Now is the time to prevent Moth (and other Insect)
Damage to your Garments, portion of which appeared in the Peru Tribune June 2007
Our garments are subject to insect damage. We usually think of moths as the
insects and wool as the fiber, but there are many different insects that can
damage your garments, and it is not limited to wool. You see that closets where
garments are stored are prime living spaces for moths and other insects.
Insects include silverfish, roaches, carpet beetles and crickets.
Can any fiber be effected? Yes! We usually just think of wool but any fiber
including polyester can be effected. You see, the insects are after the protein,
whether it be in the fiber (such as wool) or in a food stain. Some insects are
attracted to the starch found in some garments. And when an insect eats at a
stain, they also ?chew? some of the fiber. Some insects are attracted to the
cholesterol in ?ring around the collar? and body oils, etc. So ?moth? damage is
not limited to wool fibers. Wool of course comes from animal hair (such as
sheep, camels, rabbits and goats) and is a protein.
Moths will find their protein not only in wool fibers but in fabrics that have
wool blended in (rayon/wool blend for example) or stained with food,
perspiration, body oils, or other proteins. And in the process of digesting the
protein, the larvae can eat through the other fibers. So if you had a polyester
suit that had a wool interfacing or wool shoulder pads, the insects can damage
the outer fabric to get to the ?food? inside.
And it is not only the fiber itself they eat, they go after lint, salt, dead
insects, perspiration, body oils and food. We have to remember that insect
damage can weaken fibers and there can be no evidence of it with the naked eye.
But upon drycleaning or laundering or even handwashing a garment, the simple
mechanical action will break and wash away the weakened fibers leaving the
?moth? holes behind. It is a surprise when you get back from the cleaners, a
garment that has moth holes all over it, but you don?t recall seeing anything
wrong with it when you dropped it off. The damage was already done, the cleaning
simply exposed the damage. It is kind of like when you put a pair of blue jeans
in the washer and you take them out and they have holes. No, the washer did not
do that, but the fibers had been weakened or damaged, and the mechanical action
of the cleaning exposed the damaged fibers, resulting in holes.
O.K., I now understand that it is more than just moths who can damage my
clothes, and that any garment can be effected, what can I do about it?
First, never store clothes that have been worn, even if only once since their
last drycleaning or laundering. Always have your sweaters cleaned before storing
them. Drycleaning is very effective in killing moths in all stages of their
development cycle. You see, in the case of some insects, they can infest a
garment with eggs/larvae that are in the garment, but haven?t yet started to
There is another advantage to cleaning your garments before storing. Tests by
the International Fabricare Institute have show that the longer a stain is in a
garment, the more difficult it is to remove. Some stains may be invisible but
with heat and age, they will become visible. They found in testing, that after
about 3 weeks, stains became increasingly difficult to impossible to remove. As
a youngster growing up during the Cold War, one of the things we used to do in
our ?playing? was write with invisible ink. It was lemon juice. You could write
on a piece of paper with it, and give it to a friend and for them to read it,
they had to either hold it up to a light bulb (heat) or use their mom?s good
iron over it, and all of a sudden words would appear. What caused this? Lemon
Juice of course contains sugar, and the heat will cause the sugar to caramelize
just like when you take a bite out of an apple and let it sit a bit, it turns
brown. Same thing, the sugars are caramelizing. So if you spill a drink that
contains sugar on your garments, it may at first appear like no stain but over
time, it will turn yellow. The other sort of stain is one that contains oils,
and over time, the oils will oxidize, turning brown also. So storing clean
garments is your best bet.
You might say, I have a cedar chest or closet and that will protect my garments.
Cedar contains aromatic oils that can repel somel larvae but not all. You need
to be sure that you occasionally sand the cedar wood to allow it to continue to
release the cedar oil. While it is true that insects don?t like the scent of
cedar, if garments have food based stains, they will still attract insects.
Another problem with like a cedar chest is that wood is naturally acidic, and
when garments are left in direct contact with the wood, it can cause them to be
weakened. If you use a cedar chest, you should be sure that garments do not
come in direct contact with the wood, using like unbleached muslin for a
barrier. Do not use plastics, which also can be acidic in nature.
What about mothballs? Mothballs these days are not recommended. They do not
kill the moths. Second for them to be totally effective they need to be in a
sealed environment which is not really possible in our homes. Mothballs may be
toxic to children and pets and can effect folks who have asthma or other
breathing problems. And getting rid of the mothball odors can be difficult. Also
some moth balls and flakes or crystals contain chemicals that if they are placed
in contact with plastic buttons or other plastic trim, may cause the plastic to
soften and melt into the fabric.
Well, what if I seal my garments up in a plastic container? This too is not
recommended because that can cause condensation which can result in mold and
mildew which also can be harmful to your garments.
Now, wait a second, I remember years ago, mom taking all our garments to the
drycleaner and the drycleaner went and "mothproofed" them and one didn?t have to
worry. Don?t they still do that now? The simple answer is no. What was done
years ago, was that they were treated in the cleaning process with an
insecticide. These products are no longer available to drycleaners. But
drycleaning alone is an effect way to help prevent insect damage.
What if you find you have a problem, what should you do? All your garments in
your closet should be drycleaned or laundered (in temperatures over 120 degrees)
which will kill the larvae. They should be immediately removed from the house to
avoid spreading the infestation to other areas of the house. The whole house,
not just the closet should be swept well and the vacuum bags disposed of
promptly. You may also need to clean the bristles/brushes on your sweeper. All
surfaces (baseboard, walls, ceilings, drawers) in the infested area wiped down
with a mixture of bleach and water. Remember, insects go through many stages in
their lives and just because you do not see them active, they could be in a
larvae state. While moths typically do not migrate over large areas of your
home, carpet beetles can go room to room. While moths get all the blame, there
are several insects that can cause damage to your garments.
How do I get these insects in my home? Well, they can come in from infestations
in old clothing or furniture that you have purchased at yard sales and the like
or given to you. Inspect garments and furniture before bringing them into your
home. Moths of course can fly in through an open door or window. And carpet
beetles feed on pollen of common outside plants and so they may be already close
to your house. Someone told me once that if I install a light in my closet, that
this will solve my problem. Not necessarily true and the light if left on all
the time could effect the dyes and optical brighteners found on your garments
(causing fading for example). Museums who display garments many times will now
have them in special cases and will use very limited because light can bleach
out the color in the garments.
We also have to realize that larvae can live without food for some time and that
insect damage can happen any time of the year, not just the summer months. A
single moth can lay as many as a few hundred eggs and the life cycle can be
nearly a year, which means that there is much opportunity for serious damage
once an infestation takes root. If the amount of infestation is small, then the
suggested method of having all your garments cleaned, the closet well vacuumed
and wiped down with bleach water may be effective. However if the infestation is
large, not only will all your garments need to be cleaned, but the services of a
professional pesticide firm (exterminator) will be necessary.
A few more tips include frequent vacuuming to remove pet and human hair, lint
and other debris, paying close attention to corners and underneath furniture.
You want to be very thorough around baseboard and other hard to reach areas. The
area behind the sofa can be a breeding ground since it is seldom moved. Years
ago, more folks did a spring and fall cleaning where everything got moved and
swept and cleaned and this is a good practice. Sweeping out the inside of your
drawers, and the closets are very helpful. Remember, just because you don?t see
an active insect does not mean that there are not eggs or larvae present.
Chris Birk, is a Certified Garment Care Professional on the staff of One Hour
Cleaners, 52 West Third, Peru, Indiana. He has attended numerous fabricare
courses, has written technical articles for the state and national drycleaning
association, and has served as president of the state drycleaning association.