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Why Do Moths Eat Wool? How to Keep your Sweaters Safe.
In the darkest, quietest corners of closets, storage rooms and drawers hides a small kind of moth called tineola bisselliella, or—more creatively—“clothes moths,” and additionally (and more prevalent throughout the US), carpet beetles. Both insects like the darkness and preferable humidity of forgotten corners where, if left undisturbed, the females begin laying eggs: up to 50 eggs over the course of a few days to a few weeks. The larvae born from these eggs have a life cycle of nearly two months in which all they essentially do is eat, and their diet consists of one main food group: keratin.
Keratin is a protein—the key component in vertebrates' hooves, claws, feathers, hair, scales, nails—found in animal fibers and animal products: wool, cashmere, alpaca, fur, leather and suede. When the moth larvae hatch, they feed on these fibers or soiled fabrics, all the while spinning a silk web around themselves, and eating clean-cut holes through your best linens, silks and sweaters. Once they pupate (transform into adult moths), they begin the cycle all over again.
Clothes that have fallen victim to this cycle will have visible holes. Woolen lint and dust can crumble from the area and you’ll find it in the crevices and cracks surrounding where they are stored. Eggs, feces, and larvae can pile up on your best vintage fur coats and anything remaining will continue through this (if we may) disgusting cycle while in storage.
But, as we mentioned, clothes moths prefer specific conditions. They like dark, secluded areas and cannot continue their lifecycle unless left alone to do it. Their larvae prefer soiled clothes and humid areas full of animal fibers. Here’s how to prevent an infestation and keep your clothes safe:
Store Clean & Well
Make sure all clothing—even synthetics and non-animal fibers—is clean before you store it. Make sure the area you’re storing it in is clean, too. Avoid fabric storage containers, as these insects can eat their way through. Dry, airtight containers are ideal.
Vacuuming, sweeping and dusting regularly in both common and uncommon areas alike can prevent any existing eggs from ever hatching. Regularly shake out stored clothing, unfold and refold, vacuum. Clean, well-kept areas are not ideal conditions for clothes-eating insects to lay eggs either, so keeping your place generally clean is a solid preventative method.
Target the Source
If you have an existing problem, it’s worth dry cleaning or freezing any damaged pieces or fabrics that were stored together with damaged ones. Some extensive damage can’t be repaired, but once you’d cleaned your pieces, you can ask your tailor what might be salvageable. Vacuum the areas well before returning everything to storage.
Deterrents and Prevention
Cedarwood oils can kill moths, but unless you have an airtight cedar chest, cedarwood rings can’t prevent them from multiplying and feeding on your clothes altogether — supplement with other precautions too. You can refresh cedarwood with drops of cedar oil or a light sanding and investing in a dehumidifier might be worth it, depending on the climate you live in.