The following story originally appeared in the March/April 1980 issue of Pioneer Magazine.
by Lois B. Erickson
Louisa leaned heavily against the door frame and viewed the noisy, squirming, wriggling creatures before her. On and on it went for twenty-four hours a day. The inconvenience disappeared in her mind as happiness and pride surged through her entire being as she thought, “How wonderful to be apart of this great experiment—the establishing of the silk industry out here in Utah. If brigham young believes we can raise silk here, we will do it!”
With renewed energy she gathered up the leaf containers and set them on the back porch, wound the beautiful, black, ebony clock which ticked softly from its mantel perch on the side board, and blew out the kerosene lamp as the faithful clock chimed out twelve midnight.
“Sleep fast, Louisa, dawn comes early in Harrisville.”
The first pink rays of morning light pushed back the curtain of night and were greeted by the industrious, hard-at-work Harris family. Nimble but cold fingers plucked the green mulberry leaves from the bushes and dropped them swiftly into the containers. Speed was essential for when six o’clock came the containers must be full and ready to feed the ravenously hungry worms. Louisa spoke encouragingly to her children and family. Sleep still lingered in their eyes and numbed their muscles, but they worked sweetly and harmoniously together. They had been thoroughly indoctrinated by their devoted mother and father to the wishes and desires of their leaders, and President Brigham Young had requested that the silk industry be instituted in Utah. The pioneers were going to comply.
These pioneers needed lovely fabrics, they needed attractive furnishings and coverings to beautify themselves and their homes; yet, these staunch, untiring people felt it was a commandment—no, not really a commandment, perhaps it was merely a request but it was honored, and they bent quickly to heed his counsel. It might have been just a great test of obedience such as Abraham received when instructed to slay his son , but it had come from their leaders. Little else mattered, really, for they were accustomed to privations and “doing without,” and personal embellishments seemed trivial. No one attempted to explain or analyze motives—they merely accepted and began quickly to fulfill their prophet’s wish to be self-sustaining, and the silk industry was born in Utah!
A great deal of advance preparation was required, but mainly, the mulberry bushes had to be planted so as to mature. They needed constant tending, watering and care that they might remain alive, vibrant and luxuriant in growth. These tender, nourishing leaves were the only food required to these ugly, yellowish worms. At one time it was thought silkworms might be fed osage orange leaves and lettuce, but the silk produced on such a diet was inferior to that raised on the mulberry leaves.
The original silk worms were obtained from Italy. The silkworm is really a larvae or a very young stage of a moth resembling a caterpillar.
After the eggs were hatched out they were about one fourth inch long, and were placed on long tables in one room of the house. At this tiny egg size they did not require much room, but did require a steady diet of mulberry leaves every six hours.
In the beginning at this early stage of development, the leaves were chopped finely, but the worms grew and less chopping of the mulberry leaves was required.
Louisa’s family found this all hard work, but a source of education. They watched the tiny eggs grow to mature larvae about three inches long which were yellowish gray to dark gray in color. As the tiny worms increased in size they were moved onto more tables and into adjoining rooms until the family protested that “the worms were taking over and they were being moved out.” Six hours between feedings passed too quickly, and their fingers ached and grew raw from stripping the mulberry leaves. All neighborhood children were “privileged” to help with the leaf gathering, but only the adults mopped and piled the leaves on the tables to be devoured by the squirming, constantly eating insects. This procedure and six-hour feeding schedule continued until the larvae matured which required six weeks.
At the end of this period they were ready to spin their cocoons, and branches of trees or shrubs were placed on the tables. The worms climbed these branches and proceeded to make their cocoons in one continuous thread. Now the mature silk worms ceased eating, and the relief for the family was readily welcomed.
Martin Henderson Harris recorded in his journal, July 6th, Sunday, 1873 this item: “Last day we fed silk worms.”
One small child remarked, “Mama, it seems so good to sleep until the sky starts to wake up.” Louisa gently stroked the fair child and knew that she had spoken for them all.
