Ugly sweater paradise

Tanya Schuttenberg

Photo by Rachel Bush

It’s hard to predict what fashion trends will come or go, but it seems clear that the ugly sweater is here to stay. The gaudy, oversized tops, first popularized by grandmothers, have become a holiday staple for parties, right alongside eggnog and mistletoe. Chicoan Tanya Schuttenberg knows this, and every holiday season she transforms her secondhand store, The Thrift Queen, into an ugly sweater haven, where the walls and racks are filled with an endless supply of extravagant, festive clothing. Hand-decorated by Schuttenberg, the holiday apparel often features extensive 3-D accessories, from stuffed animals to plastic candy canes and shiny tinsel, a perfect conversation piece for the annual Christmas party. While the thrift store, which Schuttenberg has owned for 15 years, offers other costumes, plus used and vintage clothing year-round, it’s the ugly sweater season that keeps her particularly busy.

When do you transform your store into the ugly sweater wonderland?

It takes me the whole month of November to change the store to the theme, and then each week more people will come in. Each week, I’ll put up another hundred to keep the store stocked up. Got to have a big variety, something for everyone.

How many ugly sweaters do you have in the store?

I did a hand-count and I’ve got over a thousand of them.

Can you explain the process of collecting and decorating the sweaters?

I bought all the sweaters and washed and decorated them. I travel all over Northern California to find things for the store. I go to yard sales, flea markets … I have my favorites, out of town. I’ve been decorating for over 10 years because I don’t want to run out, and everyone wants a great one. I use ornaments, tinsel, stockings and sometimes stuffed animals. Mine are crazy and over-the-top, or they’re beautiful ugly sweaters. Girls say they want an ugly sweater, but they still want it to be cute. They kind of become beautiful sweater parties, in a way.

Do you work on the sweaters all year?

Whenever I’m in the mood. Once I start a project, I’ve got to finish it! It’s just like the store; I don’t want to give it up. I like my store and I like my customers. And with the sweaters, you get better at making them as time goes on. I like to put a lot of things on them, so they’re a good value. But it does add up. You just have to try to make a profit and keep the ball rolling. I want people to appreciate my work, and it makes me happy to do things for other people—that’s my job.

Besides ugly sweaters, what are other big sellers in the store?

Halloween’s a popular time. And when the students come back to town after summer, they start having all their themed parties. All the vintage stuff is back in style and right now it’s the ’90s … I have ’90s overalls, jackets, sweaters. I try to have what they’re looking for.