobe).    

A closet clean-out is also a great time to think about your changing personal style and check in with your clothes – particularly the ones you forgot existed. If you do (and, trust us, you will) encounter pieces that no longer spark joy, it’s a chance to consider selling or donating to someone who will actually wear them.    

So, without further procrastination, here are our tried and tested tips for cleaning out your closet (that might actually help you finally do this). Good luck!  

A quick note on how we’ve structured this task. When we decided to clean out our own closet, we put aside an afternoon. Three days later it wasn’t done and clothes were still everywhere. That only covered the sorting process; it didn’t even take into account selling, mending or washing clothes.     

With that experience, we’ve designed this system to be carried out over a month. Bookmark this article and return to it each week as you work through the following tasks. It will feel like you’re living in a clothing cyclone for a while, but it will be worth it in the end. Here’s the schedule at a glance:  

Week one: sorting clothes into categories.   

Week two: doing your laundry and organising storage.  

Week three: dealing with repairs and organising anything you want to sell.  

Week four: dropping off donations and possibly engaging a recycling service.  

Ron Lach

WEEK ONE: GET SORTING

There’s no way to speed this up. All you can do is accept that this will be a journey and prepare yourself by setting aside a realistic amount of time and headspace. Just sorting through your clothes will be your largest task, but it will also set you up for the rest of the month. While you could do it all in one shot, it’s less stressful to break it up into closet sections and do it over several days.    

Here’s how we suggest structuring that:  

DAY ONE

Review items in draws and those that are usually folded. For example, underwear, socks, T-shirts, pyjamas and activewear.   

DAY TWO 

Review items that may require specialty storage. For example, jumpers, coats, knits, bags, accessories and jewellery.   

DAY THREE 

Review hanging items. For example, dresses, shirts, jeans, pants (this is probably going to take the most amount of time).   

DAY FOUR 

Review shoes and any other sections that haven’t been covered above.  

When we say “review” we mean follow the next steps. You will do this multiple times as you move through your whole wardrobe.  

  

How to create your piles    

Sorting things into piles is the golden rule of any cupboard audit. There are endless opinions on the best way to do this, but here’s our suggestion.    

PILE ONE: GOOD TO GO 

These are items that you regularly wear – they are clean and in good condition – so can be returned to your wardrobe as is.   

PILE TWO: TO CLEAN 

Whether it’s a matter of chucking them in the washing machine or dropping them off at the drycleaner, these are pieces you like but that have fallen out of rotation because they still carry the scars of last month’s pizza party.   

PILE THREE: TO MEND OR ALTER 

These are things you like but aren’t currently wearing because there is some kind of (fixable) issue with the garment. It could be as simple as a button you need to sew on, or a larger problem. Perhaps you have a great blazer that makes you feel boxy. Or a pair of jeans you never got around to taking up.   

PILE FOUR: TO SELL 

Some pieces will be perfect, but not perfect for you. A good guide is the one-year rule: if you haven’t worn it in that time you’re probably not going to wear it again and it’s just collecting dust. This is good news; it means you can make some cash.   

PILE FIVE: TO STORE 

Yes, we just said if you haven’t worn it for a year it needs to go. But of course there are exceptions. Some pieces have a decent excuse for slipping out of rotation. Maybe you’re pregnant and won’t be reaching for your high-waisted favourites for a while. Or you have seasonal clothing items that you haven’t needed but are expensive to repurchase.   

We’re not heartless; there’s room for sentiment. Not busting out your wedding dress every 12 months doesn’t diminish its personal value. It’s OK to put a few things aside for another day, but be realistic about what they are.    

If you’re holding on for emotional reasons ask: What am I saving this for? Could there be another way to honour this memory, like knowing someone else will wear it?    

Full transparency, this part can be brutal. Especially if it’s tied to body changes. There’s no shame in admitting a piece we once loved doesn’t serve us anymore. Yes, it can be confronting to admit you won’t wear something again, but it can be even more confronting to see it hanging in your wardrobe every day.    

Accept that life moves on, appreciate the garment’s service, sell it and buy something you will really wear and feel good in.    

