In Praise of Midge and Fly

DSCF1129
Credit: David Hunt

Yet again, I find myself reverse engineering a pair of Dales gloves and once more, knitting the ‘filler’ pattern known as ‘Midge and Fly’. So thought I’d write a bit about it.

‘Midge and Fly’ pattern was a common motif in two-colour knitting, and can be found on the palms, thumbs and fingers of Dales gloves, and other items. Or, as in the 1840s’ gloves pictured left, the Midge and Fly formed a background for another, more striking, motif.  Excuse this image, by the way – it was from a set of our amateurish pictures meant for reference purposes only, so not high quality. But good enough for you to see what I mean!

Midge and Fly is a slightly more sophisticated twist on the simple alternating of a dark and a light colour, called ‘salt and pepper’. (See ‘Fox and Geese & Fences: A Collection of Traditional Maine Mittens’, Robin Hansen, 1983, for info on salt and pepper and some other ‘background’ patterns).

19thC Dales knitted gloves often seem to have consisted of two patterns – one elaborate one for the more visible back of the hands, then a different pattern on the palms. The Midge and Fly pattern had the advantage of carrying but the dark and light yarns back round to the front of the glove, and doubling of the yarn trapped air, so had the practical side effect of making gloves warmer.

Dales knitters were nothing if not supreme craftspeople. So when you find midge and fly on say the upper welt of a glove, it will segue seamlessly up into the palm, and the pattern will be picked up and repeated, on precisely the right round, when the knitter got to the thumb, fingers or anywhere else. So there are no broken repeats, no messed up motifs (as a rule). This is harder than it appears as, simultaneously, they may have been changing to a new and different set of motifs for the back of the hand.

Earlier extant gloves are made from dark and light naturally coloured handspun. Sometimes, post 1860 and aniline dyeing, the dark natural grey or black will be replaced by a vividly dyed colour. One extant pair of children’s gloves appear to have been pink and cream, which is consistent with colour recommendations in Victorian knitting manuals – where pink was perceived as a colour for both male and female babes/young children. Later gloves appear to be spun from millspun again in two strongly contrasting colours.  Midge and Fly pattern works well with a strong colour contrast – like most 2 colour knitting.

Midge and Fly appears fiddly – especially when you’re happily knitting the main 2 colour pattern on your glove, hit the palm, and have to swap over to it – but its beauty is that it is soon memorised, and after a pair or two, no chart or notes would be needed. Many rounds of it consist just of alternating dark and light, in fact – the ‘midges’ only interrupt the flies every fourth band of simple alternation.

midge and fly 1840sEarlier midge and fly patterns seem more sophisticated than later ones, although we should bemidge and fly later period cautious – that is a generalisation extrapolated out from only just over a dozen extant gloves. And these gloves were knitted in their hundreds of thousands.  Here on the left, is a midge and fly from the 1840s. The “flies” are arranged in little groups of four. Later gloves, it seems more common for the “flies” to be singular and more spread out.

It is a simple, but visually pleasing design; a handy way of carrying two yarns across the palm of a hand, and a small motif so easy to replicate on fingers and thumbs.  And more interesting than salt and pepper.  Also reminiscent of the famous Norwegian (Setesdal) pattern luskofte (“lice jersey”, where the dots = ‘lice’!) Speckled or spotted jerseys were knitted in 19thC England – it is possible the midge and fly motif evolved from these.

The midge and fly seems to have been a generic background or canvas, against which other motifs were set, much like the ‘lus’ (lice) on the luskofte. And another example of a venerable motif being given a name inspired by something in the knitters’ environment.

Norwegian artist Victor Sparre in a luskofte. Wiki Commons

3 thoughts on “In Praise of Midge and Fly

  1. Penny, I was interested to read your post about midge and flea. Personally I find it really difficult to knit – you always seem to have to be counting – either rows or stitches!

