Athelia Woolley | Fortunate Frustrations

Athelia Woolley | Fortunate Frustrations

2017-08-18T13:19:55+00:00June 15th, 2009|Guest Bloggers|

Athelia ‘CK' Woolley, the co-founder of Shabby Apple, studied dance, art history and neuroscience and worked as a counselor and in human rights before launching into her fashion career.  She still listens to neuroscience lectures in her car and can never pass up a chance to go to an art museum. 


Splat.  I looked up at a laughing audience and a stunned dance partner.  Falling in the middle of a performance?  I could get over it.  But dancing through my senior project with a hurt leg?  How?

“Work with what you have; utilize your limitations,” Professor Moses told me.  “Yeech! Trite advice.”  But, now that I couldn’t jump, I decided to do the entire piece with a part of my body connected to the wall.  The dance remains my favorite.

Fortunate frustration.

In high school, I put in writing that I wanted to be a fashion designer; unfortunately, I couldn’t sew.  I tried.  Once I designed and sewed costumes for my high school dance concert.  To the chagrin of one dancer …and the delight of the boys in the audience…her costume fell apart mid-performance!  That, I thought, ended my fashion career.


Sewing machine

Source:  istockphoto

Work with what you have:  Three years ago, I had finished graduate school, but health problems forced me to return home to live with my parents in Salt Lake City.  I had studied women’s rights and international development, but I couldn’t find a relevant project in Utah… Frustration.  Nor could I work for long hours at a time.  This limitation forced me to focus and work efficiently.


My friend, Emily McCormick, had her own set of frustrations.  With a new baby, she no longer wanted to pursue a full-time career in marketing, but still wanted to keep a hand in marketing.  As we brainstormed possibilities, reminiscing about how we enjoyed dressing our high school friends in cute clothes, we decided to start a line of clothing line, focusing on dresses.

Tuxedo dress

The “Tuxedo” dress from our first line is made of a simple blue cotton poplin.  We kept the design simple, adding a ruffle down the front. 

Utilize your limitations:  Because we had limited experience, we did research and lots of it (our two favorite books were McGraw-Hill Guide to Starting Your Own Business and The Fashion Designer), but there was still so much we didn't know.  Like industry jargon.  I remember listening carefully to what store owners said at retail shows, but one factory owner later asked me where I had received my training because my “phrasing was so unique!”.

Our limited experience also meant we didn’t understand all of the fashion business protocol; this actually worked to our advantage.  For example, we didn't know we were supposed to hire an expensive wholesaler to represent us to buyers, a task that most wholesalers do not do well, causing many companies to fail.  And because we knew we bought our own clothes on-line, we simply bypassed the wholesalers, and opening a store.

Nine to Five dress

“9 to 5”, also from our first line, is made from a simple green jersey blend.  We added some ruching at the sleeves and a bow at the neck and kept the rest simple.

Another limitation that accrued to our benefit was the lack of funds.  As a small under-capitalized start-up, the one manufacturer who would help us gave us only two fabric choices: cotton poplin and poly/spandex jersey.  Because each seam, pleat, button or pin tuck in a dress cost extra money to produce, and we didn't have money, out of necessity, we kept our designs simple, making the design process easier, faster and better.

We experienced many ‘blips’ in manufacturing before we perfected our process.  One such blip involved Emily and me personally ripping off the buttons of 500 incorrectly sewn dresses.  And a manufacturer who ‘changed its mind’ about producing dresses two days before it was supposed to ship hundreds of dresses we’d pre-sold.  Not all frustrations are fortunate.

Anchors Away dress
This is our “Anchors Away” dress.  The first batch came with ALL of the buttons sewn to one side.  We had to have every dress remade.

As for limitations around design, whereas Emily and I agreed easily, convincing the manufacturers we really did want our dresses to have sleeves, higher necklines and hemlines at least to the knee, was not easy.   As frustrating as this was, it helped us define our brand and eventually get more publicity for Shabby Apple.

