I adore organizing. No joke, it’s one of my favorite things to do. When I learned that professional organizing was a thing, I was so excited. And while I never did pursue it as a job, now, it seems, I’ve become an expert at least in my own home, especially with clothing.

We have the youngest kids in our extended family, and that means hand-me-downs. To me (and to most of my kids,) getting hand-me-downs is like opening gifts on Christmas morning. But, it’s also a job to curate the wardrobes in the right sizes for now and for the years ahead without filling up the house with too much free stuff. After years of doing this, I have a few tips to share.

Erica’s step-by-step guide to organizing kids’ clothes and hand-me-downs 

1. Do and put away the laundry first.

Inevitably, we have far more than we think we do, but it’s in the laundry pile. If that’s just too much of a hurdle, haul the laundry in with the clean clothes so you can see all of it together. Just remember to sort it back out later. 

2. Set up a space to let the clothes explode.

Families with lots of kids move fast. With so many people under one roof, there are bound to be distractions and fires to put out when you’re tackling a big project like clearing out the clothes. I’ve always used our guest room. And our guest room closet is our hand-me-down storage, too. Even if all you have is a corner to spare, just pick a spot that gets the least amount of traffic. If possible, make it a spot that you can block off with a closed door or a baby gate so that the time you put into it doesn’t get disrupted by curious hands. 

3. Look through the hand-me-downs before you offer them to your kids.

Weed out anything with stains or holes, and then anything whose style you feel isn’t appropriate for your childrens’ ages. 

4. With the clothes you already have, take a quick pass through one size at a time on your own.

This is your chance to grab out that shirt that you hate, all the stuff with holes and stains, and those clothes that have gotten too small. This will make the pile of clothes to decide on smaller. 

5. Sort the clothes. 

Make piles of bottoms; tops; dresses/Mass wear; socks, underwear and tights; and pjs. Small chunks will help keep everyone focused. It will also help if you have to stop to feed the baby or grab the toddler off the table. 

6. Go through one size at a time with the corresponding kid.

The younger the kid, the more hand-holding they’ll need on this. Under 6 years old, you’ll have to hold up each item and ask, “are you going to wear this?”. With older kids, I give them a time frame that relates to the weather change. For instance, even with my 6 year old, I ask, “Will you wear this before Christmas?” Setting the season limitation helps them make decisions. If you have plenty of clothes for your kids, don’t bother fighting them on whether they should wear it or not. This is not that battle. This battle is to lessen what’s in the closet to only what’s truly useful or loved.

7. Sort as decisions are made.

Clothes to keep get one pile. Clothes to get rid of get their own pile. Clothes to put in with hand-me-downs for younger kids get another pile. Sometimes, I make a pile specifically to offer to friends. And, every once-in-awhile, I also have a handful of keepsake clothes identified by me or my kids. 

8. Make matches.

This isn’t very necessary with boy clothes, except maybe socks and PJs. But, with the variety of girl clothing types, matching up outfits will help determine if something is actually wearable. A cute shirt without bottoms that look nice with it probably won’t see the light of day. 

9. Put away the “keep” pile.

In our house, we hang up shirts, bottoms, and dresses for the girls, and we put PJs, socks, and underwear in a drawer. I match up PJ tops with PJ bottoms and fold them together so they stay together. Matching socks get tucked into one another. Underwear just gets stacked. With a slightly different setup in the boy room and closet, we do hanging shirts and fold everything else. 

10. Decide if it’s still too much.

Now that everything is put away, use the space in the closet and the drawers as your natural limitation for how many clothes are necessary to keep. Overfilled small closets make getting dressed and putting away laundry a frustrating daily activity. Big closets full of unused clothes become a daily reminder that we might not be as generous with what we have as we could be. My personal goal is about 15 outfits per person per season. That’s enough clothes to last for two weeks, plus a spare in case it takes that long to get the laundry done. I shoot for about 5 church dresses or outfits in addition, although they are my weak spot. During the summer, I make sure they have at least one swimsuit, too. As we close in on Christmas, if I’m expecting an onslaught of new clothes in all those shiny packages, I try to knock the number down to about 10. 

11. Make a list of needs.

Sometimes, leggings in a certain size just all have holes, or there aren’t any socks in the next size up. These are great things to put on the Christmas list for Grandma. 

12. Bag the donation piles.

Anything that you intend to get rid of can become a donation. I give the best stuff to friends. Then, I find Gabriel Project or a local crisis pregnancy center for the next best. Catholic-run crisis pregnancy centers in San Antonio tend to give even stained and worn out clothes to missions in Mexico where the children need extra layers no matter what the condition. The worst stuff, I give to Goodwill. I keep a few of the worst things to serve as dusting or wood staining rags. 

13. Organize the hand-me-downs for younger kids.

This includes the too-small clothes you pulled out earlier. Make outfit matches again if you’re working with girl clothes. But, this time, don’t get rid of it if it doesn’t have a match. Inevitably, there are a few more items left in the closet, or forgotten in the couch cushions, or missorted from the last time that can fill out an outfit or PJ set. Fold matched outfits together. I like to keep the number of outfits in the hand-me-down bins to 15 per size per season, too. I do not like to keep socks. There’s something about socks that drives me crazy. I usually get rid of all of them. If you keep them, match them up. Label the bin with the size on as many sides as you can and put it away.

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