On the Rocks
From her green and purple hat down to her comfortable shoes, everything Kim Cameron is wearing, she got for free. Cameron, 35, is the founder of PDXSwap, an Internet-based group that organizes get-togethers where women trade clothes.
I'm one of about 35 women to arrive at the Presbyterian Church of Laurelhurst at 7 p.m. on a Thursday night for the medium swap, sizes 6 to 12. The medium swap is run by Barb Hughes, and is a spinoff of Cameron's original group.
The whole thing started in 2004, says Cameron, who is a social worker. When her two best friends, both of whom matched her very petite size, left town, she thought, why not try Craigslist.org as a way to meet new people and share clothes?
There now are swaps for small, medium and large sizes, plus an all-sizes swap, and one for babies and kids. Altogether, their e-mail lists contain 700 to 1,000 names.
Folding chairs are arranged in a circle on the church meeting room's stained orange carpet. Mirrors lean against the walls. I set two bags of old skirts, dresses and sweaters in the corner, to join the growing stockpile.
Hughes and her teenage daughter, Aubrey Frimoth, rummage around, neatly lining up pairs of shoes on a table to ensure that no one gets hit by flying footwear.
The 47-year-old Hughes and her husband run a home business, supplying audio clips to local companies ('Customer service to the bottle return, please,' she demonstrates). She has been organizing swaps periodically for about three years.
'I've tried on styles that I would never have tried on in a store,' she says, noting that, like Cameron, her current outfit is all from swap. And although both are dressed casually, they certainly don't look like hobos or scarecrows.
'I love cashmere,' Hughes says, 'That's one of my favorite things to find: cashmere and silk.'
'I see a lot of stuff over there that I wish I could just take right now,' says Ann Brodie-Knope, eyeing the gathered bags from her folding chair. The 54-year-old escorted her daughter to a previous small-sizes swap; this is her first time foraging for herself.
Debbie Welch, in the next chair over, is scoping out the room for women whose styles she likes, figuring she can home in on their castoffs. The 33-year-old attended the baby clothes swap after hearing about it from friends; that lead her here. She's 'increased in size' a bit since having her baby, she says, and she's looking especially for clothes that make breast-feeding easy.
Hughes calls attention to and explains the rules. Everyone will help dump the bags of clothes to create three long rows on the floor. Then, at a signal, we can all begin picking. Your chair is your station; once you've piled enough clothes on your chair, you begin trying things on.
The room fills with bent figures, talking and laughing. There is a slight resemblance to seagulls on a trash heap, but as the women circle and exclaim, the mood is giddy.
'It's the end of an era,' someone calls out, saying goodbye to a shirt or pair of pants. 'That's your color,' one woman tells another. The initial shakedown is conflict-free.
'We've never had a brawl or an argument or anything,' Cameron says. Building community, she says, is part of what the swap is all about. It's also part of a bigger plan. 'My goal is to live completely off the grid,' she tells me. 'Everything for free.'
She sees the swap as a way to undermine our reliance on money, as well as to help the environment by reducing waste. 'So there's a huge mission behind it, to save the planet and save the world,' she says, laughing.
As women begin trying on clothes, various degrees of modesty are apparent. Most wear bathing suits or tank tops and jogging shorts as underclothes, but all this taking on and off of clothes definitely creates a bond.
I glance over to see Welch in one of my shirts. It looks so good on her that I have to repress the urge to ask for it back.
Sharing her mirror is Tamar Salomon, a 32-year-old who temps at OHSU. She's a swap regular, but it's especially handy right now because she's been working out a lot lately. Her old clothes are getting a bit loose, but she's planning to continue getting in shape, so she doesn't want to spend money on new clothes just yet.
Besides, she says, 'If you take stuff home and you don't like it, you just take it back next time.'
I can see getting hooked. The whole thing is so simple, and so quick - it only lasts about 40 minutes. In fact, I wasted too much time talking. I'll have to come back, because this time, I leave empty-handed.
There will be a nonclothing 'stuff swap' on April 18. Sign up at www.pdxswap.com.