Olympia’s Clutterbusters prove that nothing is too hard to clean up

Margot Webb is standing in a sea of fabric.

In the center room of Tacoma Musical Playhouse’s costume department, she’s surrounded by bolts and fragments piled on the floor, shoved into shelves and wedged against the ceiling, with a path barely wide enough to walk through. It’s a seamstress’ nightmare.

In a rather tired voice, Webb explains that, actually, woolens are supposed to go here and cottons there. Then she picks up a shaggy brown scrap that’s clearly neither wool nor cotton.

“This was what we used for the donkey in ‘Shrek!’” she says, eyes brightening in memory. “But I’m thinking — do we really need it?”

It’s the classic clutterbusting moment that most of us can relate to — that moment when you realize there’s so much stuff you have no idea what you really need or how to organize it. Luckily for Webb and her TMP colleagues, she has help.

Lynn Lee, director of the Olympia-based Clutterbusters, is in the costume department with three employees for two days, part of her monthly 25-hour donation to nonprofits. And the order she’s about to create is something that all of us — whether we’re managing an apartment or an organization — can be inspired by.

“The first thing we’re going to do is pull everything out,” says Lee, assessing the situation in the fabric room. “We’ll get bins for bulky stuff and fragile pieces, to free up the shelves. Then we’ll sort by color and fabric and put the bolts up at the top.”

The clutter problem at TMP is basically the same as anyone else’s, only magnified: too much stuff for the allotted space, an inefficient storage system, and too many people completely ignoring it. Since it began in 1994 the theater has received many donations of vintage clothing that it doesn’t want to turn away, and it regularly buys items for productions as needed. The costume department occupies a whopping 2,500 square feet of the building on 6th Avenue, and despite an annual sort-through and garage sale in autumn, the wardrobe keeps growing, while the rabbit-warren of rooms for hats, clothes, shoes and jewelry does not. Most rooms just contain shelves or racks — not ideal storage for special items.

And then there are the people. For every Margot Webb, a seven-year volunteer seamstress, there are another five cast members who rush in mid-show desperately looking for a replacement pink scarf, pull out everything in sight, grab what they need — and leave.

It makes organization difficult, to say the least. And it’s having a bad effect on the costumes: expensive 1920s hats squashed, lace ripped, wigs dirtied, jewelry separated. Things get hidden, or hard to find. Even the dressing rooms are littered with hats, shoes, scarves.

“We’ve reorganized this multiple times and it’s never worked,” says Diana George, development director and wardrobe manager.

And so George, who brought Clutterbusters in 18 months ago to sort out the props room, jumped at the chance to have them come again. On this morning, Lee and colleague Jessica Walker are tackling the fabrics, while two other Clutterbuster employees reorganize the wig and hat room. As they carefully take down mannequin heads to wipe thick dirt off the shelves, Lee and Walker pull out material, folding it neatly and restacking it by color, folded-edge outwards. (“It looks so much better,” Lee says.)

George goes out to buy clear plastic tubs. Webb and fellow seamstress Grace Stone get cracking on tossing out what they don’t need, galvanized by Lee’s quiet energy.

“Anything you can get rid of, it helps,” she advises.

Does it help to have help when you’re decluttering?

Only if it’s not your friends or relatives, says Lee firmly. “You’ll end up trying to kill each other. You need to bring in a third party … so you can take their suggestions.”

Lee never makes decisions about what to throw out — those have to be made by the owners of the clutter.

“I say, we can only keep so much — are certain items more important than others?” she explains. “I negotiate, remind them what the goal is. Part of it’s psychological — you need to find their personality, what triggers them to let something go. It varies, that’s what makes this so interesting.”

Hoarders are the most difficult, Lee says, especially because the Clutterbusters are often called in after a traumatic event like a death, illness or emergency.

“You’re sometimes just cleaning a pathway so they can get to the bathroom,” she says uncritically. “They don’t see things the way we do. They don’t see it as clutter.”

A native Brit, Lee moved to the United States a few decades ago and was working on the East Coast as a property title researcher when the market crashed. She began looking for another job and found Clutterbusters.

“I was very detail-oriented, and I thought, ‘I could do that,’” she explains. After working for the Virginia organization for a few years, she moved west in 2011 for her husband’s job and established a West Coast Clutterbusters franchise.

Aside from the sheer pleasure of organizing stuff, one thing Lee likes about her job is the pleasure it brings to her clients.

“People have health issues, kids, or they’re just busy,” she explains. “Having clutter weighs them down — it causes depression and even asthma. Having someone get them back on top of the situation is a big thing. … They can breathe again, literally.”

It’s even beneficial for the people who clean up. Says Jessica Walker, “When I walk out and it’s all sorted, it’s just awesome. Everything is clean and organized. It’s a good feeling.”

As the morning goes by, TMP’s fabric room is looking better and better. There’s more room on the floor and fewer bolts high up out of reach. The air smells cleaner, and everyone’s looking happier.

But the big problem going forward is how to keep it that way.

“It’s exactly the same situation as at Tacoma Little Theater,” says Lee, who donated some hours to Tacoma’s other community theater last winter. “By the next day, it was all strewn around again. It doesn’t matter how hard we work if you don’t keep control. I got quite stern with them about that.”

George and Webb, though, are already planning on how to keep control over their wardrobe clutter. Webb would like to see access restricted to just a few key folks, with a designated “returns” space like a library. George, however, is hoping the theater will hire a paid costumer.

“With an asset this big, it’s worth the investment,” she says. “Some of these vintage hats would get $25-$50 each on eBay.”

At the end of day two, Lee and her Clutterbusters have finished the job. The fabrics are all sorted — just by color, eventually — and the wig room is now neat and orderly, with before-and-after pictures up on the Clutterbusters Facebook page.

“It’s beautiful,” says George, who intends to implement a “returns box” to help keep things organized.

Lee thinks TMP could also benefit from a built-in storage system, but the biggest challenge — one that many organizations share — is the people using the system.

“That’s their biggest downfall,” she says. “They have too many people and all they care about is their own little wig. … They need to make people more responsible for what’s there.”