The Sewcialists Interview: Michelle Morris

If I could tell you one thing that you need to know about Michelle Morris, it would be: you would want to be the best of friends with her. Michelle is amiable, hilarious, and inspiring. Maybe you know Michelle from her long-time blog, That Black Chic. Or maybe you’ve seen her contributions on Sew News Magazine? But my personal favorite is her own Sewn Magazine. Michelle’s style is unapologetically high fashion and high energy. She can sew more garments in a week than some of us do in a year, and she does it all for art.

Becky: First let’s talk about the fact you work full-time outside of your online sewing/fashion presence. Is your profession complementary or contradictory to your creative work here, meaning the sewing and fashion world?

Michelle: Totally contradicts everything I do here! I’m a corporate trainer by day, so I’m training people on process in medical insurance and healthcare regulation. It’s not remotely connected, nor does it have any artistic value whatsoever.

B: Okay, then: 

  • You work full-time at a fairly detail-oriented career 
  • You produce and publish Sewn Magazine
  • You’ve got a blog where your production is through the roof
  • You’re a brand ambassador for Viking
  • You write for Sew News

My question is, are you are permanently caffeinated? How do you do all of it, and so very well?

M: That’s funny because my daughter’s friend came over just recently and she was like, “When do you sleep?” I don’t sleep! (laughs)

Yes, it’s crazy, and you know what, it’s funny because I’ve learned to say no to things too. Sewn Magazine takes up most of my time, so my blog has suffered some. I’m trying to get back on track with that, posting things there, I still have obligations to Viking, and I just submitted something to Sew News. It’s crazy, and I have no real organization in that life! (laughs) In my work life? I’m all about organization! I teach it, I train it, and I do it, but with this thing, I can’t get it organized the way that I need. I think a lot of it is because I’m doing most of the work. It all falls back with me. My daughter helps me somewhat, but everything is still falling back on me. Sometimes it takes the fun out of it. 

Recently, I figured I can have some overlap. I was always trying to keep everything so separate. I wanted That Black Chick separate from Sewn Magazine, for example, and I figured out that I’m going to have to re-maneuver that somehow or I’m going to be really lacking somewhere! I was going through some of my contracts and figured out I can use my work in more than one place. I do try to put a bit of time between projects, but yeah, that’s going definitely help me out.

B: You mentioned your daughter, Mori, and that she models for you. Does she get behind the camera sometimes when you’re the model, or do you have anyone to help you out on any of this? 

M: For my blog, it’s me. That’s all me. If you ever see me in front of the camera, that’s her, meaning she’ll take the picture. For the most part, any kind of work that I do that’s blog is all me. The magazine, we’re partners but she’s such a perfectionist when it comes to artwork that it’ll take her forever to do something, and we don’t have that kind of time. I do have two sons that are away in school and the one is a senior. He’s a technical, computer person and he’s taught me a lot in PhotoShop, so I’m hoping I’d be able to utilize him somewhat when he’s finished school. 

I’m looking for people. I’ve tested people. I know I’m reliable, because it’s me and it’s my work. Finding other people to get that same mentality has been a struggle. 

Mori in a Ralph Lauren dress shift, standing outside - it has a very equestrian vibe in browns, leather trim, and layered over a cream turtleneck.

B: It’s incredible you do it all. Mainly referring to just the blog for a moment here, your variety of style blows me away. I don’t just mean the variety of style choices and fabrics, but even home décor and set décor. You did this crazy-fantastic Ralph Lauren dress that is so “riding in the Hamptons,” you have multiple Ankara print posts, this halter being my favorite, and then you’ll make the ultimate club jumpsuit in gold that I never knew I needed. On face-value, the aesthetic may seem like it’s all over the place, but you make it all feel perfectly cohesive. Do you plan these out or do you do what you want to do on a given day, and it all just falls into place? 

M: Honestly, a lot of it’s not planned. The Ralph Lauren, I had held on to a picture of a similar outfit for a year and I was like, “I’m gonna make this outfit because it’s really dope!” So in that kind of way, some of it’s planned, but a lot of it’s not. A lot of time it’s me waiting until the last minute up to a deadline! I’m like, “I got three days before I got to hand in this post, dammit, what am I gonna use around this house that I already have? I’m gonna grab this, this, this, and this, and we’re gonna put this together, we’ll make it work!”

