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How to Deal With Moths That Munch

What attracts these pesky bugs and how to keep them from destroying your sweaters

Illustration by Serge Bloch

Talk about a fashion victim: You reach for your favorite cashmere, and darned if it isn't full of holes. You've suffered an attack of the clothing moth, which has plagued humans for millennia, evolving to thrive in the dark recesses of a loaded closet, where hungry larvae seem to make a beeline for the good stuff. "The fondness they exhibit nowadays for tailor-made suits and other expensive products of the loom is simply an illustration of their ability to keep pace with man," The New York Times moaned—in 1898. Anti-moth measures haven't changed much since then, either. Here's why.

How they blend in

Just ¼-inch long and tinted golden brown, webbing moths and their casemaking cousins flutter under human radar. They home in on sweat-, urine-, and food-stained fibers—and each other. Females lay up to 300 eggs, which hatch in heated rooms in about two weeks, becoming larvae that mature in 35 to 90 days. Adults emerge one to four weeks later, hungry for love in a dark, fiber-filled place. Moth traps baited with pheromones can catch male webbing moths, but they won't end an infestation.

What they like

Fur, wool, mohair, and hair are beloved by the moths' spawn: those tiny, starving larvae. (When they aren't procreating, the adults aren't the problem.) Moths thrive in dark, still chambers, aided by dust bunnies and hiding places like cracks along baseboards. Vacuuming and sunlight help protect wool carpets, but not if you roll them up and put them in moth heaven: the attic.

What won't do the job

Cedar, lavender, cloves... none are strong enough to repel the little devils. Mothballs work if used as directed but expose you to toxic naphthalene or paradichlorobenzene fumes.

Think fire and ice

Centuries after the first clotheshorse put pinholes and pests together, textile scientists are still wrestling with the challenge of getting moths to move along. Some swear by heat ("baking" clothes in a warm over for at least 30 minutes), others by a deep chill (bagging and freezing them for a week)—or both. (See "Bug off!" at right.) And have you heard the one about placing clothes inside a sack along with a chunk of dry ice?

Photo by Jeffrey Coolidge/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Bug off!

Here's how to treat—and prevent—infestations.

1. Empty the closet.

2. Vacuum or sweep the floor, walls, shelves, even the ceiling.

3. Nothing should be allowed back in until it's been subjected to one of these larvae-eradicating measures: Chemical dry cleaning—your best shot and the easiest, least painful solution; laundering in hot (120°F) water (sorry, lukewarm handwashing won't do); heavy steam-ironing, especially along seams, under the collar, and inside the pockets and cuffs; time out in alternating warm (120°F) and cold (below 18°F) temperatures, ending with several days in the freezer. Keep in mind that killing the larvae doesn't protect against re-infestation.

4. The risk of finding moth holes declines every time you shake out an item, hang it in a sunny spot, and brush it thoroughly with a stiff clothes brush, just like Jeeves. Give hanging items breathing room; keep dusting and vacuuming.

5. Store clean items seasonally in zippered storage bags, space bags, or bins with tight lids (tape shut if necessary).

6. If all else fails, call in pros; they'll devise a systematic way to wipe out the larvae and discourage the pests from flitting back in and doing more damage.