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Over the past four years I have hosted nearly a dozen swap parties, and from the beginning they’ve been one of the highlights of my year.

I was hooked from the start. I've made changes over the years, but I generally organize and host them the same way each time. And I'm happy (and relieved) to say that my friends keep coming back for more. It seems they look forward to them as much as I do!

Imagine setting up tables in your backyard and watching as they are adorned with amazing foods, useful art and craft, and all sorts of homemade goodness made by the hands of friends. It's like having a beautiful tailgate market party in your own yard.

If you happen to find yourself already surrounded by a community of makers, canners and growers, then organizing your own swap party should be a breeze. And if you don't, I imagine it will only take a little bit of work, because once you put the word out people are going to be curious and things will be set into motion. These things just want to happen, I do believe.

You could arrange swaps for anything you wish. Personally, and for the core group of folks who come out to my swaps, items that are handmade/homegrown/etc. by swap participants and that are edible/medicinal/generally utilitarian are what we prefer, so I stick with that.

Things like jams, fermented foods and salsas, homemade yogurt and granola, herbal tinctures, body butters, lip balm and salves, aromatherapy blends, baked goods, hand-printed note cards and tea towels, hot sauce, fresh eggs, garden greens, honey, knitted dish cloths, plant starts, pot holders .... I could go on and on, but I bet you get the point.

If this sounds like something you'd be interested in experiencing/hosting yourself, read on for pointers.

The Nitty (housekeeping)

It’s really not hard to do, but a little advance work will make sure that everyone, especially your first-time guests, is on an equal footing.

  • About a month before the event, send out invitations well in advance in order to allow attendees ample time for creating, making and getting excited.
  • Have tables set up and ready to go before guests arrive, along with plenty of scrap paper, pens (twine, tape, etc.) for guests to use to label their items if they haven't already done so.
  • Ask everyone to have their items clearly labeled, including their contact information.

The Gritty (logistics)

There are many different ways to handle the actual swapping, but I have settled on a way that I find works best - a one-for-one swap where each person leaves with the same number of items that he or she contributed.

  • Give your guests a maximum number of items they should bring. I typically set mine at eight to 12 items, depending on total number of people invited.
  • When they arrive, have them set their items on the swap table(s) and go make merry while others show up and do the same.
  • Once everyone is set to go, gather them and have them all introduce themselves and share what they brought. Then everyone draws numbers (if there are 12 people, there are numbers 1-12). Number one gets to select first.
  • Each person chooses only one item per round. They stay in for the number of rounds that equals the number of items they brought (I use a large dry-erase board to keep track of what number people are and how many items they've brought. I tally each person’s selection and cross out their name once they are done).
  • The swapping takes an hour or two, depending on the number of guests you’ve invited.

It sounds a bit complicated, but in action, it is quite simple. And after all is said and done, all there is to do is enjoy your new goodies!

The one thing that got me a little nervous before my first swap was whether the swap items would be anywhere near equal to each other in “worth” and whether or not people would feel that they were getting something they wanted in exchange for what they had, quite literally, brought to the table.

Somehow, it all worked (and works) out. Depending on what is on the table already, sometimes someone will break apart a large offering into two items, or combine two smaller items into one (it becomes somewhat easy to gauge equality and fairness once you look around). For example, a friend once brought just two items - two quarts of her homegrown honey. Knowing how precious that golden goodness is, I got out four pint jars and invited her to double her number of offerings.

Often people show up with lovely (and time-consuming) hand-knit goods. They've assured me that they are happy to exchange these items, often made as a form of relaxation for them, for things such as salsa and granola, which they don't enjoy making themselves.

A friend of mine who is a regular at the swaps often brings herbal medicines. She finds it rather boring that she continues to do so, but her remedies are always well-received. Some other regulars have been repeatedly asked to bring favorites (deodorant, body butter, elderberry syrup, etc) that many of us have come to rely upon.

I’ve found that if you tell your invitees to bring things they are willing and ready to part with, the swap will work itself out. What one person finds easy and soul-soothing to make/grow/craft, another person finds daunting, so it’s likely that everyone will leave feeling very happy and satisfied.

I am a huge fan of and advocate for these kinds of gatherings. I can't imagine many ways I'd rather spend my time than coming together with people to share and connect over food and craft while building community.

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