It’s funny because I do that a lot. As I’m putting it together, in my head I’m thinking, “Nobody’s gonna like this… this is gonna be so wack… no one’s gonna get this…” But then that’s what people love. A lot of it’s not really planned out. I buy fabric all the time and I always buy at least five yards because I never know what I’m going to do with it but I do know that is my safe amount. I figure I can make a jacket and pants if all else fails. I have stuff to reach for when crunch time happens, so sometimes it’s planned, but often it’s happenstance.

B: Do you find your creativity blossoms with chaos and pressure?

M: That’s exactly it! I’ve always been interested in art; any kind of art, I’m all about it. I think that helps because often I’m seeing something that no one else sees. Then when I put it together, some people get it, some people don’t. My thought is, “Dude, if you’re talking about it, you got it.” If I get people talking about it, then I did something right, whether you like it or not doesn’t matter. I have blog followers that wouldn’t be caught dead in something that I made but they appreciate the art and my artistic ability. I’m good with that, you know? It’s all about that. A thing a lot of people ask me is about Mori, because I make all the clothes for Mori. She doesn’t like half the things that I make for her. It’s funny because I’ll know early on if she likes it, but even then she’ll sometimes change her mind through the process. Sometimes during shooting she’ll say, “You know, Mom, I’m really not ever going to wear this again.” And I’ll tell her I know, and it’s alright, but then she’ll see the photos and the whole process come together, and she’ll be back into the outfit again. 

I don’t produce “daily wear clothes.” That’s a given. My stuff that’s on the blog, a lot of it is over-the-top. I’m not one of those bloggers who does “weekly wear” fashion. I do over-the-top. 

Screen shot of Sewn Magazine's website

B: You most certainly have the visual-editorial gift: art and fashion as a story. 

Let’s get into the Sewn Magazine side of things. Why a print publication? That’s really putting yourself on the line there, financially. And this isn’t just any print magazine. These are full bleed (in print-speak, that means the printing goes all the way to the edge of the page without a white margin and it’s often more expensive), thick, glossy paperstock, high quality magazines with what little “advertising” there is being coupon codes for free or discounted patterns. (NOTE: The “advertising” isn’t bringing money in for Michelle or the publication at the time of this post. They are just perk coupon codes for magazine subscribers to get free patterns, and an opportunity for pattern makers to reach her audience.)

M: I’m such a visual person. If I can get my hands on it, it’s so much better for me. I appreciate it so much more. I have always been like that and with magazines, I don’t think I really ever looked at a magazine online, not a full magazine anyway. Well, no, I’m lying, because when Mimi G’s Sew Sew Def came out, I had to check out that, right? But a print magazine is what I wanted; it was the concept I wanted from the start. I knew it was going to be a struggle, and it is a struggle but it’s still what I want to do. If I’m gonna do this, I’m gonna do what I want to do, and I’m gonna do it as long as it pays for itself, you know? So far, it has been paying for itself. I think people appreciate the magazine in their hand. I’m not saying that I won’t ever go digital, but definitely print is going to be the main focus if I’m doing it.

B: I know I can speak for Gillian, Chloe, and I – we all really love Sewn Magazine and feel it’s really important that you do continue to publish it. Are the subscribers at a good number? Are you looking into paid advertising in the future? How can it be more financially and time-feasible for you to continue publishing it? 

Mori in an incredible patchwork denim jumpsuit, large wood earrings and wood cuff bracelets

M: I definitely want to get some advertising to help pay for the magazine and to pay for some help, because that’s how magazines run, right? They run off advertising. I don’t think I ever did that big, meaning it will all run off of advertising, but I think definitely there are places where I can fit in some advertising to help out a bit. 

Right now there are two ways that people can buy the magazine: you can just buy one issue and call it a day or you can sign up for automatic bi-monthly where it’ll be billed to you every two months. 

B: How do you choose your editorial team?

M: Some of the people I knew from other projects prior to the magazine, so I got in touch with those people. Others come to be part of the team for the length that they can, and it seems when one needs to drop off, another comes on. It can be a struggle because that’s a never-ending story. Right now, I’ve got some stuff in the pocket in case some are going to drop out. But I know that, for example, Sew News, articles are a year out, and now I really get it and understand why it’s like that! I’m doing better with that; it’s been a learning curve! And, you know, I get it! This is not your job; I am not paying you your usual job salary, so I get that I’m not first priority. I just wish some people wouldn’t just drop off without a word, or at least give me some notice.

