Caring for wool sweaters and household items may be your last concern at this time of year. But the steps you take now can make all the difference in what you find when you bring out your things in the fall: wonderful woolens, or ones peppered with holes.
What's Bugging You
If you see moths flying in your house, they probably aren't clothes moths, but pantry pests -- the type that infests flour and grains. Clothes moths don't like light and are so secretive that you'll probably never see them. What's more, the adult moths won't do any harm. Damage to woolens is actually done by the larvae of two types of insects: clothes moths and carpet beetles (the latter being more prevalent than moths in most areas of the country). Both insects lay eggs in secluded spots with plenty of food -- wool, fur, down, shed pet dander, and other animal-based materials. Larvae emerge within a few weeks; beetle larvae can feed on fabric for a year or more and moth larvae may cause damage for a couple months.
Moth and beetle larvae shun bright light, so they rarely attack frequently worn clothing or heavily trafficked carpets. They thrive in clothing that is packed away and carpet hidden under furniture, especially if there are food spills or other attractive scents. The best strategy? Keep things clean.
Weekly use of the vacuum and general good housekeeping go a long way toward keeping pests at bay. If you clean often, you may remove them without even knowing it. Vacuuming also removes moth eggs and larvae from carpets before they have the opportunity to hatch.
Before you pack up winter clothing for storage, wash or dry-clean garments that have been worn. This rids them of moth and beetle eggs and also eliminates perspiration remnants and food spills, which attract and nourish pests. Moths and beetles don't eat items made of synthetic or cotton fabrics, but you should clean those, too, if you store them with woolens.
If you have winter coats you haven't worn, you probably won't want to pay for dry cleaning just to guard against eggs that might have been deposited on them. Yet if you store them as is, you risk an infestation. In this case, try an old-fashioned but effective regimen: Take the items outside on a sunny day and brush them vigorously, especially under collars and along seams. This should remove eggs and larvae, which are so small, you probably won't be able to see them. In case you miss a few of the pests or their eggs, pack this clothing separately from laundered or dry-cleaned items.
Moths and beetles can get through extremely tight spaces. When storing woolens, reclosable plastic bags or plastic boxes are best for keeping pests out. To protect the items from condensation, wrap them in lengths of clean cotton, and store. Take care in using plastic containers for long-term storage -- years rather than months -- as they do not allow the items to breathe, and some plastics may degrade fabric over time. If storing valuable items, consult with a professional textile conservator for recommendations.
Choosing a Method
There are numerous products -- some natural, some chemical-based, and with varying levels of effectiveness -- that are intended to deter moths and beetles. It's best to know a product's pros and cons before you make a choice. In the right circumstances, any of these approaches can be useful. Just remember that nothing discourages clothes moths and carpet beetles more than keeping your woolen items clean and storing them correctly.
The dark-colored heartwood of red cedar contains natural oils that kill clothes-moth larvae, but this alone won't protect clothing. It's not effective against carpet beetles, and, with moths, it kills only young larvae, not older ones or eggs. The effect also fades as the scent does. You can replenish the scent of boards, closets, and chests by sanding the wood lightly or dabbing on cedar oil, but there is no way to know if you've added enough. If you have a cedar chest, it's best to think of it as a reasonably airtight storage container -- and only keep clean fabric inside it. Again, wrap items in clean cotton before storing them.
Mothballs and Moth Crystals
These can thwart infestations but come with many drawbacks, so you're probably better off without them. Both products contain pesticides that can be harmful to people, unborn babies, and pets. Since mothballs and moth crystals work by releasing fumigant gas, they must be used in tight-fitting containers, rather than in closets or drawers, to be effective. If you do use these products, keep containers out of your living area -- in a garage, perhaps. And air out clothing thoroughly outside before wearing it or hanging it in your closet again (dry cleaning won't eliminate the mothball odor).
Using this plant to repel clothes moths is an old homemaker's trick. Sachets filled with lavender (and/or laced with its oil) and suspended in your closet or tucked in your drawers are said to protect woolens. They will also leave a pleasant scent behind. Lavender will not, however, kill moth eggs or larvae, so be sure the space is free of them first.
Solving an Existing Problem
What if you already have clothes or carpet pests? Here are some tips for identifying the bugs you are dealing with, getting rid of them, and then salvaging your woolen items.
What to Look For
You won't likely see clothes moths, but if you find holes, you know you have a problem. With moth larvae, you may find silky webbing or cigarlike cocoons. Beetle larvae leave dried skins -- like tiny rice grains.
Remove and treat all infested material. You might throw away the most damaged clothing. Dry-clean or launder items you keep; freezing also eradicates pests: Put items in sealed plastic bags, squeeze out air, and freeze for a few days. Take the bags out, let them return to room temperature, and then repeat. In case of condensation, let clothes air out before storing again.
For a severe infestation, call a professional. To treat a minor problem, buy a spray made for these pests and spot test to make sure it doesn't affect the carpet color. Apply, following label instructions, anywhere you find traces of larvae or don't often clean -- such as behind bookcases and along baseboards. Treat both sides of the carpet (if not fastened down) and the rug pad.
Catching Them All
Clean your house thoroughly before replacing treated items. If furniture is infested, you might need to call an exterminator.
Try pheromone-laced cardboard traps to check if moths remain. (These shouldn't be your main defense, however, and won't trap beetles.)
You may be able to repair blankets or other large-thread items yourself, using matching yarn. Finely woven items and heirlooms should be taken to a company that specializes in reweaving.