For Susan B. Anthony’s eightieth birthday, the women of Utah presented her with a handmade—but elegant—black silk dress. Susan, the leader of the National Woman’s Suffrage Association, cherished it as a token of the friendship and admiration she had for its givers.

That the Susan B. Anthony dress was created from silk produced in Utah is tangible evidence of the obedience, industry, and fortitude of numerous nineteenth-century Relief Society sisters and was one facet of "home industry" that Brigham Young promoted. Utah’s silk industry spanned a half century, from 1855 to 1905.


Anxious for the Saints to be self-reliant and independent of purchasing goods from

outside markets, Brigham Young urged his people to embark on various endeavors to produce what they consumed, including such commodities as silk, cotton, wool, lace, hemp, cheese, sugar, and wheat. He said:

I wish to see this people manufacture their own clothing, and make as good cloth as is in the coat I now have on, and as good silk as in the handkerchief around my neck, and as good linen as is in the bosom and wristbands of my shirt. .. . I want to see the people wear hats, boots, coats, etc., made by ourselves, as good as ever was made in any country."* The expense of shipping goods twelve hundred miles from Midwest markets to Utah was a significant factor in the rally for economic independence.

Fabric was a critical need for the pioneers, and although women carefully patched and mended what clothing they had, the need for production of new textiles was urgent. The ready supply of wool was usually hand-carded and spun, but as early as the 1850s a woolen mill was built to increase production. At the same time, Church leaders sent families to Southern Utah to establish the Cotton Mission, though it would be ten years before a successful cotton crop was grown. President Young thought that sericulture—the production of silk—would not only provide "the finest of fabrics"2 to be used locally, but also would be a money-producing export. Moreover, silk production could employ many people, from women and children, to the elderly and disabled.


As sericulture had been practiced in the Midwest and New England, some of the emigrating Saints had experience in producing silk, and a few brought mulberry seeds with them (the diet of silkworms being mulberry leaves). In 1855, Brigham Young imported mulberry seeds and later silkworm eggs from France. Having planted acres of mulberry trees on his Forest Dale Farm, Brigham established a large colony there and later built a second one north of the Beehive House. The Woman*s Exponent published this offer by Brigham Young to promote sericulture: "Silk Worm Eggs—I have some forty ounces of silk worm eggs and a large number of mulberry trees, and the Sisters who wish to raise silk are welcome to the eggs and to gather the leaves for feeding."3

John Taylor, counselor to Brigham Young and later Church president, exhorted the Saints to get busy and produce silk:

"Do any of the brethren who came here ten years ago last July remember that you were instructed that every facility that we could need was here in the elements? . . . that the gold, the silver, and the iron were in these mountains? . . . that the wool, the flax, the silk, and cotton and everything to sustain man were in the elements around us?

Import silk worms and mulberry trees and you will find that this is as good a country and climate in which to raise silk as any on the face of the earth."4

Although John Taylor spoke to the brethren, sericulture became successful as a women s business and they were the ones who raised and processed silkworms.


Producing silk required constant effort; it was a time-consuming and arduous task. Silkworm eggs, each about the size of a pinhead, required cool storage of below 50 degrees Fahrenheit in cellars during the winter months. In late spring when mulberry leaves appeared, the eggs were brought out of storage and placed on wooden trays, or hurdles.

During the forty-day lifespan of silkworms, their voracious appetites required a round-the-clock supply of bushels of chopped and dry mulberry leaves. Because of the silkworms* extreme sensitivity to temperature and conditions, the cocoonery had to be kept at a constant 75 to 80 degrees, and the silkworms protected from drafts, tobacco smoke, thunder, and lightning. George D. Pyper, who managed one of Brigham*s cocooneries, recalled seeing "many thousands of these creatures stand on end and quiver at every flash of lightning and after the storm.., found many dead."5 Droppings from the worms had to be removed and burned to prevent disease. And the worms had to be given ample space as they grew; when they reached three inches in length, they ceased eating and spun their cocoons.

Over a period of forty-eight hours, each worm extruded 1000—1300 yards of silken fiber until it was entirely enclosed in its cocoon. Four to six days later, the cocoons were treated to kill the chrysalis. Then gum from the cocoons had to be removed by soap and hot water. Finally, the much-wanted silk could be reeled. Multiple strands reeled together formed one silk thread, the size of a single human hair.

A mere ounce of the tiny silkworm eggs was no indication of the space the rapidly growing worms would occupy or that they would yield 160 pounds of cocoons. Since most growers could not afford a separate cocoonery, and barns’ temperatures were not adequate for the sensitive worms, women often put the worms in a room in their own homes. At times some families had to move out of their homes to accommodate the ever-growing worms, which, if too crowded, would not be able to breathe. One young woman reported that it was difficult to sleep at night with the sound of so many worms chewing, and that it was like a train thundering through the house.6

Some women, in following the "Instructions to Silk Growers," even put eggs in bags worn around their necks to provide constant body temperature. Susan Fairbanks of Payson found that while sitting in church one Sunday the bag of eggs worn around her neck began to wriggle as the worms started hatching. She and her husband hurriedly left the meeting to begin feeding the worms.7


