Exploring The Vintage Shetland Project
Yule - A Textile Talisman part two
Martin Yule sat facing me across my ageing dining room table. Originally a pale, newly-sanded pine, it has aged gracefully over the years to a more elegant teak-like shade. In front of Martin was a large photograph album plus a smaller soft-backed book with a dark blue cover and on it the word 'YULE' printed in capitals on its cover. I was about to finally find out about Bob.
Bob's story as told by Martin his son, begins when Bob is only nine years of age, travelling with his parents James and Rubina back to Shetland in the summer of 1928. Bob's father, a doctor, had been offered a position as a GP, giving the family chance to return to Shetland. Sadly on the long boat journey from Aberdeen, Bob's father collapsed and never recovered. He died shortly after returning to Shetland from tuberculosis at the age of only 43.
Bob and his mother found themselves homeless and without a source of income. But fortunately Bob's paternal grandfather, Robert Mortimer, also a doctor, was still alive and living in Shetland. He helped Ruby find a home for herself and her young son in Lerwick as well as providing additional financial assistance. Living nearby were Ruby's two cousins, Katie and Winnie, who assisted her in looking after Bob and her home. This help was much needed, as Ruby spent many years coping with undiagnosed multiple sclerosis.
Katie and Winnie, born Catherine Gifford Anderson and Williamina Anderson, lived together in their family home at 10 St Sunniver Street in Lerwick. Katy, born in 1890, worked as a rent collector, and Winnie, six years younger, didn’t have outside employment but, like many youngest daughters in Shetland families, looked after the house and kept the larder well stocked. The two women remained unmarried and lived at St Sunniver Street until their deaths in 1979 and 1986, both at the age of 89. They grew up at a time when the female population of Shetland outnumbered the male quite considerably, mainly due either to emigration or as a result of the occupational hazards of the fishing industry, the main male employment. The number of young men lost on the battlefields of Europe and also at sea during WWI had further added to this in-balance, and the sisters were by no means unusual on Shetland in remaining 'spinsters'.
Bob's mum, Ruby, seated, with Bob's aunty Katie standing alongside.
Despite the trauma of his early years, Bob did well enough at school to travel to Aberdeen at the age of 18, to commence studying medicine as his father and grandfather had before him. In 1939, less than a year after commencing his studies, war was declared between Britain and Germany. Putting his medical plans aside, Bob headed straight to the nearest army recruitment office and joined up. Before long he was dispatched to Canada to begin basic training in the artillery arm of the British Army. It didn't take Bob long to realise the army wasn't for him and in 1942 he managed to transfer to the RAF where he began to train as a wireless (radio) operator destined to fly in heavy bombers as part of Bomber Command.
A young Bob shortly after joining the RAF
In 1943 Bob's mother died. Unable to obtain compassionate leave Bob was unable to attend her funeral, a memory which haunted Bob for the rest of his life. After his mother's death, he retained strong links with Katie and Winnie, with them both knitting for him and repairing his clothes. Winnie was the less proficient knitter and mainly knitted functional garments such as socks and vests. Katie was considered the more talented knitter and would make beautifully designed Fair Isle sweaters. Sometime before 1943, Katie had knitted Bob not one, but two, Fair Isle sweaters to take with him to his new RAF base, to keep him warm and to serve as a reminder of home and the loved ones thinking of him. It was one of those two sweaters that Bob would credit as repeatedly saving his life during his wartime service - the sweater I had chosen to recreate from the archive, the sweater christened Yule.
Bob's original sweater from the Shetland Museum Archive
The sweater has a light-grey background with bold motifs in gold and cream against bands of bright red and deep brown. These strongly contrasting motifs are placed between eye-catching sets of double peeries that use only two colours, the light-grey of the background and clear indigo blue. When the first of each pair of peerie motifs is completed, the two colours are reversed, either indigo on grey or grey on indigo.
Katie has interestingly made no attempt to create symmetry: the two sets of peeries in each combination are made more unusual as they are not the reverse of each other. Completely different small repeat patterns have been used to personalise this jumper even further. The indigo sections of the jumper have faded to a softer blue but are still strong enough to really make the peerie stripes pop. These rows of double peeries are what really make this jumper distinctive and highly original and reveal Katie’s design flair.
The sweater has been heavily worn and are darned in numerous places, and has at some point had the neck removed and re-knitted in a very slightly different yarn. This then-fashionable polo neck, would also have kept Bob cosy in the chilly, sometimes sub-zero temperatures of the airplane cockpit - The not-quite-full-length sleeves, short body and the almost figure-hugging neatness of the jumpers would have fitted snugly under Bob’s flight gear, providing him with an insulating extra layer against the very real risk of frostbite and hypothermia. It is so short in length, partly because Bob was comparatively small but also the fashion of the day was for trouser waistbands to come high up the body and for tops to reach only just to the top of the waistband.
