Numbers of clothes-destroying moths are on the rise, and it isn't just cashmere they're after but the fabric of our homes and historic buildings, says Amanda Morison
It’s a before and after situation. Once you have opened a wardrobe door to discover a favourite cashmere sweater or faithful bit of tweed resembling macramé, your relationship with moths changes forever. A flutter of dusty beige will send you running for the mothballs and putting your dry cleaner on code red. And if losing a trusty friend in the form of a favourite pair of plus fours sounds bad, worse is to come. Numbers of clothes-eating moths are on the rise and they’re homing in on soft furnishings, carpets and even historic tapestries and artefacts.
We might sigh about our silk scarves but organisations such as English Heritage and the National Trust have fabric bearing the weight of history to worry about. A quick trip to English Heritage’s website reveals terrifying images of a munched Victorian gun box, desiccated carpets dating to the mid 19th century and a rather unfortunate series of taxidermy birds. “Clothes moths are potentially the greatest threat to our collections,” laments the charity.
Operation Clothes Moth
In 2017, it launched Operation Clothes Moth, enlisting the public to monitor moth populations over a three-month period using pheromone sticky traps. The survey revealed that the common or webbing clothes moth (Tineola bisselliella) was the most widely distributed across England with the largest populations in the south and south-west. Numbers of relative newcomer the pale-backed clothes moth (Monopis crocicapitella) were also ‘surprisingly high’.
No wonder Davina Barber remains vigilant. She’s an art consultant and lives in Norfolk with husband Tom, co-founder of luxury tour operator Original Travel. The pair are “paranoid about the bloody clothes moth” because of Davina’s works of art on paper and Tom’s collection of aged fabrics that he’s collected from his trips around the globe. “I believe moths love a dusty old canvas, so the trick is to keep everything clean and dusted,” says Davina.
“I make sure to ruffle clothes regularly”
Arabella Hoskyns-Abrahall runs Bella Hoskyns, a fashion brand that’s long on tweed, from her Northumberland home. “We had a terrible moth problem when we lived in London, so I make sure to ruffle clothes regularly. Anything folded is wrapped in airtight containers, and I am an obsessive Hooverer. Anything vintage I buy in has a spell in the deep freeze – bit tricky with furniture, though,” she laments.
The common or webbing clothes moth is pale golden beige and 5mm-8mm long, while the pale-backed moth has two dark stripes and looks rather like a flying sunflower seed. You also need to look out for the case-bearing clothes moth (Tinea pellionella), which has a fondness for carpets. The adults are toothless beasts, living only to breed – it’s the offspring we need to fear. Females lay up to 60 eggs at a time.
Anti-clothes moth products – where to buy
clothes-doctor.com clothes and furnishing repair, plus a range of scented fabric-cleaning products and clothing-care sprays.
Historyonics.com offers advice, consultancy, traps, insecticides and pest prevention training.
totalwardrobe.co.uk for naturally and organically scented moth deterrents, breathable clothing bags and pheromone traps.
Moths play a recurring cameo in many a horror film
From roughly October to April moths and eggs lie dormant but come spring the creatures stir. The eggs take eight to 10 days to hatch and then the larvae immediately munch into action devouring keratin, the protein found in natural materials including wool, leather, human hair and pet fur. No wonder the moth plays a recurring cameo role in many a horror film. Fictional lepidopterist Hannibal Lecter mused: “Most people love butterflies and hate moths. But moths are more interesting – more engaging. They’re destructive.”
The common clothes moth has been an unwelcome houseguest since Roman times (there’s evidence of wool infestation in Roman archaeological material) but numbers have risen exponentially since the 1950s. Experts don’t agree on all the reasons but there is consensus around the prevalence of central heating, wall-to-wall carpeting and global warming – all happy news for a creature that needs a cosy temperature to breed.
Well suited to modern conveniences
Robert Parker, technical adviser for the Historic Houses Association and owner of Browsholme Hall, the oldest surviving family home in Lancashire, believes we’ve been unwittingly creating clothes moth hotels for decades. “One of the consequences of warming historic houses has been to create a comfortable environment for pests. While good news for humans, not so for antiques or fabrics. The corners of rooms, under carpets, the cracks of chairs and fabrics stored in drawers are all ideal habitats.”
His advice? “Spring cleaning, preserving drafts and reducing temperature in rooms to circa 50 to 60 degrees of humidity, which might equate to 14°C.” This might make a contemporary homeowner shiver but anyone wanting to keep their curtains would benefit from strict housekeeping. Dee Lauder leads English Heritage’s Integrated Pest Management Programme, mapping clothes moth and other pest populations and advising on prevention and treatment. She’s seen rooms unvisited for years infested with moths.
Moths can’t survive without oxygen – so store clothes in vacuum bags
“Be a pest detective,” she advises. “Store your winter clothes in lidded plastic containers or vacuum bags – moths can’t survive without oxygen. Take clothes out once a month and give them a good shake because moths hate disturbance. And if you’ve got carpet in your wardrobe, get rid. It is a buffet of skin, dust and hair.” Chimneys are a particular source of moth ingress, and when you are managing properties such as Osborne House with 200-plus fireplaces and flues you keep chimneys swept or capped. “We have a rolling programme because birds love to build nests in chimneys, and these become homes for moths,” advises Lauder.
