k2tog & SSK

July 20, 2021

K2tog is knitting shorthand notation for “knit two stitches together”. In a knitting pattern it’s a way of turning two stitches into one. It’s an easy way to decrease the number of stitches in a given row. Slip the working needing in your right hand (for most knitters, anyway) through the front loops of the next two stitches. Bring the yarn over the top and pull the two stitches off at the same time. Where once there were two stitches, now there is one.

In my house, though, k2tog has a second meaning. It’s become one of our favorite conversational shorthands. Around here, it’s hard to say how often k2tog means either decrease by knitting two together or I know, you know, we know together. In the latter role, k2tog is about inclusion, agreement, and a willingness to engage more with the topic. It’s a way of affirming a safe conversational space and shared values.

I don’t remember when my partner and I started saying k2tog, but I remember vividly how we came up with it. We’re two academics, and, even more important, after almost a decade and a half together, the shared lexicon of references, concerns, values, and favored examples to prove a point is very large. Conversations move between the topic at hand and ones discussed more than ten years ago. We agree on lots of things, and we know lots of things in common. And, sometimes it takes one of us a while to reach their point. Enter, k2tog.

When discussing baby gifts for the various children born into our extended family in the last few years, using gendered pronouns for an unborn human has occasionally been very convenient, especially since the rest of the family is happy to do so. And yet, while looking through an array of adorable animals and fruits printed on warm, gender-neutral onesies, the deep history of sex and the body, of gender performativity, hovers in our conversation. In these moments, k2tog is a way of noting what we both already know and giving us room to discuss what we don’t both already know. In this case, the history and fluidity of gender on the one hand, and which outfit to send for the new baby on the other.

In 2019 and 2020, when I was reading and studying for my comprehensive exams, I felt like so much of what I read boiled down to a scholarly version of “you know that I know and I know that you know and so now we both know that we’ve read the same books”. In the fall of 2019 I was reading a lot of books on the sociology of scientific knowledge (referred to as SSK, which in knitting terminology means slip-slip-knit; like k2tog, it’s a way to decrease stitches). I read about knowledge communities and about how communities of experts make decisions. I thought about how people in these communities reach agreements or determine facts. I found I was turning my SSK analysis to the books themselves, analyzing the sociology of the knowledge production of the sociology of scientific knowledge. What I found was that a lot of intellectual labor went into establishing shared common ground.

At the same time, I was, and still am, a frequent knitter. Like my mother before me, as my PhD studies consume more and more of my intellectual and emotional energy, knitting gives me a thing I can make with my hands. Something I can make and complete much faster than a dissertation. While completing her PhD, thirty-seven-years after she started it, my mother knit me two beautiful sweaters. Recently, finishing up the fifth sweater I’ve made since 2019, I said to my partner, I guess I can’t call myself “not really a knitter” at this point. Turns out, I knit a lot, even if I stick to the simple stitches, the knits and purls, the yarn-overs, the ssks, and k2togs.

And there it was: the shorthand we’d been needing without realizing it: k2tog. Two knowledges, together; knitting together two known things, two person’s knowledge. As conversational shorthand, it means, we both know this, we agree. I know that you know that we both know gender isn’t something a blood test or an ultrasound can “reveal” before birth.

In college we had often imagined a place where the definitions of some words could be agreed upon, freeing up room to talk about things that required a few shared definitions. The point, we always emphasized to each other, was not to prevent definitional debate. We just wanted to be able to focus on the topic at hand without neglecting the work of troubling apparently commonsense definitions. The point was to know the terms of the debate, to know and participate in a shared discourse. For years after college, I kept fantasizing about this intellectual utopia where a shared language empowered and extended deep conversation. Then, I realized that place could be grad school and I was in the painful and disorienting process of becoming a person who could join that conversation (and it was less utopian than imagined).

But, it turns out that scholarly language seems to require a vast apparatus of explanations and caveats which can sometimes obscure an interesting argument or observation. At least in an ordinary conversation, whether on baby gifts, sugar production and industrialized enslaved labor, or the problems of a new tv show, a shorthand is really nice–k2tog. It’s a way of noting what things we both know or already agree on, so we can talk about those which we don’t. It’s also an expression of shared values. It reminds us that we share a perspective on the supposedly given-ness of received knowledge. It links us back to the shared space we’ve built together over this many years.

And, I have to say, I love that we’ve summoned up this odd shorthand from knitting notation. I learned to knit when I was five, when my mother taught me and several other young girls. Knitting, as discussed in a recent New Yorker article about Ravelry, is a deeply gendered practice (not something the article went into the depth it could have; but, hey, k2tog, the point was about the intersection of politics and the online knitting community; I know that Carrie Battan knows that knitting is deeply gendered). Knitting is often dismissed as a feminine hobby, a simple pastime.  When you get down to it, though, knitting is mathematics, patterns, calculations. A knitting chart is not so different from the punch cards that ran early computers. Knitting requires a complicated, but often undiscussed, combination of tacit knowledge and mathematical skill. It’s about the weight and texture of fiber in your hands and the ability to go from an abstracted pattern to an object. Really, a knitting notation seems like the perfect shorthand for the complicated intersubjective process of expressing shared values and knowledges in the complexity of the world of knowable things.