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Moths Got Your Clothes?

It’s a seasonal tradition many consumers could do without — unpacking winter garb only to discover some has been rendered holey.

Guy J. Sagi /

The usual suspects for the damage, the two species of clothes moths that menace innocent garments worldwide. Experts say infestations become more or less common as natural fibers like wool, down and silk — the bugs’ preferred snacks — go in and out of favor with manufacturers of clothing and home furnishings. “As long as we’re using natural fibers, it’ll be a problem,” says Jason Dombroskie, coordinator of the Insect Diagnostic Lab at Cornell University. (Moths are less active in the cold, but if your home is heated, they can wreak havoc year-round.)

Consumers are likely to find there’s little hope for salvaging damaged duds. The odd hole may be fixable, but the moth larvae doing the actual eating tend to leave wide trails of damage, which are in many cases impossible to repair, says James Kirby, chief analyst at the Drycleaning & Laundry Institute.

Protecting one’s wardrobe, however, is possible. Preventing the expensive damage comes down to good cleaning and storage habits. Moths are attracted to small stains from food, sweat and perfume, so regularly washing or dry-cleaning clothing can make garment’s less appealing to the pests, says Linda Arroz, co-author of “Affordable Couture.” Be sure to similarly clean any clothing bought secondhand before transferring to your wardrobe. (Freezing items helps in a pinch as well, Dombroskie says.) Damage is more likely to be incurred while garments are in out-of-season storage. Clean clothing before packing it away in airtight bags or plastic containers when possible, and consider tucking in cedar or lavender sachets — moths don’t like those scents, and will usually stay away, she says.

Keeping the rest of one’s home clean helps too. Rugs and couches are other common sources of moth infestations, Dombroskie says, but even a few dust bunnies under the couch or a rodent nest in the attic could provide enough food to keep a moth population alive for years. “Regular vacuuming will cut down on the amount of debris and dust that they can feed on,” he says. Apartment dwellers may be at greater risk, since their neighbors’ cleanliness matters, too. If you suspect a specific piece of furniture in your home is the source of the infestation, you’re probably better off throwing it out, since typical solutions like freezing or dry-cleaning are less feasible.

Already infested? An exterminator might be your best recourse — but even that could be iffy. As a columnist for The Guardian recently put it: “It is possible to defeat moths. You could, for instance, burn your house down.” Experts concur. “Once they’re in there, they’re hard to get rid of,” says Dombroskie. (One of his clients has a home infestation of moths that are typically found in poultry barns, and inspections have failed to find the source of the problem.) Moth traps are only helpful in determining whether moths are really the culprits of noted damage — other pests, like carpet beetles and silverfish, also eat holes in clothing, and require different treatments, Kirby says. Many anti-moth insecticide products are meant for use only in unlived-in areas of your home, like an attic. Mothballs can kill them, but the chemicals can also be damaging for clothes and irritating to your skin. Other products containing cedar and lavendar only repel them. Plus, even if you successfully eliminate the pests from clothing or get a whole new wardrobe, as noted above, there are usually plenty of other things in your home that they can go after.



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