    I have been doing quite a lot of research about these Dales gloves and wonder how many REALLY were knitted – very very few survive.
    The Welsh Minx
    (Reply to me here or on Ravelry, I’d be interested to know your thoughts on this)

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    1. Hi Welsh Minx (great name!) That’s a really interesting point you raise. How many of these gloves were really knitted? Hartley & Ingilby at the time of writing Old Hand Knitters of the Dales (1948/9) had seen only 8 pairs; 5 from Dentdale and three others from Cumberland, Swaledale and Wensleydale. Of the 5 Dentdale, they write: “They are all of this century, and were knitted for sale to private individuals, often members of the parties who came to the dale for the grouse shooting…” (83). Adam Sedgwick mentioned gloves knitted in Dentdale in the 18thC, though. I think we have around 13 extant ‘Dales’ gloves; most if not all (I better check this, as am going from memory) with names or names and dates, so clearly made for individuals.

      The fact the ones with names survive, may though be giving us a skewed sample. I have a feeling people would treasure a personalised item (and family more likely to keep it after the original owner’s death, as a treasured keepsake), more than they would a generic glove and this may explain the survivors. We can have no sense of how many gloves without names on the welts may have been knitted as they’re simply something people wear and wear til they wear out. Then throw away. The George Walton 1846 gloves, from Deepdale, show some fairly heavy repairs and some of the fingers may even have been re-knitted. But a child’s pair of gloves with the simple name “Mary” on the welt, and no date, show no wear – presumably outgrown before outworn.

      I think there must have been tens, more likely hundreds of thousands of pairs of gloves as they appear to have been knitted in the 18thC onwards. But these may have been ones with the same motifs, but no names, just knitted for a mass market in the same way hats and stockings were. To drill down on this I need to start finding mill records. We have a paucity of those. The mill records Hartley & Ingilby relied upon when researching Old Hand-Knitters have now been lost. That seems fairly typical of the fate of these kind of records. I think looking at the commissioning mills’ records would at least give us a sense of the volume of the trade. Common sense suggests gloves would be knitted in less volume than stockings. But you are right, it would be nice to know how many were knitted. I have only made a start at tracking down these kind of sources but will continue, as that is a future book waiting to be written.

      Because of their nature, gloves get worn and worn out, or one gets lost then the other gets thrown away. This is why we have so few survivors, I think.

      In the next fortnight, I’m writing a piece for Interweave’s ‘Knitting Traditions’ about the Dales gloves – I know you have a piece upcoming there, too – and will attempt to put in that one article everything I have found, so far just so everyone interested can access this info (am looking forward to your piece!) I have now reverse engineered three pairs, and these patterns are due to be published in the next few months (one pair in Knitting Traditions, two pairs in the new edition of Old Hand-Knitters). I am starting to think as I have “done” three (one with a great deal of help from Corvid and Tom van Deijnen, the other two I did on my own), I may well just motor on and gradually reverse engineer them all, as what I learn from one glove I seem to carry to the next. So far I have avoided gloves other people have reverse engineered, but think for the sake of completeness, may eventually simply document them all).

      Re midge and fly, I’m finding that the trick is to memorise how many stitches in your ‘flies’ (larger motif) start from the beginning of a round. As the flies are offset, there is a two-fly repeat, as a rule. Then figure out how many rounds apart the rounds with the three dark stitches (the flies’ bodies!) Then you know every, say, 4th round you will have a fly round, and if the first row of flies starts at stitch 3, the second at stitch 7 counting from your st marker, then that is all the info you need to repeat without a chart. I suspect the original knitters were doing this from such a young age and so often, they could do it in their sleep! My problem as a contemporary knitter is I get bored doing the same thing over and over, so there may be months inbetween me doing two similar projects, so my brain is having to re-set the engram for doing this, every time I come back to it. (If that makes sense). But yes, once you boil it down to “what is the least information I have to memorise to do this motif” – you will find it is just then a matter of keeping count.

      Angharad, I have just realised this is you, so will email you later, too but thought I’d reply here so other people can use this info.

      Penny

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