Purging – Out With The Old

Candlesticks plates books and more

After discovering how much stuff my late mother-in-law had kept, I have become extra diligent about regularly purging my art materials stash. It’s not easy!

But it is an issue very close to my heart this very month, because despite moving house I still find I don’t have a large enough space in my new workshop to keep everything I have, and still have space to actually work. I’ve already donated some of my large quantities of yardage – finally admitting to myself that I was never going to make anything out of that oversized linen plaid, or the grey pinstripe poly jersey.

I kept many fabrics because I inherited them from my mother or was gifted by my mother-in-law. Many of them are beautiful and useful for my mixed-media pieces and art dolls – especially those with small scale prints. But some of them are just awful – either ugly, worn out or nasty materials.

Conversely I was holding on to a lot of fabrics that were gorgeous drapes or bedding – too nice as they are, too good, possibly even valuable. I will never cut them up. So it is better to sell them, or release them to the universe for someone who will love them.

It has been very freeing – the primary advantage to purging. Freeing both practically – of the space in my workshop – and emotionally. With every item that leaves my space, I feel lighter.

Creative advantages to purges

  • Inspiration

Chances are the job will take some time. Being immersed in your materials will almost certainly spark ideas. But so will removing all kinds of obsolete items from your home and life. Old clothes that no longer fit when removed allow you to be more creative with those that are left.

  • Clarity

I find I can see what I have, when all the extra stuff is removed. The act of gathering, sorting and making decisions helps to see relationships between materials. Is there a great preponderance of one color or aesthetic preference? More importantly do I still respond with excitement and a flow of ideas?

  • Intention

I mentioned “the act of gathering, sorting and making decisions”. This process has a different energy when the intention is to purge and clear, rather than just to organize.

It helps to define your underlying intention, deeper than just making room or being tidy. Is it to make a fresh start, create a place of peace, or break a creative block? For me it’s the fresh start, and the joy of a simplified, minimalist space.

  • Focus

I find myself reenergized by purging and ready to devote laser attention to specific projects. It is a great time to make those lists of new ideas.

  • Rediscovery!

All those buried things you had forgotten about are waiting to inspire you again.


Reasons not to purge

  • Your stuff is unique.

The one thing I was sorry to have sent to the Goodwill was a vintage leopard print cotton corduroy coat. To be sure it wouldn’t fit me now, but I missed it at the time. It was very unusual, from being vintage.

If your stuff is genuinely unique, then be cautious. But the truth is most things are replaceable.

  • Commercial appeal – you do (or plan to do) commissions

Sometimes you need to keep more than you plan to use in the near future because you work on commissions. Ask yourself if the utility of keeping stuff around for a possible commission, especially if it doesn’t appeal to your own artistic aesthetic, is worth the space it is using.

  • HALT – Hungry, angry, lonely, tired

No one makes good decisions at three in the morning. Frustration can be a great creative catalyst – because a big part of creativity is finding novel solutions to problems.

However starting to toss things out because you have become angry at the stuff might lead to remorse later. The solution: put the stuff you are planning to discard into boxes (better living through labels!) and then revisit your decisions in the morning light, after sleep and a pleasant meal.

  • It’s not YOUR stuff

Not everyone reaches the same place of wanting to let go of souvenirs from their past at the same time. This applies to spouses, roommates and children just as much as to yourself.

I know there are many parents who insist that their children make regular purges of their old stuff, regardless of whether the kids are ready, but I discourage that. Most of the time the kids have no choice in the matter. Once when I arrived at my grandparents’ for my annual visit, they had decided to throw away my (tiny – one small drawer) comic collection. I was outraged then – I’m still indignant. It really hammered home that it wasn’t my home, and my stuff was not my own. Plus it made it very clear that I couldn’t trust them. Absolute disempowerment!

We want our purges to be empowering. My  daughter, after years of not wanting to let go of anything, has suddenly grown up enough to start making wholesale donations of her old toys, even ones that she loved. This willingness has coincided with an upsurge in new drawings, writing and reading, and a more mature sensibility to her interests.


