How Fiber Arts Helped Me Heal

Written by Cat Stricklin

/ˈsēzēəm/

noun

  1. the chemical element of atomic number 55, a soft, silvery, extremely reactive metal. It belongs to the alkali metal group and occurs as a trace element in some rocks and minerals. Abbreviated Cs on the periodic table.
Meet the Maker
A picture of Cat laughing with her head back on her wedding day. On her neck, you can see the scar from where her thyroid was removed in 2015. A set of roman numerals are tattooed on one of her collar bones, reading the date of her surgery which subsequently became the day she was cancer free.

Hi! I’m Cat Stricklin, and I’m the hands behind Cesium Yarn, a hand dyed fiber company that also dabbles in every type of fiber arts possible. I began Cesium Yarn officially in 2020, but have been making things with yarn for over 6 years, and creating since I could hold a crayon in my hand.  I graduated with a degree in chemistry and physics from Hollins University, and my love of science can be seen throughout my yarn dyeing process.  I live in Roanoke with my wife Penny, our dog Pixie, and our rat Queso. Cesium Yarn would not be possible without the constant support of Penny, as well as the talented hands and calming spirit of my mother-in-law, Val, who lives nearby.  No matter where you find us, we’ll have yarn in our hands, or at least within reaching distance. If we aren’t yarning, we find joy in baking, cooking, and experimenting with food.

My Story
Cat standing in the hydrangea bush outside of their house, wearing a knit shawl designed by things.beth.makes

The part of childhood cancer that many people don’t consider is that my childhood cancer journey started when I was 16. It took me a while to come to terms with the fact that “childhood cancer” really did apply to me, that I was a child when I was dealing with this. Had you told me then that I was a child, I would have argued that I was in high school, that I was going on college tours, that what I wanted to be when I grew up wasn’t just some fantasy, it was something I was actively making choices towards.

Reflecting, however, I was definitely a child. That’s the thing about growing up, and the thing about healing. You can reflect and see that you weren’t always right. I’ve been creative my whole life, and maybe that’s why I was so good at deceiving myself, but this cancer thing threw a big wrench in my identity, and what I could do with my time.

Before the diagnosis, I was in the marching band, sweating on the football field. Afterwards, and even still, I can’t be too active without facing actual unconsciousness. Thyroids control your hormones, and your hormones control everything else. With thyroid cancer, you’re hoping to some miracle that the synthetic hormones you’re taking after they remove your thyroid actually absorb, and that you’ll be able to function that day. With this new reality, what I could reasonably do with my time and energy had to change. 

Like I said, I had always been creative, and now I was almost always planted on the couch or in my bed. One day on a break from our movie marathons that peppered my summer waiting for surgery, my mom took me to the craft store and we bought yarn and crochet hooks. The craft store wasn’t an unusual place for us to frequent, but the yarn and hooks were new. I got home, sat down with a youtube video, and that’s how my love affair began.

Cat knitting in a chair in her house, a crocheted blanket thrown over the back of the chair, and wearing a knit headband

I can’t claim to have been crocheting non-stop since that summer in 2015, and I can’t claim that I was instantly in a better state of mind with yarn in my hand, but this moment matters. It’s a moment that I found a coping mechanism that would get me through some nasty healing, both physically and mentally. I picked projects up through the end of high school, giving away scarves left and right. College had me working on smaller projects like hats and cup cozies. Who knows where those miles of yarn have gone, but I know that as I unraveled the skeins of yarn and stitched them into something new, I was in the process of picking apart my thoughts, and reorganizing them into a shape that made sense, allowing me to heal. 

Cat in the chemistry lab, wearing her safety goggles and decorated graduation robe

The pandemic began in March of my final year at university, and suddenly my thesis for chemistry was impossible, since I couldn’t be in the lab. My classes were all online, and everyone was struggling to focus and learn in the trying times. This was the moment that the yarn tied me up good. The crochet hook would always be stitching away just out of frame of the Zoom screen, and kept me from feeling like the world was crushing my chest. Yarn over became code for breathe in, pull through reminded me to breathe out. Slowly the stitches alternated my breathing as I would ground myself back to the lectures, and subsequently back to the world.