Since starting our business, we've learned that many women cast about for the right accessories, so we added a line of jewelry, shoes, and bags and combined them into “vignettes” or outfits that can be bought together.

 We've also learned that, like us, many women struggle to find a dress that flatters their figure.  Thus came our “fit to flatter” section.  After taking a quiz, the site tells you your body type and then tells you which pieces will look best.

Athletic body type

Everyone has frustrations in life.  Some frustrations and limitations can’t be overcome.  I still can’t work regular hours and Emily is soon to be the mother of three.  Even with these constraints, and quite possibly because of them, Emily and I have been fortunate to do something that we both love.

Shabby Apple

Above is a ‘sneak peak' at our Fall 2009 collection.  We've gotten more complicated in our designs since the first line.  This one has pockets, a side zipper, sash and is made from a thick canvas material.


For those of you that are trying to work out what your dream is, what have been some of life's greatest frustrations?  In dealing with your constraints, is it possible that you have cultivated your greatest strengths?

For more on clothing as a metaphor for ‘daring to dream', you may enjoy:

  1. Is Your Dream Off-the-Rack? Or Tailor-Made?
  2. TLC’s “What Not to Wear”: A Hero’s Journey
  3. What We Can Learn From TLC’s “I’ve Got Nothing to Wear”


  1. Jenny June 15, 2009 at 5:57 pm

    Whitney, once again, you leave me STUNNED at your amazing network. I was just at Shabby Apple this morning, because I had been referred from a completely different source. And voila! Here it is on your amazing blog. I think new strengths emerge daily, as we allow frustration to become an acceptable part of how life works. Love the image of Julie Andrews in the Sound of Music at the bottom of this post.

  2. Angela Henrie June 15, 2009 at 6:10 pm

    I am so glad they started out with simple designs. That’s what I love so much about their line. Simple. Timeless. They’re dresses that you can keep in your closet, pull it out a year later, and not feel out of style.

  3. Janna June 15, 2009 at 6:38 pm

    Your influence is far and wide. I’ve seen many ‘a Shabby Apple dress here in NYC.
    How has been the response to your call for micro-credit donations on your website? I love that you are continuing to make your vibes felt in that way as well. Just last night I heard the UN Ambassador to Bangladesh speak, and she mentioned the profound impact of micro-credit programs on the overall economic development of the country.

  4. Whitney Johnson June 15, 2009 at 7:00 pm

    Just saw a great post by Pam Slim (Escape from Cubicle Nation) whose thoughts echo Athelia’s:
    “Living with constraints and challenges is one of the best learning opportunities you will ever get. By succeeding in a tough economy, you will be much better prepared for life than peers who graduate with offer letters waived under their noses the moment they cross the stage to collect their diploma. Constraints breed creativity. Creativity is the single most useful skill you will ever develop.”

  5. Rebecca June 15, 2009 at 7:25 pm

    I love the bravery in holding fast to your standards. It’s defining in a respectable, wonderful way. I too, love the Shabby Apple classic, tailored, modest style. Beautiful.
    The one personal frustration that immediately came to my mind as I read this wonderful post happened a couple years ago when I mulled the idea of starting a blog. My husband is the computer geek in the family and I thought I’d give him the task of creating our blog…you know, team work. Well, he set it up, but all I could do to give it “personality” was give it a name and change colors and fonts. Weeks past and I finally realized my husband didn’t care what the blog looked like (surprise!) and didn’t have time to walk me through design, so I took a leap and spent a few days of study, trial and error, and finally success designing our family’s blog. It was a stretch, but it felt great to broaden my creativity in an area I thought was beyond my reach. It actually was fun too!

  6. Lauren June 15, 2009 at 7:47 pm

    I love the dresses from Shabby Apple and am happy to hear more history about the company. I have 3 dresses already and hope to have many more in the future.

