The outlook for Utah's silk industry was better than it had ever been, Gov. Caleb West said in his 1886 annual report to the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, who oversaw the affairs of Utah Territory.
"It is estimated that about 17,000 pounds of cocoons have been raised in the territory, averaging $1 per pound. A large percent of these have been reeled and worked up at home. The residue have been shipped east and west, almost invariably, I understand, at a loss to the producers," West said.An up-and-coming industry that continuously operated at a loss? The dichotomy was accurate. Utah's venture into silk production was one of several do-it-yourself projects concocted to help LDS pioneers remain self-sufficient, although in the end it proved impractical.
"Every woman wants a silk dress," said President Brigham Young, one of the industry's strongest advocates. Separated by hundreds of miles from America's civilization centers, folks on the frontier believed silk was a measure of culture and refinement.
Although some 28,000 pounds of cocoons and some silk fabric were produced over the period from 1855 to 1905, sericulture eventually went the way of other industries that were tried but didn't really succeed in Utah over the long term.
Working with worms was not necessarily the first choice of pioneer women. Zina D.H. Young, Relief Society president who was charged by Brigham Young to shepherd the industry, reported nightmares after her first experience. Ironically, she had a birthmark in the palm of her hand that resembled a curled worm, and she had an inordinate fear of "creepy-crawlies."
Nevertheless, responding to Young's call for silk production, hundreds of LDS women throughout the territory set up cocooneries and fed their little charges on the leaves from hundreds of mulberry trees planted specifically for the purpose.
Children often were given responsibility for gathering the leaves. Annie Clark Tanner wrote of her experience in Farmington. At first, she thought gathering and chopping leaves into one-eighth-inch bits was a picnic, but the jobs soon lost their luster. "How we scrambled for the easy job, to pick from fallen branches," she said.
Many pioneer women took the charge to raise silkworms very seriously. Priscilla Jacobs of the Logan 5th Ward evacuated her two-room house and went to live in the farm's granary to make room for her worms. She learned that some Orientals carried worm eggs in a pouch around their necks to keep them warm and slept with them under their pillows. Accordingly, she went to Sunday meeting at the Logan Tabernacle with a little bag of worm eggs around her neck. Midway through the services, she felt the worms beginning to hatch and she hurriedly left the meeting to take her wriggling babies home, an article in the Utah Historical Quarterly says.
Jane S. Richards, president of the Ogden Relief Society, looked at the worms for the first time and declared she would rather wear cotton. Regardless, she soon had a thousand of them in her house.
Isabell C. Brunson of Millard County had high hopes of "earning enough money to supply my daily needs and eventually make myself independent. Earning a little for my very own was a glorious thought to me." She fed a thousand worms three times a day. They had voracious but finicky appetites and demanded regular feeding at 6 a.m., noon and 6 p.m. She ended up with a 50-pound sack of cocoons, but no market. Finally, she destroyed them.
The industry got a boost from LDS immigrants from European countries who were familiar with silk production. Octave Ursenbach and his wife, who joined the church in Switzerland, had been lacemakers for Queen Victoria. After emigrating, they ordered half an ounce of eggs and a manual from a silk expert in Paris who also was an LDS convert. The manual arrived in 1861 and the eggs in 1862. By 1863, the two dozen original worms had proliferated and the Ursenbachs displayed a basket of 3,000 cocoons and additional silkworms.
At President Young's request, several pounds of mulberry seed were sent from Paris by the same convert who had supplied eggs to the Ursenbachs. The seeds arrived with the immigration of 1865 and were planted on his experimental forest farm. Within a few years, with free mulberry cuttings available to anyone who requested, acres of trees were thriving.
The process was complex. Silkworms molted four times before spinning a cocoon, requiring larger meals of mulberry leaves with each molting. They then climbed up a stick provided by the caretaker to spin the precious cocoon. The live larva then had to be killed by baking or boiling so the cocoon would not be destroyed as the moth emerged.
After two months of drying, the cocoons were washed to get rid of the "glue" with which each one was sealed, and the tedious job of reeling the silk thread could begin.
A reeling machine gathered five or six lines, pulling them through an eye and twisting them as they went. A good cocoon had up to 1,000 feet of line. Knowing when to add a new line was an art some producers mastered and others did not. Susannah Cardon, for instance, earned the reputation as being one of the best "silk reelers" in Cache Valley.
Lack of looms and other necessary equipment stymied many would-be silk producers.
The complicated instructions regarding feeding and care of silkworms, including detailed temperature control, were dispensed through the School of the Prophets and through the Relief Society. The society was aided by the Deseret Silk Association, later the Utah Silk Commission, in spreading the industry.
An article in the Women's Exponent promised that "From the breeding and sale of the eggs alone, a handsome income can be secured with little trouble and less outlay." And in a real departure from male-dominated general conferences of the LDS Church, Zina Young was allowed to speak on seri-culture in the October 1879 meetings. President Young touted the beauties of silk dresses and asked a woman in the congregation who was wearing such a dress to rise and allow everyone to admire it.
Silkworms needed a lot of room, and many pioneers found themselves skirting cocooneries to get around their houses. In 1868, a large building was constructed on the Young experimental farm property. The 100-by-20-by-10-foot structure could house more than 2 million worms. The cocoonery was, however, poorly managed and was declared a financial failure.
After several attempts produced no better results, President Young advertised his worms and eggs were for sale. But he continued to pursue sericulture in a cocoonery behind the Beehive House.
Attempts to find a market outside the territory failed. Some Utah communities had better luck than others in producing silk and silk products. Spanish Fork did well, starting with eggs brought from England by Bishop A.K. Thur-ber.
Silk production in Utah probably reached its apex in 1893, when items from the territory won medals and diplomas in the Chicago World's Fair. Several Utah women, including Elise T. Forsgren of Brigham City, were called by church authorities to serve four-month missions at the fair.
As the railroad made access to fabrics produced elsewhere easier and as an influx of new settlers eliminated the need for Mormon self-reliance, silk culture declined, leaving only a vestige of hobbyists to pursue the art.