This was the beginning of a very interesting and miraculous procedure. From a tiny opening near its mouth, modified salivary glands, called silk glands, gave off a jelly-like substance which hardened once it met the air. This was a clear, viscous fluid which was forced through openings called spinnerets on the mouth parts of the larvae—this was silk. The diameter of the spinneret determined the thickness of the silk thread which was produced —the beautiful, golden, silk thread cherished by the peoples of the earth for centuries.
The family watched with great interest as the cocoon spinning began. The worm moved its head back and forth, and the silk came out about six inches a minute. It required about three days for a silkworm to finish its cocoon of about 1000 to 3000 feet. At the end of this time the worm was snugly enclosed in the tightly woven cocoon.
One child ran to Louisa saying, “Mama, our trees have grown peanuts.” Sure enough, there on the branches were the finished cocoons looking like a peanut in a shell. They were from an inch to an inch and a half, golden in color, and the “shell” was tightly woven. The worms would now emerge as moths if left to complete their natural cycles.
Now the family rested. Actually the “rest” was merely “to catch our breath.” The cocoons were collected and placed in boxes. Then heat was applied to kill the moth. Great care must be exercised in handling and all must be treated after eight days of the finished cocoon spinning and before the pupation period ended in fourteen days. If the moth was allowed to emerge tearing of the fine silk resulted and the cocoon was damaged. Only enough adult moths were allowed to emerge to insure continuation of the industry.
After the cocoons were dried out they were dipped in near-boiling water to loosen the gummy substance which held the thread. The women then brushed the cocoons lightly so that the silk thread was loosened from them. The thread from several cocoons was then would together to produce a single and stronger thread. The thread was wound onto reels and was given several twists to make it firmer and stronger. The threads from several reels were then wound together, and sometimes a final silk thread was wound and twisted from the threads of more than twenty cocoons. The thread was then wound into long hanks, or skeins, and this was called throwing, actually meaning twisting to make the threads even stronger. After throwing, the silk yarn was ready for weaving.
On May 3, 1867 Martin Harris recorded in his journal the following: “Deposited 150 dollars with Bishop C. W. West to send to the States to purchase a Mendenhall Self Acting Hand Loom, also 58 dollars to send for a sewing machine. Obtained the loom one year after it was due but never obtained the sewing machine.”
The practice of raising silkworms continued in the Harris home for many years. One year they raised over 11,000 worms. That year, literally the house did not belong to them for it was taken over by the silkworms which filled every available space.
Louisa was especially sensitive to her lovely family and their cooperative efforts, and she wanted them to share in the finished product. She wove for each one of them a lovely silk handkerchief with the design of the Salt Lake Temple in one comer and a beehive in another corner.
“Louisa, how lovely you look!”
The year was 1879, and Louisa stood before the long mirror gowned in a beautiful, exquisitely detailed black silk dress. She breathed deeply with admiration as she surveyed the efforts of her own hands. The material had been woven in Salt Lake City, but the product was hers—theirs! How happy they all were as they watched her slowly turn about. How happy she was! President Young’s “wish” had been fulfilled through their great, untiring efforts.
But few could estimate her strength or the strength of the “golden threads.” This beautiful dress was worn by many after Louisa. Daughters and granddaughters borrowed it for special occasions, and many years it attended the Daughters of Utah Pioneer Balls gracing some lovely descendant.
This unusual black silk dress found importance at the great World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893 representing the silk industry of Utah.
Today it reposes in the Relic Hall at Ogden, Utah, and is “the only dress made from homegrown silk in Weber County.”
Bless you, Louisa, for your service, faith and devotion to such a great cause. Your posterity for years to come will cherish your memory and their many hearts will be tightly woven together with many ‘Golden Threads.’
Louisa Sargent Harris is my Great-grandmother. I feel her story is especially important in fulfilling the great purposes of the National Society of the Sons of the Utah Pioneers, as it is a true experience of one who helped establish and develop this great commonwealth. Her contribution in pioneering the unique silk industry is invaluable. Some first-hand information was obtained from Lettie Saunders Ferrin, age 88, who was a neighbor at the time.Recommend0 recommendationsPublished in