Vintage 101: the clothes moth

Today I’d like to talk about the clothes moth: perhaps the greatest peril of vintage textiles. These nasty little critters are a great destroyer of our precious fashion history.

Recently I received a lot of clothing from the ’60s and ’70s including a lot of wool, cashmere and silk. Sadly they had been exposed to moths and so I’m currently treating everything, even the belts and handbags, for moth eradication and cleaning. I can’t risk further damage to the textiles, and I can’t expose them to my stock or shop. It breaks my heart but it’s a reminder that most vintage lovers learn the hard way about how to recognise moths and how to get rid of them.

Firstly – please know that moths are a big threat to fabrics in warm countries like Australia. The moths themselves are small, about a centimetre long and shades of brown or grey. Sometimes they look like small bits of wood or leaves – and they don’t fly much or far distances, preferring to hop. Please google if you’d like a photo (excuse me for not putting one up here). The moths mate and lay eggs; it’s the larvae which eat the textile.

The eggs are small and cling to the fabric in a fine and sticky cotton wool like material – if you can see them at all. The moth will lay them next to a food source, preferably dirty fabric where there might be a food spill or perspiration (this is why moth damage tends to be in particular parts of a garment) so that as soon as they hatch, they can start eating. This is why you should always clean your clothes before storing them.

The most common one in Australia is the casemaking clothes moth – it creates a cocoon around itself while it eats, and the cocoon takes on the colour of the fabric it’s eating. This can make them harder to see but they start off white, and generally look like small rolls of cotton wool (again, please google for images, they squick me and so I’d prefer not to include an image although I’m sad to say that I’ve seen many). Underneath the cocoon, you will see where the textile has been eaten away. Sometimes you get lots of these larvae huddled together, and they can chew through a very large piece, but mostly they create a small long hole, about a centimetre long, and if they keep eating, the hole will get larger.

They’re fussy and prefer some fabrics over others: cashmere seems to be top of the moth hit parade. Soft wools, other wools, furs, silks, cottons, linens, rayons, leathers and suedes; like us, they like natural fibres, the softer the better. If they have no other choice, they’ll eat synthetics too.

I recommend that you protect your cashmeres by storing in cotton pillowcases or cotton bags (never plastic, textiles should never be stored in plastic bags or containers as they can’t breathe). I always assume that newly acquired cashmeres and wools will contain either moths or their eggs, so I routinely treat them for infestations, as it’s better to be safe than sorry.

What to do?

    How to prevent –

Clean textiles before storing and check on them every six months. Moths like dark and quiet places, to be left alone. They take a little while to do their damage so regular inspections should identify problems quickly. Vacuum the inside of cupboards and wardrobes to remove eggs and moths. Mothballs are not recommended as they’re a poison but herbal treatments are available. Cedar balls and cedar chests have an effect but are not reliable enough when used alone.

    How to remove from clothes

Eggs are hard to kill and moths feed on the moisture in the fabric (perhaps this is why they don’t like synthetics?). Here are some recommended methods:

- Remove the eggs and cocoons as much as possible: I use a hot damp cloth or my hands (wash thoroughly afterwards).
- Freeze the garment for at least a week, some recommend defrosting and freezing for another week – this will kill the eggs.
- Dry clean, this removes the moisture on which they feed and kills the eggs.
- Expose the garment to full sun or high temperatures. Not recommended for vintage garments as the colours can fade but one way to do this is to wrap them in black plastic, which will both protect them and keep the fading at bay.

I hope that my words will help you in your fight against one of the scurges of our vintage world.

As a balm, please let me show you a beautiful cashmere coat, available at Denise Brain vintage – and sure to be free of the nasties. Cashmere is such a beautiful fabric to wear, warm and light too. Thanks Maggie of Denise Brain!

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5 Responses to Vintage 101: the clothes moth

  1. Carli says:

    What a FAB post Nicole. I wasn’t aware they camoflagued themselves, it has prompted me to go a thorough look thru my wardrobe.

  2. Suzi Maynard says:

    Nicole, as you are already aware, I adore cashmere and hence own several pieces. I used to store them in pillowcases, but now rather store them in a drawer lined with a natural moth repellent you can buy from Safeway. You have reminded me to change these over as it is the season where the moths are going to start to increase in number!! I am so relieved you didn’t post any pictures as I too am so grossed out by the moths and larvae!! Hope you are well and that all is going beautifully now that you are in your new boutique.
    Suzi x
    For the Love of Audrey

  3. Lucy says:

    Hi Nicole, great post! I recently found a few small holes in some folded knitwear, presumably from moths, and I’m freaking out about it. I’ve thrown all my affected knitwear out, handwashed the rest of my knits and have thoroughly cleaned out my wardrobe, but I’m still worried.

    I have a number of silk dresses hanging in my wardrobe that I’m most concerned about, although I haven’t spotted any damage on them. You mentioned a few methods of moth removal/prevention above – I was just wondering what you’d recommend as a primary method? I’m also wondering if I need to dry-clean all my silk dresses – I usually get them done at Bancrofts so it will cost a bomb!

    Would steaming them with a garment steamer help at all?

  4. Nicole says:

    Hi Lucy, I’m not sure about the effectiveness of steaming: I guess it depends on whether the temperature and duration is sufficient to kill them. Why not try freezing the garments? That’s what I do, give each one a week. You can also hang them on the line for a while (careful of direct sun fading your clothes) as moths hate exposure to fresh air and sun.

    As far as moth prevention goes, there are herbal repellants but I prefer to wash clothes and keep an eye on them, and treat if there are signs of infestation.

  5. Lucy says:

    Thanks Nicole for your prompt reply, I’ll definitely give that a try!

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