In Praise of Midge and Fly

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