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How knitting saved Caterina Sullivan’s life

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Entrepreneur, CEO, sustainability advocate and 2017 Young Australian of the Year Finalist: Caterina Sullivan is a force to be reckoned with as she adds designer to the list.

After being diagnosed with a brain tumour in 2018 and suffering three strokes, the 26-year-old has launched two new businesses dedicated to her love for knitting. 

While she admits the craft is not necessarily a “young person thing to do”, Caterina has been knitting since the age of five when she quickly became obsessed with creating things by hand. Taught by her mother while growing up in Western Australia,  Caterina started her first business selling knitted items and beaded jewellery at the age of seven. 

“It was really fun for me to do that, then I moved here and I kept knitting but not as much,” says Caterina. “I was settling into what it means to live 3200 kilometres away from my family.”

Growing up obsessed with politics, law and the idea of living in Canberra, Caterina moved to the Capital at the age of 16 to pursue her dreams. 

Packing her days and nights full of work, study and dancing, the opportunity of a lifetime presented itself in 2015 and Caterina packed her bags to move to New York City to work alongside the United Nations in the launch of their 17 Global Goals for Sustainable Development. 

Inspired by the positive impacts she saw, when Caterina came back to Canberra she launched herself into founding the Global Goals Australia Campaign, Strategic Sustainability Consultants, the Politics Done Differently podcast and a YouTube channel. 

However in 2018, when she started feeling exhausted all of the time, she knew something was wrong. 

“I got quite sick, I couldn’t work out what was happening but I just started my own businesses, I was working and I was on the go 24/7,” says Caterina. “Then all of a sudden I had to stop.”

After endless doctors visits, at 23 years old Caterina was diagnosed with a brain tumour and everything changed. As she was forced to slow down, she felt a complete loss of control as the tumour completely altered how she was living her life. 

As feelings of frustration and sadness threatened to overwhelm her, she picked up her knitting needles as a way to slow down and she soon fell back in love with her childhood obsession.

“I used knitting as an outlet to deal with all of that,” Caterina says. “When I woke up in the morning I wasn’t sure what was going on and what treatment I needed so I knew when I got up in the morning, all that I had on that day was knitting.”

“Every project I had was something for me to look forward to, so I wasn’t stressing about what was going to happen with my medical stuff.”

Heading back to Western Australia to spend time with her family while doctors debated the best treatment for a tumour-free future, Caterina re-discovered the endless boxes of yarn she had collected in her childhood. As she found discontinued colours and yarn types, she let her creativity run wild.  

 

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A post shared by Louise Clare Designs (@louiseclareau)

Using bright and textured yarn, funky patterns and mixed textures, Caterina started making unique, sustainably made pieces of art. However, after her creative burst inspired by the rarity of the yarn and the fun of creating her own patterns, Caterina faced another complication from her tumour—a severe stroke. 

Paralysed from the neck down for two months, Caterina says knitting was one of the key things to help with her recovery. 

“I had to practice moving a needle into a certain spot, something so specific that I could remember doing that it sort of retrained me use my arms again,” she says.

“It’s amazing that it got me through that period because I just felt ready to give up every day…I was at the lowest point of my life.”

Despite suffering another two strokes, Caterina kept on knitting and she decided to start Louise Clare Designs to share her clothing with the world and Fancy Yarns Australia to encourage people to pursue the art of knitting.

Finally, after delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Caterina successfully had her tumour removed in June 2020.

“I made a lot of things, I had this whole time of freedom to be creative and expressive and try different things…the one thing I brought to the hospital with me was my knitting.”

 

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A post shared by Louise Clare Designs (@louiseclareau)


Caterina says that her creativity played the most important part in her recovery from the trauma of her illness. Following the rollercoaster of the last few years, she has had a 98% recovery from her strokes and she doesn’t plan to slow down again. 

“I don’t think anyone expects to go through something like that,” she says. “A lot of people have said ‘Oh you’re so strong and I can’t believe how amazing and brave you are.’ But I’m not strong, I’m not brave, you have to do these things, you don’t get a choice.”

Caterina’s desire to contribute to the world in her own way hasn’t faded and as she builds her business back up, she is focusing on important thing: 

“What is your purpose? Why are you here? What makes you get up in the morning on your worst day? Worst case comes for everyone, it doesn’t matter…what is that thing that will keep getting you out of bed?”

Visit caterinasullivan.com for more information or louiseclare.com to see Caterina’s designs

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