Sericulture moved from its status as a cottage industry for individuals to a large-scale cooperative effort. In the early 1870s, Brigham Young charged Zina D. H. Young, one of his wives, with the responsibility of not only supervising his cocoonery but also of promoting sericulture. When the Deseret Silk Association was officially organized 15 June 1875, Zina (who served as a counselor and then as president of the general Relief Society) became the first president. Her mission required traveling throughout the Territory, from Logan to St. George, "preaching up silk" by encouraging and instructing growers on cultivating mulberry trees, raising the worms, and reeling silk. That she heroically did so was illustrative of her faithful and obedient nature, for Zina abhorred silkworms. They were, in her words, "a terror." Shehad nightmares about the millions of worms she fed herself and, interestingly, had a worm-shaped birthmark on the palm of her hand.9

The Relief Society officially advocated silk production, and its leaders addressed this topic in many of its meetings as well as those of the Retrenchment Association. A message from Zina Young published in the Woman’s Exponent stated: "Every branch of the Relief Society throughout the length and breadth of this territory . . . is called upon to lay hold of this subject of home industry with a will and to take active part in the great work of bringing about the perfect organization of a self-sustaining people.

"President [Brigham] Young does the Relief Society the credit to say that they can take hold of these home industries and accomplish the desired purpose. Let it never be said to them ‘Ye would not!10

Nearly every local Relief Society sponsored silk projects. These were directed by the ward Relief Society presidents, who also served as agents to solicit donations and as liaisons between local growers and the Deseret Silk Association. The strong organizational structure of the Relief Society, combined with the spirit of sisterhood among the women, resulted in an effective cooperative system. Each ward Relief Society was asked to send one sister to Salt Lake City to be trained in the art of silk production. These sisters then returned to their own communities to educate others.

By 1880, silk production also became a government project when the territorial legislature formed the Utah Silk Association with a male, William Jennings, as president, but Eliza R. Snow, general Relief Society president, as vice president. Many ward Relief Societies bought stock, sold at $10 a share. The legislature funded the purchase of

reeling machinery for a factory at the mouth of City Creek canyon. Six years later, the legislature passed an act

providing a 25-cent per pound bonus for cocoons, which provided new incentive for growers.

Utah silk was exhibited at the Chicago World*s Fair in 1892. Dresses, shawls, and scarves were displayed, along with a United States flag and a banner featuring the sego lily. Elise T. Forsgren of Brigham City spent four months demonstrating the art of silk-making at the fair. Further national attention was drawn to Utah*s silk enterprise when Emmeline B. Wells, editor of the Woman*s Exponent, read a paper on it at the National Council of Women in 1895.


At the time of Brigham Young’s death in 1877, the silk industry was progressing; five million worms produced silk that year. However, Brigham*s dream of silk providing substantial income never materialized. Some Utah silk was sold in California as well as Eastern markets, but a thriving exchange did not develop. With the completion of the railroad in 1869, more commodities were available; they became more affordable as the Saints prospered. Cheaper but finer silk imported from the Orient undercut Utah silk. In addition, the spirit of pioneer economic independence had waned, and younger Church members did not want to participate in the tedious task of raising silkworms. The Utah State legislature ceased funding the Utah Silk Association in 1905, marking the official ending of this fifty-year experiment, although a few women carried on the project for some years.

Through the years, many Utah women enjoyed wearing rustling silk dresses, donning silk gloves and shawls, and adorning their clothing and homes with intricate lace. They took pride in the products of their labors—a few examples of such are now displayed in various museums and kept in private collections. More than the silk itself, however, the most significant yield of the silk home industry was the spirit of adventure, cooperation, obedience, perseverance, and accomplishment of the thousands of participating Relief Society sisters.

wish to see this people manufacture their own clothing, and make as good cloth as is in the coat I now have on, and as good silk as in the handkerchief around my neck

I want to see the people wear hats, boots, coats, etc., made by ourselves, as good as ever was made in any country."

—Brigham Young


1 Brigham Young, 5 January 1860, Journal of Discourses (Liverpool: George Q. Cannon), 9:108; quoted in 4

Zinas: A Story of Mothers and Daughters on the Mormon Frontier (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2001), 236—37.

2 Joseph Smith reportedly stated "that the time would come when the people would come to Zion to buy the finest of fabrics" quoted in Chris Rigby Arrington, "The Finest of Fabrics: Mormon Women and the Silk Industry in Early Utah," Utah Historical Quarterly (Fall 1978), 378.

3 Quoted in Margaret Schow Potter, "The History of  Sericulture in Utah," master*s thesis (Oregon State College, 1949), 14.

4 John Taylor, Journal of Discourses, vol. 3, 17 Jan. 1858, quoted in Potter S. S George D. Pyper "The Story of a Silkworm," Improvement Era (Nov. 1935), 667.

6 Celesta Lowe, "Silk and Savvy in Early Utah: The  Mormons* Incredible Silk Experiment," Old We st (Spring 1984), 58. 7 Ibid., 60.

8 "Centennial of President Zina D. Huntington Young," Relief Society Magazine

(March 1921), 134. 9 Janet Peterson and LaRene Gaunt, "Zina D. H. Young," in Elect Ladies: Presidents of the Relief Society (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1990), 54. 10 "To the Sisters," Woman*s Exponent (May 15, 187S), 157. 11 Arrington, 393.

This information from "Pioneer"  Autumn 2002

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