If you do decide to keep it, set a hard limit for what goes into storage, such as a single suitcase or tub.   

PILE SIX: TO DONATE 

Whenever you’re considering donating something, first ask: would I give this to a friend? If you’d feel awkward offering it to someone you know (say because it’s stained or worn out) then don’t expect someone you don’t know to want it.   

PILE SEVEN: TO TOSS 

This should be your smallest pile (or ideally not exist at all). The ultimate mission here is to not end this process with a billion bags of trash. But more on how to do that in a moment…  

Now put away your “good to go” items

Before you finish the first part of this mission, you need to put away your “good to go” pile. This is the easiest part, but even with all this culling you will be shocked by how much is left. It’s worth taking the time to make a few adjustments to ensure you don’t need to go through this all again too soon.   

Try the turnaround trick   

This process will awaken you to some forgotten fashion gems. Now you need to ensure they don’t get forgotten again. One way to do that is to turn around your coat hangers, shoes and folded items as you put them back. When you wear them again, return them to the closet the right way around.    

This does two things: It provides a quick guide of what you’re wearing and forgetting, prompting you to reach for something out of your usual rotation. And it makes life easier the next time you want to do a clear-out. In a year, anything that hasn’t been turned around should be seriously reviewed.  

Are closet apps worth it?   

If you really want to up your organisation game (or just own a colossal amount of clothes) you can digitise pieces to make them easier to keep track of. Yes, kind of like that Clueless scene  

Save Your Wardrobe allows you to catalogue things so you can scroll through them to remind yourself of what you own. You can also save outfits you’d like to wear again – perfect for those days where you can barely remember how a T-shirt works.    

Honestly, this is cool but also a bit of a mission to do. The best way to approach it is either by making it part of your daily routine, logging each look and item when you get dressed, or by doing it en masse as you’re putting things back in your closet.   

Well done! You’ve completed your first week of tasks!  

 

Ron Lach

WEEK TWO: RESTORE AND STORE   

You’ve had a few days off, and now it’s time to return to the task at hand. Start with something simple: do your laundry. There are a lot of great resources to help you properly launder your clothes at home. We enjoy the Closet Clinic series from the Guardian that takes you through the best way to clean delicate items such as winter coats, bras, knits and bags. Again, these things take time so set aside a day to do it right. Maybe load up a few podcasts too.    

Some pieces will need to be dry-cleaned, which is tricky as many services use toxic chemicals that can get into the water supply. Try handwashing or spot-cleaning as an alternative – YouTube has millions of great videos to help you restore trickier fabrics. Don’t feel up to the task? Do a bit of research and find ones that avoid the use of the aforementioned chemicals.    

If you’ve decided to save space by storing something, you need to do some prep to get it right. Properly packing garments away ensures they’ll be wearable when you pull them out. Start by choosing your storage container. A quality suitcase or waterproof tub should be fine for most regular indoor conditions (if you follow the next steps).    

Avoid the trash bag. Firstly, single-use plastic is never a good look. Trash bags also easily tear and can be confused for trash.    

As a bare minimum, wash garments and ensure they’re fully dried. You don’t want stains sitting there for a year. Fold items carefully to avoid deep creases setting in (again, YouTube is your friend). Wrap delicate and natural fabrics like wool or silk in acid-free tissue paper or dust bags for additional protection. It’s really worth investing in pest protection. Cedar wood balls or blocks will repel moths (and smell better than moth balls).    

Choose your location carefully. Ideally somewhere dry, dark and high like the top of a cupboard. Never leave anything on the ground where you risk mould. Don’t forget to label and date your container to help you locate things in the future. For more information, again, Closet Clinic has some great advice 

 

WEEK THREE: MEND AND SELL   

Week three is all about new life. Whether that’s with you or someone else.    

When it comes to mending clothes, don’t underestimate what you can do. Basic darning, hemming and buttons can be completed with some YouTube assistance. For anything more complex or structural you’ll need to find a tailor you trust.    

