In 1893, Relief Society sisters from Utah made quite a stir at the World’s Fair in Chicago. The group of women from the western territory had won a gold medal for their silk exhibit. This unlikely outcome, which caught the eye of French judges and Japanese silk experts, led to the final surge of interest in Utah silk. Many had doubted that producing silk in such a dry climate was even possible.
The industry began just a few years after the pioneers arrived in the Salt Lake valley. Brigham Young stated, “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.”1 Depending on which account you read, the woman deserving credit for the experiment varies. Susan Stringham reported that it was a “Mrs. Dunyon from Draper” who first approached the prophet about importing silk worms into the territory. In any event, by the mid-1870s, the Deseret Silk Association had been established and Zina D. Young, also serving as General Relief Society president, had been named leader of the enterprise. Before the end of the operation in 1905, more than 5 million silk worms had been brought and more than 100,000 mulberry trees had been planted.
Nearly every one of the 150 local Relief Societies in the area had participated. “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.”1
Sister Stringham recounts how labor intensive the work of caring for the silk worms was. Eggs, as small as the point of a pin, were kept warm on paper until mulberry leaves were ready to eat in the spring. Then they were placed on special frames that took up an entire room in the house. Temperature had to be maintained at between 75 and 80 degrees and the worms had to be protected from any drafts and weather. The silk worms would molt every five days and required constant feeding. By the last two weeks of the worms’ growth before spinning, they even required feeding at night. Droppings had to be frequently cleaned as well.
Women were often surprised and overwhelmed by how large the silk worms could get and many discovered they had taken on more than their house could handle. “You could take what worms that you could place comfortably on your hand and they (placed on hurdles) when fully grown would fill a room sixteen by sixteen feet and eleven feet high,” Stringham explained.2 “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 with the sound of so many worms chewing, and that it was like a train thundering though the house.”1
Once the silk worms had finished growing they would spin a cocoon out of silky threads. A chemical was applied to kill the chrysalis and the women could finally harvest the long-awaited silk threads. One ounce of worms produced 160 pounds of cocoon material that then had to be boiled, spun, and wound. Relief Society sisters, many of whom were also active suffragettes, used some of this silk to make a dress for women’s rights leader Susan B. Anthony.
Despite the success of the Utah silk makers at the World’s Fair, in 1905 the state legislature defunded the project and the church lost interest as well. The railroad made high quality silk from overseas much easier and cheaper to obtain than had been available previously.
Not much remains of the early Utah pioneer silk industry today. Most of the mulberry trees planted during that time to feed the insatiable silk worm appetites are gone. But Relief Society sisters proved that the “impossible” was indeed possible and that beautiful things can come from some of the most surprising of places.