An additional peculiarity of Katie’s beautifully knitted and unique jumper is how the patterns on the sleeves are not knitted in exactly the same order as those of the body – a slightly jumbled-up version of the peerie stripes appears down the length of each sleeve.
Beautifully designed, familiar in so many ways, and yet unique.
Bob cherished his jumpers and kept them with him until his death in 1993. During the war, they had taken on a very special meaning for him: he began to feel he had something of a charmed life, despite the odds being heavily stacked against his survival. In 1943, when Bob was posted to 158 Squadron, based in Yorkshire, close to the seaside town of Bridlington, he became the wireless operator for ‘Skipper’ crew flying Halifax bombers across the North Sea and over enemy-occupied territory. As a member of a bomber crew, his anticipated lifespan was extremely short: by the winter of 1943, these crews were flying on three or more consecutive nights at a time, in terrible weather conditions, and only one crew out of six were expected to live to complete a full tour of duty.
During training, Bob had been involved in two crashes, which he believed had only occurred because on these two flights he had not been wearing either of his jumpers. After the second crash, he never again flew without ensuring he was wearing one or other of these woolly amulets, believing that good luck had been knitted into them by Katie. She was extremely knowledgeable about Shetland folk stories and was an enthusiastic reteller of these tales, so it’s quite likely that Katie will have told a young Bob stories of trows and fairies, ghosts and magic: making the idea of her knitting having protective powers quite credible to him.
Bob’s fellow crewman and close friend, Al, the navigator on all their missions, illicitly kept a diary of their operations, cataloguing a seemingly endless stream of near-misses and close shaves. Their plane was regularly hit by flak from enemy anti-aircraft guns and on one occasion a shell fired at the plane had entered through an open bomb door and narrowly missed landing on a 500lb bomb sitting in the belly of the Halifax. On their return to base, the unexploded shell was still sat there in the now otherwise empty fuselage. On another trip, two of the plane’s four engines failed, forcing them to carry out an emergency landing. Through all of these perilous flights, Bob wore one of his jumpers, and as a result never doubted he would return home. After completing their required 30 missions, an eagerly anticipated replacement crew did not transpire and 'Skipper' crew had to undertake an additional eight missions. They successfully returned from them all, despite the squadron losing two or three planes during each and every mission.
Bob will have been further convinced of the protective powers of his jumper when, shortly after completing their final operation in early March 1945, the crew went out to celebrate in the small Yorkshire seaside town of Hornsea. As they drove back from a dance, air raid sirens began to sound. Their base was under heavy attack, with five Halifax planes shot down that night, many of the crews killed, and many more people on the ground killed or injured – somehow, ‘Skipper’ crew had again escaped harm. Perhaps most shocking of all, the replacement crew taking over Bob’s plane were shot down on their first mission and the plane was destroyed. I can easily see why Bob felt his textile talismen brought him good luck.
A photograph of the first crash Bob narrowly escaped from
At the end of the war, Bob returned to medical school in Aberdeen, where he met his wife to be, Connie, a fellow medical student. They married in 1947 and Bob took his final examinations in 1949 – wearing his lucky jumper – and of course, passed! After qualifying, the couple settled in Lerwick, before moving to Siloth in Cumbria in 1957, where he lived until his retirement in 1990. In one of the bizarre twists of fate that this Project has played on me, it transpires that he then moved to the small village of Bolton le Sands in North Lancashire, less than five miles from my own front door. With him he took his jumpers, and they remained with him until his death in 1993, after which they were bequeathed to the Shetland Museum.
Bob fiercely believed his jumper was bestowed with luck, and that the love felt for him by Katie had been transferred into the stitches she knitted, forming a protective barrier against the outside world and ensuring he remained safe. Knowing how much Katie cared for him and how here own love and wishes of good luck had been knitted into every row, Bob treasured the sweater and felt bestowed with a powerful feeling of safety and security on him during the war he was so fortunate to survive. A powerful talisman indeed!
You can read this story in full in The Vintage Shetland Project which is available from my website containing the stories interwoven amongst the 27 items from the Shetland Museum featured in the book, along with the patterns to knit all 27 pieces.
If you would just like the patterns from the book, you can now purchase The Vintage Shetland Project Pattern Book - available in e-book format only it provides you with all 27 patterns from the printed book but without the accompanying essays. The e-book is currently available at an introductory price of only £15 which I have extended until midnight tonight - that's the 16th June 2019, after which it will be at its full price of £25
And finally, if you are interested in knitting Yule, you can now purchase a yarn kit containing all the yarn you need to recreate this very special sweater. The yarn kit uses my beautiful Fenella yarn, 100% British wool created especially for The Vintage Shetland Project.
Text copyright Susan Crawford @2018 Images of Bob Yule, Ruby Yule, and Bob's crash with kind permission of Dr Martin Yule; banner image and image of original sweater from the Shetland Museum Archive copyright Susan Crawford @2018. All images and text are subject to copyright and must not be reproduced in any format without the owner's permission.