These stitches became blankets, and the blankets became hugs that I sent to people around the country, keeping me connected with the world. As March passed and turned to May, graduation came and the world was still closed. I stayed entwined with the yarn, and started selling the blankets and anything else that I could create. As I stitched, I found myself outside of the fear that permeated the news cycle every hour of every day. I was thinking of how I started stitching right after I had been diagnosed with cancer. I’ve always been open with my journey, talking about it whenever someone asked about the bright pink scar on my neck, but there is trauma around the journey that I hadn’t always been aware of. I thought I could fake it until I made it with the healing, but that wasn’t the case. I had been hurting since I was told I had cancer, and I had not found a way to trust my own body to be kind to me. 

A large crocheted c2c blanket being held up by two people, featuring a lion in front of a sunset.

As I came to this realization, I also decided it was time to start crocheting my own clothes. This is where my healing started in earnest, for I was spending hours and hours making a sweater to fit me, to fit my body, perfectly.  A body I hadn’t loved. This isn’t a body image and confidence thing for me, this was a trust that I no longer felt with my own skin, and what was happening on a deeper level that I couldn’t see. 

This act of love for myself is when I think healing really started to happen. Healing from cancer, healing from the fear of my own body, and the healing from traumas that came afterwards. I see a shift in the confidence I carry even in photos of myself where I’m wearing something that I’ve made. I know I can be kind to my own self again, and that’s how I’m acting. No, this doesn’t mean I’m not still scared about what my body will do to me in the next weeks, months, or years. It means that I found a place where I can appreciate the moment. 

Cat in front of a wooden fence, blowing on a dandelion, modeling a sweater she tested for knitsnknotswpg.

With such a slow process behind making with yarn, I was surprised that it brought me to value individual moments so deeply. I’m not rushing towards the end with my projects, and therefore I’m not rushing to the end where I’m healed with myself, I’m savoring where I am now. I acknowledge the discomfort, and soak in the joy I can find. 

Photos of the yarn colors dyed for the Poppy collection for Cesium Yarn, that launched in the spring of 2021

My journey with yarn and healing wasn’t over when I started making my own clothing. Since then, I’ve started dyeing yarn, which became the real basis of Cesium Yarn, combining my love of science and art into one neat package. I have also started knitting, which is its own  act of patience, but I love seeing the yarn come to life in another beautiful way. On September 14th of this year, I’ll be 6 years out from having my thyroid removed, and 6 years cancer free. I’ve come a long way in learning to love my body again, and learning to trust it. All of this has been a process of healing. But healing is never over, and as I continue to stitch and stitch and stitch, with my crochet hooks or my knitting needles, I’ll continue to heal. I am grateful I’ve had the support I’ve had in my healing, from my parents, my wife, and so many others, but healing from so much trauma is personal. Seeing the stacks of yarn I’ve dyed and the piles of things I’ve made, I see a visual representation of the progress I’ve made in being myself.

Cat washing yarn in her dye studio in Val’s basement
More about Cat…

You can find Cat on Facebook or Instagram to stay up to date with her business and family, as well as her Etsy shop for beautiful hand dyed yarn and crochet patterns!

Left to right: Cat, Val, and Penny on Cat and Penny’s wedding day
Cat and Penny at Art and Fiber in Blacksburg, VA standing behind a table full of CesiumYarn dyed yarns. Cat is wearing a knit headband and a crocheted dress
A photo from Cat’s first test knit, for kneedlesandlife, of course! Featuring two of her favorite children’s books
A flatlay of a crochet colorwork shirt waiting to be seamed. The shirt design is from eclairemakery, featuring a compass neckline and a map of the world on the front. The design is stitched entirely using yarns dyed by CesiumYarn, colors that will be featured in the end of August launch.

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3 Comments

  1. 8.10.21
    Karen said:

    It is truly wonderful how yarn, hooks and needles can give life to so much healing. I’m so glad to have “met” you, Cat. So glad to be able to celebrate your 6th anniversary of being cancer-free soon! The world (and especially this fibre community) is a better place because of you!

  2. 8.10.21
    Val said:

    Beautiful journey, well told. I’m honored to stitch bits of it with you.

  3. 8.11.21
    Kristine said:

    Finding joy, healing, and new creative outlets as part of a healing process seems it has been rewarding in countless ways. Thanks for sharing your story. I enjoyed reading it.