I have created many hats for chemo patients. Even sold some of my work to a local wig store who caters to chemo patients. There are far too many victims and survivors of cancer in my family. And I’ve received a lot of valuable input over the years from local patients that has influenced my hat designs and work.
With so many people asking questions these days, I decided to compile some of my various posts on the subject in one place for everyone’s reference. Not every item I design or make is with chemo patients in mind, but the vast majority of my life’s crochet work is. I hope you will find it helpful.
Where to start?
Materials: Chemotherapy tends to break down the skin, on the scalp especially. So patients’ skin is generally extremely tender, not just because they used to have hair and now suddenly don’t, but because the skin is not as strong. Using soft materials is very important for someone undergoing chemo.
Baby alpaca, pashmina and even cashmere and such are quite soft, but can still eventually become annoying or even painful. But I find this is largely tied to quality. I have purchased “baby alpaca” from totally different farms and found them to be drastically different in quality. Still, we’re talking expense and up-keep. Many patients are going through enough just trying to keep up with their appointments.
Some patients find themselves developing an allergy or sensitivity to animal fibers and many folks like to think in terms of non-animal sources. Soft cotton has been used a lot, but I have found that cotton is not always comfortable to all patients. I have heard complaints of cotton feeling rough to some tender heads. However, this may be due to the type of stitches used or honestly the way the fiber has been plied. If you want to use some measure of natural fibers, bamboo is a nice non-animal option.
Silk is an option that is usually hypoallergenic and is both durable and soft. But I must share that it is not impossible to be allergic to silk. I had a repeat customer who couldn’t touch it, but would buy my silk meditation shawls for his wife (what love!). I find silk fiber to be easy to do up too tightly when working with it. Silk is less comfortable without “flow.” It is also a unique fiber in it’s ability to both breathe and yet provide warmth, even in hair fine fibers.
Man-made micro-fibers certainly add a variety of options, some actually derived from plant bases, such as rayon. There are many micro-fiber possibilities including acrylics, nylons, and viscoses, which most of my chemo customers seem to prefer. Today’s micro-fiber technology has come very far in creating incredibly soft fibers and at a fraction of the cost of pashmina and the like. The up-keep is also easier.
All fibers to note. However, if scabs or cracked skin are present on the scalp, even micro-fibers may actually snag/tear at the skin, which is understandably uncomfortable. If you know your beneficiary, you’ll want to evaluate their situation and needs. When thinking about your beneficiary’s needs, keep in mind that acrylic fibers are generally preferred by most US hospitals for preemies in part because they can be sterilized. If you feel washing and sterilization might be a factor for your cancer patient, this should be considered when weighing what fibers to use.
Every person is different and their tolerance of chemo treatment varies. I find the skin sensitivity issues seem similar to what happens during labor. Everything that used to be comfortable to you suddenly may not be and may even be downright awful! Skin sensory input seems to peak during chemo and the skin breaks down, so it’s extra frustrating to some patients.
Tip: Use the inside of your wrist for a little help in the soft department when you are trying to judge your fibers. You want to rub it for a few seconds. Do this with a swatch as well. Inside of the wrist is a more tender area and better helps establish the feel you are looking for. I’ve been doing this for some time and after awhile you begin to intuitively recognize certain feels and stitch patterns that work better than others. Yes, even stitches change the texture and how a scalp senses the garment it’s wearing.
Stitches: Loose stitches are generally better than tight stitches. No matter how soft the fiber is, you can make it less comfortable to the skin with tight stitches. I also prefer to make items that breathe. Part of that is because down here in Central Texas, we don’t get much winter. Garments that breathe are both cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter – providing a “thermal” effect.
Style: Many female chemo patients have told me they really want to wear something not just to keep their heads warm, but so they don’t have to look in the mirror and see only a bald head, but see a pretty lady. Several ladies have been drawn to my hats because they “don’t look like chemo hats.” I think this emotional response is something important to note. Having cancer is hard enough, much less adding the emotional impact of your change in appearance. I even heard one lady reference the typical “turban” style as “death” caps – that she didn’t want to wear it because people associated it with emotional pain and dying. I’m not saying that every cancer patient feels this way. I am however pointing out things I have taken notice of when I go about the crochet designs I do.
Also, the patients I have talked to often want to have a handful of things they can wear to cover their head, not just one item. Personality plays a role, but some patients appreciate being able to treat their situation more lightly and with more adventure than others. One wonderful light described to me her new adventure into a world of style she’d never previously known.
Kids: I have to admit they are my soft spot. I read once about one little girl’s anxiety about being so sick, but also suddenly losing her hair and becoming bald. And it nearly broke my heart. It was then that I resolved myself to make and donate hats for children going through chemo. I like to make fun things for kids, because kids like to have fun and “be cool.” And they need compliments and smiles too. We adults have our insecurities about our appearances, but fact is – we’re adults. Kids are resilient, but depending on their age especially, are barely mature enough to deal with all the emotions themselves. Being sick and losing your hair can be scary. Something fun can make all the difference in their experience of their battle.
I hope some of this helps. If you are considering making something special for a cancer patient, what you are doing for them is very loving and wonderful. I would also highly recommend the charity “Spirit Jump” to you as well. It is a wonderful charity, whether for your crochet efforts, or to benefit someone you know who may need their spirits lifted. If you need more help, let me know.
Dorothy – Sweet and soft Cloche
I began crocheting hats for chemo patients in part due to my grandmother Dorothy who helped teach me to crochet when I was little. Everytime she has gone through chemo, she always had hugs and smiles for everyone, never complaining for herself and crocheted herself a cute new hat. Everyone has always loved her and she has many adopted grandkids. And every time she has a new hat, so do several people in her church as they love her hats too. You’d hardly know what she’s been through. She is and always has been “The Crafting Queen.” Believe it or not, she’s still alive at nearly 90 years and fighting lymphoma for some 15. The hat you see pictured here is named after her.
There are too many cancer victims and survivors in my family, now including my mother. As such, I now often crochet with these in mind; choosing the softest, highest quality materials I can find for the tenderest skin going through chemo. I’ve also been blessed to receive a lot of highly appreciated input from survivors over the years that has led to the development and creation of these unique designs.
May these creations bless everyone they touch.