It was a great plan – locally-made silk would make everyone wealthy. We had the mills, we had the mulberry trees… Unfortunately, the silkworms refused to cooperate. Well, at least we still have the mulberry trees.
Silk has always been a luxury product. It is fragile, and requires a lot of care because it is easily damaged or stained. Because of the laborious way it is produced and the great distance that it has to travel, supply has always kept well below demand.
Silk is produced only from the cocoon fibers of silkworms, the larvae of the silk moth (Bombyx mori). Each cocoon has to be carefully unwound, to yield a single filament between 300 and 900 meters long. It takes 2-3000 cocoons to create one pound of silk. The sole item of a silkworm’s diet is the leaves of the mulberry tree. Although mulberry trees have a wide range of habitats, silkworms need a relatively warm and humid climate, especially during the cocoon phase.
Silk was first produced in Asia, and traded westward in the early Middle Ages along the famous Silk Route. By the Renaissance, silk was successfully produced in limited quantities in Mediterranean Europe, and was later established in the mid-Atlantic American colonies. But, although there was raw-silk production in the West, it was not sufficient to meet demand. The trade in silk, as cocoons, yarn or finished cloth, was a major component of 18th and 19th century commerce with Asia.
Silk finishing met with considerably more success in Europe and America. Winding mills took the cocoons and unspooled the long fine fiber to create the silk yarn for weaving, and the silk mills took the yarn and produced finished cloth. Silk fabric production became a significant component of the New England textile industry in the 1800s.
By the mid-19th century, Needham had several silk-weaving or winding mills, to turn the raw silk into fabric. In the 1860s, the Farwell & Conant Company had a silk mill on Lower Falls. The old mills near Echo Bridge were silk mills – the former Mills Falls Restaurant and the antiques mall.
Lemuel Cobb of Dedham also owned a silk mill in Needham, just north of Rosemary Lake, about where the apartments are now located. This location was a site of manufacturing since the 1830s, when Lemuel Lyon dammed the Rosemary Brook to create the pond, and built a beaver-hat factory on the site. Cobb acquired the property in the 1840s and converted it to a silk mill.
Cobb, however, wanted to expand the industry. He proposed that silk could be less expensive (and Needham could profit richly) if the raw silk could be produced here instead of Asia, and he encouraged residents to plant mulberry trees and raise silkworms. Many households took him up on the idea. This was especially seen as a way for women to add to the household income (an early work-from-home enterprise).
Unfortunately, the silkworms refused to cooperate. They are incredibly finicky, and raising them requires considerable experience and expertise – after millennia of selective breeding, the silk moths are unable to reproduce without human intervention. So, the silkworms failed to thrive, and soon died out. But the trees did fine. They (or their descendants) can still be seen fairly commonly around town.
Gloria Polizzotti Greis, Executive Director, Needham History Center & Museum