B: After all of that, you get the magazine to print and it arrives in the subscriber’s hands. You have this amazing layout with all kinds of models and articles. There is a variety of sizes, ages, ethnicities, styles, and just about everything one could ask for. In my opinion, it’s activism through exposure. It’s positive, it’s subtle in its approach, and it’s a view into what should be normal. This is what, in my mind, all media consumption should look like, and furthermore, it shouldn’t be shocking. Yet to some, it is. 

I love how you publish this magazine, and to ME, your approach feels like: “I’m just gonna put this here.” And you walk away. I imagine you waving it under my nose, and as I grab it, you turn and leave. You don’t need to back it up; you don’t need to say a thing. You just let it be.

Tell me how you feel about it. Tell me the inside scoop to your approach.

M: (laughs) When I first started, I made it KNOWN that this was the reason. I’ll be honest with you, I really don’t buy a lot of sewing magazines. Like, I’ve bought a Threads magazine and the more expensive ones because, like I said, I’m a visual person and they have the good photos and thick paper. But I remember, I was looking through not only the magazines, but I was looking through the contributors and there was not one black person listed. I did notice, I think it was Deepika of Pattern Review was a guest contributor in the issue that I bought, but other than that, all the contributors were white. So, I thought I’d buy a couple magazines, and I thought to myself, “I’m going to check this out.” I bought 12 magazines total and throughout this whole time and in those magazines Deepika was the only person of color. I’m like, are you kidding me? And I wasn’t the only one thinking about this stuff either

Here’s the thing. I started blogging in 2013. I only started blogging because I’m a serial picture taker. I was like, “Whoa! I can actually put stuff online and people can look at my pictures?!?” I’m all about this, all day, every day, right? I didn’t start off as a “sewing” blogger. I just thought, I’m just gonna take pictures and I’m just gonna put them on the Internet.

When I did start blogging, Mimi G was the first sewing blogger that I really noticed. While looking at her stuff, even though I hadn’t sewn in something close to 20-30 years or whatever, I thought, “Why am I not sewing?!” I went to the store and that was a rude awakening! The price of the patterns had gone up since I had stopped sewing! After that sticker shock, I bought some patterns, made myself a shirt, and Mori some pants. I posted Mori’s pants that I made, and there you go, people seemed to like that! 

So, I found this sewing community, and I know there’s a LOT of black people sewing and I know we’re out there, so why aren’t we in these magazines? Honestly, some type of fashion publication was always in the back of my head. I’m always thinking about fashion, so it’s not too farfetched that I’d make a fashion magazine, but this was for a purpose. I did have to think about what I was doing and how I was going to correspond with people on this subject. That was a little tricky. I knew it wasn’t gonna be a “black magazine.” That’s not what it is. I think that’s what a lot of people think it is; that’s not what I wanted to do. Yes, I want more people like me and that look like me in the magazine, but I also want other people. Because if you’re good, you’re good. I mean, you should be recognized that you’re good, right? However, you will see more people that look like me because we are not out there in those other publications. 

When I put it out there, it was well received. I was a little shocked and I was waiting for the backlash. I had a few that criticized the magazine, and I encouraged them for the conversation. I know that I’m not going to have everyone want to buy this magazine, but I do want everyone’s ideals. I’m gonna go forward with it the way it is, but I still want to have that conversation to let you know why it is I’m gonna go forward with it. 

I think a lot of people still think that it’s a “black magazine.” I just want it to be a good magazine. I want you to notice that there’s some black people in there, and there’s some white people in there. I don’t know how to get away from that, but I’m okay with that, because that’s just what it’s gonna be. It’s a magazine for anyone. Now, some people are going to compare it to Threads, and it’s not going to be like Threads. I’m not doing this for sewing education. This is for fashion. Sewing fashion is why I’m doing this magazine. I’m trying to introduce my customers to new artists, some patterns, and we do have a few tutorials, but it’s a fashion magazine.

montage of photos from Sewn magazine showing diversity in models

B: I feel like the magazine is an accurate, or at least MORE accurate, representation of the actual population. I’ve got a few issues now, and I love the fashion perspective. It’s eye-candy, there’s some good substance, and it’s an inspiration magazine to me.