  7. Mercedes June 15, 2009 at 8:52 pm

    how cool is this! one thing that stuck out to me about your story was the fact that you were flexible. when an appropriate work opportunity in your field didn’t materialize, you created a job for yourself inspired by one of your non-academic interests.
    sometimes geographic location does effect the choices available to us, but i think your story is demonstrative of the fact that no matter where you find yourself, you can do something you are excited about.
    thanks for sharing your story!

  8. Veronica June 15, 2009 at 10:46 pm

    What a cool story of “making it work.” I love Shabby Apple’s dresses, and the “fit to flatter” section is a great idea. It’s always nice to have some guidance in that area.

  9. Lisle June 15, 2009 at 10:55 pm

    What a pleasure, to love what you’re doing! And to know that no matter what, you get to continue to make it go. The dresses are great, and I love that you’ve really defined your style without limiting it. How creative is that?!

  10. LaNola Kathleen Stone June 16, 2009 at 6:52 am

    As with Janna, I too have seen many ‘a Shabby Apple dress here in NYC. It’s nice to see dresses designed to be with selves and to the knee vs taking other styles and modifying them (BLAH). Very smart going back to a vintage inspired– classic yet contemporary! I generally have to go to a vintage store for that look. 😉
    also, just fyi, I am in SLC a couple times per year. I would love to talk to you about your children’s line. check out my site and let’s talk! kisses, lanola

  11. Margaret Busse June 16, 2009 at 10:17 am

    I have two of the dresses pictured above, and have many more in my closet (it helps that CK is my sister!) I love wearing them, I always feel like such a fashionista!
    It has been really amazing to watch CK take this idea and build it into a full-blown company–and I’ve even got to help name some of her items!

  12. EHD June 16, 2009 at 11:30 am

    My husband (a successful businessman and father) received a key piece of advice early in his career. (I am twelve years younger than he, so he had ample opportunity to pass the advice on to me!) Embrace a spectacular failure when you are young. First, you will gain invaluable experience and not repeat the mistake when there is more on the line. Second, you will learn resilience. People who do not experience failure until later in their careers often cannot recover from it. Kudos to you for turning seeming failure into success!

  13. Emily June 16, 2009 at 1:01 pm

    I love Shabby Apple and have known about them from the beginning… they are my “goal” as I try to better myself and loose weight to fit into some of their great outfits. I am pleased they carry a few things in plus size and love that I can find cute stylish (yet not trendy) things while still being modest!

  14. amy jo June 16, 2009 at 10:36 pm

    This was a great inspiration to read. I love that you’re able to do what you want to do and when you can do it, and not feel so compelled to meet others expectations on how you should really be doing business.

  15. Jaime Cobb Dubei June 16, 2009 at 10:50 pm

    What an interesting blog post! Definitely the story of persistence in the face of adversity, and some stellar fashion sense!

  16. Dana King June 17, 2009 at 9:33 am

    Constraints force us to be creative. I find that being on a budget for my own around-the-house design projects encourages me to be creative, to repurpose and redesign with what I have. I see and encourage my clients do the same to get the most bang for our buck and talents in a project. What results is great pride and discovery in using our strengths to overcome limitations.
    Love your designs! So happy to have found your site. I have a friend who dreams of growing her wedding dress business. This post will inspire her.

  17. amber June 17, 2009 at 5:59 pm

    Amazing blog entry, very inspiring and uplifting! I am following my dreams of being both a theatre actress and an author. I love writing and performance art. Sometimes it is hard because the entertainment business is very hard to “make it” in I have always believed in myself though and will continue to push through the barriers to make my dreams a reality 🙂
    Thanks so much for the wonderful blog post!

  18. Saydi June 17, 2009 at 11:50 pm

    what a great journey through frustration to fruition. I’ve always loved the Shabby Apple style, it’s nice to know all the depth behind it.

  19. Elsa November 6, 2009 at 3:10 am

    I love this article – well written and insightful! I’m going to take your advice about reflecting on the frustrations/constraints in my life to heart to see if I can uncover some strengths I’ve developed in the process. Thank you!

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