When looking for a tailor don’t just think “can they do it?” Ask “do they get it?” Ideally you want someone who regularly handles garments of this type. The world’s greatest wedding dress seamstress might not understand the look of your new season jeans.    

Ask your friends, put the question to social media and read Google reviews.     

Shoe and bag repairs can be trickier to manage. Sneakers are a bit simpler as there is more of a maintenance culture around them. The Sneaker Laundry can work wonders and sell products to help with upkeep.    

Specialty fashion restorers can help with other kinds of shoes and many accessories. EvansRoyal Bag Spa and SoleHeeled all have great reputations. Again, do a deep dive on Google and Facebook reviews and check for photos of items that are similar to yours.    

Don’t hesitate to email them pictures of your product to get a sense of what they could offer and ask for images of similar jobs. Also, get a quote. You don’t want to get a shock when you pick it up.    

Now what you spend on restoration, you can make up through selling other quality pieces you no longer wear. There are countless great places to do this. For higher end products, the RealReal and Vestiaire Collective make things easy by managing a lot of the sales, shipping and authentication work for you. Although they also take a commission.     

For mid-range products (or if you don’t want to deal with a third party), your items can move quickly on platforms such as Depop or Facebook Marketplace. Here’s some advice on standing out and curating your items to sell. The more effort you put in, the better the result (AKA price) you will get. Take good photos wearing the piece and of it on a hanger or lying flat. Also properly measure it so buyers can get a sense of fit.   

 Make sure everything is clean and in good condition. If there are issues, make that clear in the description and photos. Some buyers will still take a lightly worn or damaged piece, but they’ll expect a considerable discount. You don’t want to deal with returns.    

If you know you have a lot of friends who like your style, don’t overthink just putting items on your Instagram stories with a “first to DM gets it” policy.  

  

WEEK FOUR: DONATE AND DISPOSE   

OK, we are almost done with our closet clean-out! Selling clothes can be a bit of a mission so you may decide to just donate them to an op shop or thrift store. Again, these places aren’t dumps. They need to realistically be able to charge someone for any piece you give them. If not you’re just passing on your trash for them to deal with.     

If you’re happy that a piece you donate could have a second life, then look up any nearby groups online and check their donation policies. Some may only take certain kinds of items on certain days, or require you to go through a specific drop-off process. If you don’t have a local op shop, use SCRgroup’s hub finder to locate a drop-off spot.    

Hopefully by this point your room is looking clear and you’ve got rid of everything you wanted to. But initially there may be some stragglers that weren’t suitable for donation. The big goal here is to avoid anything going in the bin. We don’t need to remind you that clothes ending up in landfill is a huge issue that disproportionately affects the developing world. To avoid adding to the global textile pollution problem, start by asking: could I reuse this item?    

A lot of garments can be repurposed by being torn up into cleaning rags. Or, in the case of old T-shirts, they are surprisingly good at drying your hair.    

If you’re all good for rags and wraps, then reach out to an organisation that can properly recycle them.   

Some big players in the fashion industry are taking this on themselves. ConverseLevi’sMadewellGirlfriend CollectivePatagonia and The North Face are among a growing list of companies offering recycling programs. It’s worth emailing whoever made your old item to see if they offer anything similar.    

Ironically, many fast fashion retailers, including UNIQLOH&M and Zara (which drive the fashion industry’s disposable fashion culture that led to the textile pollution problem), are also following suit.   

Although let’s be clear, the existence of a small recycling program doesn’t right their wrongs. Shopping at brands with destructive production practices isn’t offset by returning items to them. Yes, take advantage of these return points, but also avoid buying from them in the future.    

For pieces from brands that don’t recycle, there are general textile recycling groups like Upparel and Australian Clothing Recyclers which turn old clothes into new items or materials. They also have convenient pick-up services. TreadLightly offers a similar solution for old shoes.    

And there you have it! You are done! A month of work, a lot of research, and I’m sure a few meltdowns but you did it. Take a breath, pour a drink, and gaze at all that closet space and your perfectly organised collection of beautiful clothes that you love (and love you back).  

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