It is the latest fashion phenomenon to come out of the credit crunch. Based around the idea that one woman’s trash is another woman’s treasure, swishing is the only way to update your wardrobe without opening your wallet.

Literally meaning “rustling clothes”, the craze involves swapping your unwanted clothes with other people and going home with something new – and completely free. Swishing parties can be organised amongst friends or, like the East Festival last weekend, with hundreds of strangers.

Eager to take part, I was told to bring between one and five good quality items of clothing, shoes or accessories that I no longer wear but would be proud to pass on to a fellow swisher. In return, I would take an equal number of items home. “We do quality control at the door to make sure people don’t end up with Primark vests,” says one of the organisers, referring to the staff posted at the entrance to scrutinise swishers’ offerings.

It has all the competitive elements of shopping, but with people paying little attention to the usual “no scratching, spitting or biting” rule. After dropping off my contributions, I got a stamp for each. We were then allowed just 20 minutes to peruse the clothes before the actual swap. It was a frantic time of remembering where all the real finds were, followed by a herculean effort of restraint not to push too many people to the floor to get them. After securing two out of three of my coveted items, and leaving my own clothes to the mercy of the rail, I skulked in the corner. There I took advantage of this unique opportunity to anonymously observe what other people thought of my clothes. I had brought an old dress, which was by no means hideous, but was hanging limply on its hanger. It’s a validation when two women fight each other for your dress and a deep embarrassment when it is looked at with disdain before being tossed on the floor. Unfortunately for me, mine fell into the latter category with two women each arguing the other should take it home.

Swishing looks set to become a viable alternative to shopping for people tightening the purse strings, but refusing to sacrifice their wardrobe. One swisher at the festival, 24-year-old Jennifer Reed, said: “I’m on an internship so I don’t get paid much. It’s great to get something new and get a few things out of my cupboard that would have stayed there years. I brought in a few dresses and a silk camisole. I’m looking to swap them for spring clothes.”

 But for Matilda Green, 53, swishing means more. “I lost my job last year so I have to cut back,” she says. “The amount I’ve saved this year from going to these events is unbelievable. I don’t have the income I need to support my clothes-buying addiction any more so this is ideal. I go swishing about twice a month and feel like I can get that new clothes feeling without the guilt.”

Women in the UK only wear 20 per cent of their wardrobes and every year throw 100,000 tonnes of clothes into landfill, says the recycling charity Traid. Businesses like Primark and Asda have been blamed for this because of their sale of cheap, disposable fashion. Mark Prescott, the organiser of last weekend’s event, says the time is ripe for swishing to sweep the country. The economic crisis means events that don’t cost anything are very important,” he says. Prescott adds that the events also bring people to the area who will spend money locally. “So swishing is a very good event for our time.”

He also believes hosting it in Hackney was a big part of the event’s success. “Swishing is perfect for the East Festival because it is connected to the atmosphere of the area. There are a lot of small designer shops and fashion students who come here for inspiration. I knew we would get a lot of interesting people. I hope the East can start something big.”