Guy Weller-Poley, whose family has lived at Suffolk’s Boxted Hall since 1398, learnt this the hard way. A bird had nested over an outdoor log pile, and when logs were brought indoors they were accompanied by miniature stowaways. “The sitting-room carpet was the victim,’’ says Weller-Poley, who wasted no time in bringing in Command Pest Control to fumigate. “We had to do it twice,” he winces.
When to bring in the professionals?
Professional help can be pricey. George Burnand from country estate agent JM Chase has seen a few fumigations in his time, costing up to £250 a room. He warns to beware the generously gifted Persian rug from Great Aunt Edith: “It’s storage that usually causes an issue, and a rolled-up rug is a prime candidate for creating an environment moths enjoy.”
Piers de Salis, general manager of Hopetoun House near Edinburgh, works with the guidance of the Scottish Conservation Studio. He advises a mix of good housekeeping and sticky pheromone traps that lure males to what they think is the scent of a female. Head housekeeper Elaine Timberlake takes a room at a time, covering delicate furniture before dusting and vacuuming every inch, including the edges of carpets, curtains and rugs. As a last resort she’ll use a chemical treatment called Constrain but advises going sparingly because moths can become immune to its effects.
Use chemicals sparingly
In 2020 the National Trust reported an 11% increase in overall insect populations – although only 3% in clothes moths. However, moth numbers surged an alarming 18% in 2021 but slumped nearly 40% in 2022. Hilary Jarvis, the Trust’s assistant conservator, is careful about sweeping judgements because she sees populations come up and down year to year. “Perhaps it’s a hot summer, a cold winter or a natural balancing of the population when too many moths mean less food to go around,” she suggests.
Eleanor, Duchess of Argyll says that Inveraray Castle has fortunately never had moths. “It’s far too cold and damp,” she declares. However a renovation has seen wood chip heating installed in some rooms. With this rise in temperature comes an increased risk of moths making themselves at home. The Duchess admits to having become “slightly obsessive” about washing clothes before they are allowed back in a cupboard, but shrugs that you “can’t do that with tapestries”. And when you have a Tapestry Drawing Room with a complete set of French Beauvais tapestries commissioned by the 5th Duke in 1785 you need to be vigilant.
The need to adopt a ‘big house’ mentality
Barbara Fulford-Dobson is owner of Cerne Abbey, Dorset, a former Benedictine monastery founded in 987. She believes in pragmatism. “With a historic property you need to adopt a ‘big house mentality’.” By this, she means to follow the advice of the likes of English Heritage and the National Trust: be vigilant but there’s no need for overkill, as going overboard when dealing with moths can also have undesirable consequences.
Chemicals are against the ethos of English Heritage and the National Trust, and the charity Butterfly Conservation advises that they will likely kill off friendly creatures along with pesky ones and could damage the very fabric you’re trying to protect. Only seven of the UK’s 2,500 species of moths are known to damage fabrics, while the rest play essential roles in pollination and the food chain. Though I’d probably leave those observations to myself should I ever meet a real-life Hannibal.
How to protect your cashmere?
Cashmere Circle is a Scottish-based specialist laundry and repair service covering the whole UK. This sustainable business calls on the rich experience of its repairers in Hawick, in the Borders, who have spent many years repairing and restoring the finest fibres. Not only will Cashmere Circle repair moth holes but it returns items in a moth-proof storage bag made from recycled plastic bottles. Its specialist cashmere laundry service starts from £35. For more information, visit: cashmere-circle.co.uk
There are also simply rules to follow:
CHILL Deep-freezing infested items kills eggs, larvae and moths. Place items in plastic bags at -18°C for at least two weeks, advises English Heritage.
CLEAN Moth larvae can’t survive in temperatures over 55°C, so you can use a hot wash – unless dealing with cashmere and other items that need a delicate cycle at 30°C. Dry-cleaning kills moths, eggs and larvae without damaging delicate fibres.
CONFUSE Pheromone traps lure males to what they think is a female but turns out to be a sticky demise. Lavender and cedar have been used for centuries to ward off moths, and experts think their strong scents confuse the males who can’t make out the scent of a woman: “Think looking for Chanel at the perfume counter and everyone spraying Dior,” says the National Trust’s Hilary Jarvis.
HEAT If you have precious tapestries or furniture to treat, call your local pestcontrol firm to see if they have specialist heat equipment.
LIGHT Because moths hate light, Clothes Doctor founder Lulu O’Connell says to keep anything you want to protect out of the dark. However, take care not to sun-bleach anything precious – which can happen if stored near a window for too long.
SHAKE Moths hate being disturbed, so keep ruffling your scarves, curtains and tapestries, and giving your tweed regular outings.
SPRAY If you have to, bring in the heavy guns. English Heritage’s Dee Lauder gets Constrain and other supplies from Historyonics.com, but says Constrain has to be handled carefully because it has disastrous effects on aquatic life.
STORE The Bar Council says if you see a barrister carrying a biscuit tin it’s probably not for tea breaks. Horsehair wigs are frequently the focus of moths and need an air-tight home.
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