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Michelle Obama’s Surprising New Hobby

The former first lady tells AARP how knitting helps her unwind

Michelle Obama
Billboard Music Awards 2021 via Getty Images

With the launch of her highly anticipated new book, The Light We Carry: Overcoming in Uncertain Times, Michelle Obama knits together powerful stories from her life as a mother, daughter, spouse, first lady and advocate for causes related to youth, health and education. She offers advice on how to stay centered and strong in times of crisis and to build connections that fortify us and those around us.

But Obama admits that, time and again, she has had to dig deep to find her own strength, courage and steadiness during the challenges and societal shifts of the last few years.

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One way she’s found calm in the chaos is by knitting, a hobby she took up on a whim in the early weeks of the COVID-19 lockdowns. She had never tried it before. Obama tells AARP that she was raised to be “a sock purchaser rather than a sock mender.”

But when the pandemic hit, life slowed down, she says. “And I just happened [to order] some yarn and two needles and thought, Let me give this a shot.” 

She picked up skills from YouTube how-to videos, she notes, and — admitting she’s a bit of an overachiever — “I finished my first blanket in probably less than a week.” She’s hardly stopped since. She now knits while talking to her mom on the phone, during office Zoom meetings and while hanging out with friends.

Among other projects, she’s made “an itty-bitty green hat” that she brought to a baby shower, a soft crewneck sweater for her husband, former President Barack Obama, and an alpaca halter top for her youngest daughter, Sasha.

The appeal of her new hobby, she explains in the book, is that it allowed her to narrow her focus, which “detoured me away from my anxiety, just enough to provide some relief. … My mind felt a little splash of ease.”

Knitting’s growth in popularity across generations

Crafty activities like knitting are big these days, according to Ariel Horton, analyst for the global market research firm Mintel. In a 2021 trend report on American hobbyists, she notes that “during this time of high stress, both emotional and financial, consumers will look to arts and crafts for a fun, affordable leisure activity that helps them feel both relaxed and purposeful.”

Knitting and knitwear, in particular, have been given a cool-points boost from young influencers like Ella Emhoff and style-makers like Harry Styles. “Granny core” knitted apparel is a fall and winter fashion staple. Celebrity knitters include Meryl Streep, Kate Middleton, Uma Thurman, Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe.

Other first ladies have knit as well. Eleanor Roosevelt, for one, could cast on, knit and purl with the best of them.

Mind-body benefits

Knitting can be therapeutic, Obama notes: “We underestimate the importance of sitting quietly and using our hands,” she tells AARP.  “We are overscheduled, moving and pushing and trying to make a big impact. But the truth is that our minds need a break.”

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She adds that two years in quarantine offered her the gift of time “to use this craft as sort of a meditative tool” that allowed her “to stop letting the negative energy race through my head.”

This is what's known as the relaxation response, a psychological state of deep rest that changes both our emotional and physical responses to stress. The late behavioral medicine pioneer Herbert Benson, M.D., brought the concept to public awareness back in the 1960s. “It can be evoked through activities that are both absorbing and repetitive … anything that breaks the train of everyday thought,” he noted at a 2008 American Psychological Association conference. Besides knitting, that might be running, meditation, yoga, needlepoint or deep breathing.

Many studies have found that the relaxation response can lower heart rate and blood pressure, and help alleviate symptoms of anxietydepressioninsomnia, cancer, arthritis and other conditions. The Craft Yarn Council, a knitting industry group, promoted a “Stitch Away Stress” campaign for Stress Awareness Month in April, highlighting many of these benefits.

Creating good through knitting

Visit AARP’s volunteer platform, createthegood.aarp.org, to find community service projects that knitters can do from home or in person. Volunteers of various skill levels can sign up and offer knitting lessons to support wellness and resilience among vulnerable neighbors, to produce winter hats and gloves for pre-K-12 kids in need, to support families facing homelessness and more.