How do you feel about having this conversation come up again and again, such as the current one with Karen Templar and India? I imagine it’s exhausting for you to have to rehash over and over the reality that there is not enough BIPOC representation. How does it affect you? Do you feel it’s exhausting, or that it needs to be perpetually going on?

M: Right now, honestly, I’m tired. When Simplicity or somebody didn’t put the right models in…

B: YES! They used white models for the patterns inspired by Hidden Figures

M: Yes! Then this whole big thing came around with the knitting. Here’s my thing. You got a lot of people that really don’t give a shit about what it is they’re putting their two cents in on. They’re not really about The Cause, you know? They’re like, “Oh, we should do this! We should do that!” I waited before I put any kind of comment on it because I’m dealing with a magazine that people perceive to be a “black magazine” that I’m trying to get people to buy, and I see all this outrage and everything, and I don’t see any support coming my way. Some of these same people with all this to say, but they don’t really do anything. 

I’m not saying there are not valid reasons for people to have these conversations, but something pops up right after the next thing, and I’m like, I’m tired of it. So no, you won’t see me. I don’t interact and I don’t make comments. 

That’s on race. The size conversation, you know, people said their piece. Different pattern companies rose to the occasion. But yeah, I’m tired of it. 

B: There’s a couple questions I always like to ask people. First, what is your pie-in-the-sky dream? For you, for Sewn Magazine? What do you want to come from this?

M: I want to be able to live off the fruits of my labor and quit that training job. I want to make this something that my kids can take over some day. I don’t want Sewn Magazine to be a fad, I want it to go for a long time. I believe that I have something. I want it to be sold nationally. I really want this to be something that lives on.

B: YES! Give Taunton and Condé Nast some competition! 

My other question I always like to ask people is, for example, you’ve done a lot of interviews and a lot of people have asked you questions. In my experience, people will have something that they just wish somebody would ask them, but nobody ever asks them. Maybe you have this question you always wish somebody would ask you, but it never comes up? 

M: Hmmmm, no… not that I can think of… I mean, (looks around)….I have denim on my ceiling! 

(pans camera up so I can see)

B: Whoa. You do! I love seeing the inside shots of your house that are on your blog. You have all of these great photoshoot spots. 

M: (laughs) My husband came in here and said, “I just don’t get a say in anything, do I?” NOPE.

B: What lights this fire in your belly? You work full time in addition to all of these things in the sewing community, keep this magazine going, what drives you and keeps it all going? This is no longer a side-hustle, right? This is iconic. You’re changing the landscape. The clothes you produce in record speed are beautiful and well made, not to mention all of the amazing photos…. If you’re not *actually* main-lining caffeine, what keeps this fire going? How do you not burn out?

M: Oh, I burn out! When I get home, I have to take a nap! It’s funny cuz everyone knows to not call home between five and six, because Mom’s taking a nap! That’s my nap time! It’s a struggle, trust me! 

You know, I got the thing no one knows. I hear people say, “My sewing time, that’s my relaxing time.” That is not my relaxing time. I’m telling you, if I can hire somebody to sew that stuff for that blog, I would hire somebody to sew that stuff for that blog! I know that part of the interest in people wanting to see those things is to know that I made those things, so I do that. I think the part that motivates me the most is that even though I don’t always enjoy the process, I know that with my hands I can create something that’s awesome. For me, when I’m at the end, when I’m done, and after all the strife? THAT is dope. That’s the shit. I’ve noticed as I’ve gotten older, that’s pretty much it. After the work, after doing it, as an example, looking at my ceiling. I can’t tell you how much of a bitch that was, putting that denim up there. But after? Yeah, that’s pretty dope. Nobody has a denim ceiling. So I think the fact that I can use my hands to make something, to create something, is amazing.    

The Sewcialist Interviews are a chance to hear more from some of the leaders in our sewing community. We will search out pattern makers, fabric designers, teachers, designers, and all-around awesome people that embody the Sewcialist spirit, and bring you interviews to help inspire your sewing journey.

Author Bio: Becky Jo Johnson is a blur in various places, but Instagram is usually a safe bet. Full disclosure: I spend my personal $15USD to buy her magazine, plus shipping, and I’ll never stop. 😉

(All images property and courtesy of Michelle Morris.)