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The Basics of Mothproofing

Martha Stewart Living, April 2005

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.

Cleaning Up
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.

Vacuuming
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.

Laundry
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.

Brushing
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.

Smart Storage
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.

Cedar
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).

Lavender
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.

Treating Clothes
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.

Cleaning Carpets
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.

Using Traps
Try pheromone-laced cardboard traps to check if moths remain. (These shouldn't be your main defense, however, and won't trap beetles.)

Mending
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.

Comments (7)

  • cocoanlace 20 Oct, 2014

    I read this & was encouraged that washing and drying clothes would be the solution. However, I just read on another site that sells insecticides that washing, drying and even vacuuming does not kill eggs. One user commented that a clothes moth few right out of the just-washed pile. The exterminator says the eggs are sealed by the female moth with a glue-like substance that cannot been seen and won't wash or vacuum out. I washed 3 closets of clothes & started on displayed textiles/drawers. :-(

  • Celia Lindsell 18 May, 2014

    For an effective natural approach try Lavender Oil (available from Celia Lindsell Ltd : bit.ly/1nVQ9Jj), add some oil to your sponge and clean all surfaces. Add a few drops to the softener compartment of your clothes washer or to the final rinse of a hand wash. This will give all your laundry a delicious fresh smell and certainly keep the moths away. Put a couple of drops on the duster when polishing in the bedroom or living room.

  • Chrish Willson 30 Oct, 2013

    Thanks for sharing this useful tips, I have been using zensect moth proofers for one year. I recommended to use the Moth Proofer Balls for all clothes cupboards, drawers with woollens and downstairs cloakroom where woollen jackets and coats are hung, it Keeps the moths away.

  • SileeLamb 14 Aug, 2013

    I clean constantly: The house, the closets, the carpets, and launder the clothes after only one use. But to no avail, these buggers just won't go away. I had never had problems until a few years ago. I put every single article of clothing in the wash or dry cleaned, stored them in air tight containers, washed out the closets and drawers and thought I was rid of them. We moved into a new home and shortly after moving in, we had the moths again. I am getting so mentally stressed :(

  • Glenpampok 4 Nov, 2011

    Horse chestnuts in drawers and closets will keep moths at bay, spiders, too. There's no smell, either.

  • k-9 10 Jan, 2009

    You can try sponging the surfaces with white vinegar. Dishes of white vinegar, ground coffee, activated charcoal (for aquariums), crumpled newspapers, volcanic rock pouches (in closet supply areas and home improvement doodad catalogs) all might help. Painting the walls with good latex paint to seal in the smell might help as well.

  • SetaAtik 18 Aug, 2008

    Moth control that works.
    Unscented ordinary white soap. Grate it and sprinkle between the cloths.
    THAT"S A GOOD THING as MARTHA would say. Seta Atik.