“Preaching Up Silk”: The Relief Society’s Role in Sericulture

By Janet Peterson

The F W Cox family raised silk, and this article describes some of the process.

March 17, 2010 marks the 168th anniversary of the organization of Relief Society. Here is a glimpse of a 19th century Relief Society activity that perhaps 21st century sisters would not care to replicate.

Remember the elegant, but austere, black silk dresses pioneer sisters wore? You may have viewed them in a family history album, a Church history book, or in a museum—or even in your great-grandmother’s closet. There’s quite a story behind these dresses and how the silk for them was produced.

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 handcarded 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 Brigham Young thought that sericulture—the production of silk---would not only provide “the finest of fabrics,” to be used locally, but also would be a money-producing export.

As sericulture had been practiced in the Midwest and New England, some 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 himself imported mulberry seeds and silkworm eggs from France and established large cocooneries on his Forest Dale Farm and near the Beehive House.

Sericulture, however, was largely a women’s business in the Utah Territory, and Brigham charged one of his wives, Zina D. H. Young (later the third general Relief Society president), with the responsibility of silk production. Zina, as president of the Deseret Silk Association, traveled 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” and she had nightmares about them.

Producing silk required constant effort; it was a time-consuming and arduous talk. Silkworm eggs, each about the size of a pinhead, required cool storage of below 50 degrees 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.

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, Utah, found that while sitting in church one Sunday the bag of eggs around her neck began to wriggle as the worms started hatching. She and her husband hurriedly left the meeting to begin feeding the worms.1

During the 40-day lifespan of silkworms, their voracious appetites required a round-the-clock supply of chopped, 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. The worms had to be given ample space as they grew; when they reached 3 inches in length, they ceased eating and spun their cocoons.

Over a period of 48 hours, each worm extruded 1000-1300 yards of silken fiber until it was entirely enclosed in its cocoon. A few days later, the cocoons were treated to kill the chrysalis. Then gum from the cocoons had to be removed with 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.

Nearly every local Relief Society sponsored silk projects. The strong organizational structure of the Relief Society, combined with the spirit of sisterhood among the women, resulted in an effective cooperative system. Utah silk, created into dresses, shawls, and scarves, was exhibited at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1892. Susan B. Anthony, leader of the National Woman’s Suffrage Association, proudly wore the elegant black silk dress given to her by women of Utah.

Through the years, many women enjoyed wearing rustling silk dresses, donning silk gloves, and adorning their clothing and homes with intricate lace. However, the silk industry as a money-making endeavor never really materialized. Nevertheless, 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. Zina Young’s leadership was a significant factor in Utah’s half-century of sericulture.


1 Celesta Lowe, “Silk and Savvy in Earth Utah: The Mormons’ Incredible Silk Experiment,” Old West (Spring 1984), 60.

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