Last week I woke up to a potential nightmare: a moth fluttering about the room. After much chasing and finally catching (ok, I always catch and release crawlies in my house but this one had to be sacrificed for identification purposes), it turned out to be a totally harmless moth. Relax? Not so much. It was probably a good thing I found it, harmless as it was, because it really got me thinking about how much I’ve slipped on moth prevention lately. As a vintage clothing wearer something like that can be devastating. Years, even decades of wardrobe building gone just like that. So I spent the week getting back on track, making it much easier after this to keep up. Here’s what I practice (much more diligent from now on), and hopefully will answer some questions you have. Please add suggestions if you have them!
I need to brush up on my moth knowledge
There are two types that like to munch on your clothing: the webbing clothes moth, and the casemaking moth, both in the Teneidae Bisselliella family. These adult moths have no mouths, but they lay eggs in nourishing keratin rich fibers (wool, silk, fur), and their larvae use it to grow. As they grow they tunnel, feeding and excreting the very fibers they’re in, making it almost impossible to spot in this stage. They grow to full size (about half an inch) and emerge from the fibers as moths, starting the cycle over again.
What am I doing wrong?
Do you have a heavy winter coat that lives in the back of the closet? Do you hastily store away your woolens after months of wear at the first sign of spring? Do you regularly launder your clothing, but not give much thought to blankets, rugs, the occasional kilim pillow?
Unlike those often strikingly beautiful moths we see fluttering around outdoor lamps and neon signs, the clothes eating kind enjoy darkness. Stuffy closets in dark rooms, storage chests forgotten for a time, that’s prime moth real estate.
If you really want to attract them, add sweat, hair, and stains to the mix. Like moth to a flame? How about like moth to perspiration. This makes it even more challenging to spot, laying eggs under the arms or inside waistbands.
Thanks I’m paranoid now, what can I do???
Wash, brush, and air out. The most obvious is washing. I hand wash sweaters, some skirts, and take outerwear and structured dresses and blouses to the dry cleaner. There are loads of guides for hand washing woolens, so I won’t go into that here, but with vintage be sure to dip a bit into the water first to see if the color runs. If it does, dry clean it to be safe.
Many tightly woven wool blankets can be machine washed on the delicate cycle, in cold water, and draped out to dry. Haven’t had an issue yet, but if you’re unsure, dry cleaner is safest.
Don’t forget those small items: hats, gloves, scarves, and other members of the household that may have wool, silk, or fur garments.
Items that can’t be easily washed, such as rugs, pillows, and other decor, should be brushed regularly with a wire bristle brush, vacuumed, and kept free of dust. Air things out now and then, vacuum both sides of the rug, smaller pillow cases and rugs can even be hand soaked if you prefer. Brushing things regularly not only keeps things clean, but also disrupts potential larvae, and nice wire brushes can also be used to keep coats lint free, I highly recommend getting one, they’re very useful!
If you’re bringing a newly acquired vintage item into your wardrobe, and want to clean it to assure it’s free from any pests, it’s recommend that the minimum temperature for killing larvae be 60°. This is however too hot for many woolens, and result in shrinking or felting, so use the freezer method. Place the dry item in a Ziploc bag and keep undisturbed in the freezer for at least a week. Remove the item and let get to room temperature, then place back into the freezer for 24 hours. The shock in temperature change really does the trick. Then hand launder it cold water and lay it out to dry on a towel. It’s a long process, but worth the effort! Also a great way to treat non washables, such as felt hats, belts, etc. Just be sure a hat is stuffed with tissue paper to keep it’s shape and has ample room around it so it doesn’t get squished by a bag of frozen peas.
With vintage garments it’s not practical or even beneficial to wash every item after every wear. Natural body oils and perspiration can weaken decades old fibers, but so can detergents, so there’s a balance. If you tend to perspire frequently under the arms, look into non-adhesive dress shields, you simply pin them inside the underarms and can launder them after every wear instead of the entire frock. With any item, let it air out overnight before placing back in your closet. I hang things on the door of my wardrobe each evening and simply put them away in the morning. You can also have a dedicated hook on the wall for the purpose. Let your clothes breathe, it’ll keep them smelling fresh and help prevent the attraction of moths.
I’ve washed everything, what about mothballs?
There are many chemical moth deterrents out there, and they may work, but they also double as people deterrents. Vintage lovers know the particular stench of classic mothballs, often referred to as “crystals” in old publications. These are a pesticide that evaporate straight from a solid to a gas. Variations on the classic are still sold, but I wouldn’t recommend them, due to not only the imposing scent, but also the health concerns.
In the 18th and 19th century Hudson Bay fur trappers would repel pests from their valuable pelts by layering tobacco leaves between layers for the long journey from the wilds of the North American west to Great Britain. As well as using cedar products, I also make sachets out of unflavored loose tobacco leaves and lavender. I love the scent of tobacco, and it lingers sightly on clothing, so be sure you like the scent too before using that method.
What if I can’t wash something right away?
If you find a new garment, of wool, silk, or fur, even if it’s in great shape, take it to the dry cleaners straight away, or use the above mentioned freezer method. Otherwise place the garment in a plastic bag, in a plastic container, preventing any potential spread of pests, until it can be properly cleaned.
I need to store winter clothing for months, what’s the best method?
Clean garments before storage, not just animal fibers, but all clothing. Synthetics and plant fibers rarely have moth issues, though perspiration and general soil can attract them. If you’re storing in airtight containers or vacuum seal bags, first wrap garments in clean muslin cotton, this will prevent potential condensation. Add any preventatives you like, sachets, cedar, or other natural deterrents.
If you keep items in the back of your closet for long periods of time, air them out! Shake them, brush them, let them get a little breeze.
Clean your closet regularly, I do at least four times a year. Take everything out, dust the corners and gather any cobwebs, and check your clothing for damage.
What if it’s too late?
If you’ve found moths in your house or moth made holes that weren’t there before, there’s only one sure option: call an exterminator. All of the above is preventative, and once they get started, it’s likely you can’t stop them. Leave the big job to the professionals.
All images from a 1941 copy of “Clothes With Character” in my personal collection.