  • “But I might need it”

This is true. You might. But how likely is that, especially if the item has not been inspiring up until now? Ask yourself these questions:

  1. It is part of a general aesthetic, or similar to other ongoing projects? I keep beads and charms because I will always use them on dolls. However I have plenty of paper sheets that I know I won’t use in the forseeable future.
  2. Why did I buy or acquire this in the first place? Was it for something specific that is still relevant to your creative life, or was it part of a box or job lot (or in my case a paper stack) or a gift/donation?
  3. Do I love it? Sometimes beautiful things need no other justification. But just meh? Toss!
  4. Do I need another hobby/art form/tv series to watch/passion? The answer for me is “no”. Much as I enjoy needlepoint, which was one of my mother’s enthusiasms, I am never going to devote my limited time to finishing all those tapestry kits. I must let them go.

The truth is, that unless something is rare and valuable – unique, OOAK, vintage or collectible – you CAN get another if you find you need it. And it will take a long time before something old becomes the much cooler “retro”.

  • Clutter Blindness

At its worst, this is a mental condition, part of the spectrum of issues that affect genuine hoarders, where a person literally does not notice clutter building. They step over the pile of papers or stack of cups, weave around the boxes and shoes without making any kind of judgment that the stuff is out of place. It’s a kind of dysmorphic vision of space, much like people with eating disorders have body dysmorphia where the view in their mirror is not accurate. It can come on gradually too.

Assuming you are not an actual compulsive hoarder, which brings with it a host of emotional issues and often includes keeping actual trash, the best way around everyday minor clutter blindness, is to take photos of your space. The amount of stuff that your eye can slide over easily, becomes very clear in a photo.

  • “I spent so much on it”

It can be hard to throw away something when you remember how much it cost to purchase, especially if it was expensive but is now on sale. You have a feeling that you have invested in it, so it seems a shame to waste that money.

It’s very similar to the feeling that you have already spent so much time trying to fix your broken pipe, that it would waste all that work if you gave up (gave in) and called the plumber. It’s the “we’ve come this far” argument.

It is a false belief. Going further down the wrong road takes you further from your destination. It’s not a real investment if there is no return.

  • Overwhelm – too much

If there is just so much stuff, it is hard to get started. It’s hard to know where to begin.

Here’s how I’m doing it:

  1. I started with the largest boxes – because I knew they contained the large yardages and drapes.
  2. I use my folding tables as staging areas to help sort and categorize my things. They are relatively small, so when they are full, I clear them completely either by putting things away, or putting them in the “out box”.
  3. I start by putting away the things that I definitely want to keep, such as my sewing machine, electronic die cutter, beads and notions. You should always put the big stones in the jar, and then pour in the small pebbles.
  4. A little each day. The other day I had to actually hire a guy with a truck to haul stuff to the Goodwill.
  • Storage space

It is a great irony, that we kept stuff for 15 or so years, that we have only now donated, sold or discarded, just because we had a place to keep it. If only we had made the decision to put a limit on the size of our storage unit, instead of getting larger ones, we might have saved not only considerable money, but time later.

More stuff on shelves
More stored stuff.

I believe that having a self-storage unit contributed to the sense I had that everything in my life was temporary. It prevented me from really committing to our old apartment as my home. I was always expecting to move. I didn’t make certain changes or upgrades that would have contributed to our comfort, because I had that temporary “for now” feeling – and that feeling went on for 16.5 years. That’s not temporary.

Now in our new house, whenever there has been some grumblings about the idea of getting a storage unit, I remind everyone – the stuff expands to fill the space available. We will only end up holding on to stuff we don’t actually need or want. It will cost us money, and it will cost me the sense of home that is starting to grow in my heart. Ironically it will cost us the freedom born of stability and security, that finally having a home of our own has given us.

 ….In with the New!

This is the other half of the phrase, isn’t it? The joy of being able to bring new things, for your newest interests and projects, new inspiration, new gadgets, new solutions. Fresh new paper and fabrics – oh wonderful.

*If you suspect that you have a problem with hoarding, in that your stuff is interfering with a joyous life, and you keep your home a secret, please seek help. Here are some links.

The International OCD Foundation

Help For Hoarders – UK

Oprah’s How to Stop Hoarding page

Here’s a study participation opportunity

Purging Creativity Blast