Clothes-eating moths: where they come from, identifying them and how to get rid of them – for good

·6 min read
Moths are attracted to the keratin in natural fibres (Emma Magnus)
Moths are attracted to the keratin in natural fibres (Emma Magnus)

It’s that time of year again. No, not summer. Moth season.

Maybe you’ve noticed small, irregular holes in your favourite wool jumper, or spotted your carpet thinning in places. From time to time, you might even catch an ethereal fluttering when you open up your cupboards or retrieve a storage box from under your bed.

Moths are the pest we love to hate — the animals destroying our cashmere jumpers, woollen socks and winter coats one garment at a time.

Finally, here’s how to get rid of them.

Identify the culprits

The common clothes moth (Olaf Leillinger/Wikimedia)
The common clothes moth (Olaf Leillinger/Wikimedia)

First, you need to know what you’re trying to catch. According to Paul Blackhurst, Head of Technical Academy at Rentokil, there are two kinds of clothes-eating moths found in the UK: the common clothes moth and the case-bearing clothes moth.

Both types of moth go after natural fibres like wool and cotton, as they’re attracted to the keratin inside.

“As with any insects, they’ve found a niche – something that they can survive on,” says Blackhurst.

“It’s not necessarily clean fibres either. It’s old fibres; fibres and clothes that have been worn; carpets that have been trodden on. They like the dirt, debris and sweat that’s in there, because they need the vitamins to continue with their lifecycle.”

As their name suggests, common clothes moths are the most frequent offenders in UK homes. They can grow to 5-7mm long and have orangey, golden-coloured heads.

“They are quite lazy when it comes to flying, and they don’t like the light,” says Blackhurst. “[They can be found in] dark areas, dark corners, areas in wardrobes, behind furniture, corners of rooms and things like that.”

The case-bearing clothes moth (Ben Sale/Wikimedia)
The case-bearing clothes moth (Ben Sale/Wikimedia)

Case-bearing clothes moths are a similar size, but silvery grey-brown in colour with dark spots. Look out for their larval stages – like “little rolled up tubes of fibres” – in your carpets and clothes, which may blend in with them.

“The common clothes moth leave that tube to go and feed, whereas the case-bearing clothes moth stay in the tube to feed – they stay there all the time. That’s another way of knowing the difference,” says Blackhurst.

Finding them

Moths tend to come out in the summer months, when it’s warmer and more humid. These conditions speed up their lifecycle, which is usually around five weeks from egg to adult. Female moths can lay between 40 and 50 eggs onto fabrics, which can hatch within 10 days if temperatures are warm enough.

Common clothes moths will start flying when indoor temperatures reach 18 to 20 degrees. Moths will still be present in the house during the winter, only in low numbers.

Moths can come into the house on second-hand clothing or furniture made of natural fibres. When buying vintage clothing, it’s a good idea to check and treat it before mixing it with the rest of your wardrobe.

But before you point the finger at your charity shop haul, remember that moths can also fly into homes.

“They’re very often attracted to birds’ nests…once the birds have fled, [moths] come in and start feeding on things like feathers,” says Blackhurst. “They will also feed on dead rodents and other dead animals that are sometimes found in cavity walls.”

Besides spotting the moths and finding irregular holes in your clothes, noticing the larvae — like tiny, cream-coloured caterpillars — and moth webbing are also signs of an infestation.

Look out for moth frass (Clemson University/USDA Cooperative Extension Slide Series, Bugwood.org/Wikimedia)
Look out for moth frass (Clemson University/USDA Cooperative Extension Slide Series, Bugwood.org/Wikimedia)

“The other thing to look for is something called frass, which is essentially moth poo. It’s like tiny balls that tend to be the colour of the foods that they’ve been eating – sort of a beige colour. It’s absolutely minute, like bits of dirt, but it’ll be in there with the webbing.”

If you spot one moth, is that a problem?

“If you see one moth, then that’s going to cause alarm,” says Blackhurst. “The one moth could be just the tip of the iceberg, I think. That’s when you should do a further investigation – start pulling furniture out; sticking it upside down.”

How to get rid of moths

Thankfully, there are a few things you can do to get rid of a moth infestation.

Vacuum thoroughly – and ideally with a good quality vacuum cleaner

Prioritise your natural fibres and the dark, quiet corners that moths tend to favour, like carpets, wardrobes and loft storage.

Don’t forget to clean your vacuum cleaner out too. Blackhurst explains: “The vacuum’s going to bring up the larvae and eggs. Essentially, they’re sitting in the vacuum itself, which is going to have a lot of natural fibres [inside]…that could become a source of infestation.”

Wash your clothes and fabrics – if possible, at 60 degrees or above

If this is too hot for your wool jumper, your best bet is to get it dry cleaned – or freeze it. Clean your clothes before putting them back in your wardrobe, as moths prefer dirty fabrics. If you’re not going to be using them for a while, store them in sealed bags to prevent moths laying their eggs.

Wash soft furnishings like linens, rugs, blankets and towels too, as these can also attract moths.

Clean and wash down affected furniture

Seek out the corners, cracks and crevices of your wardrobes, cupboards and drawers where moth eggs can be hidden, and wash them out thoroughly.

Freeze your clothes

“Put your clothes in the freezer for a few weeks,” advises Blackhurst. “That will kill off the life stages.”

Invest in some anti-moth technology

There are moth killer sprays, hangers, powders and balls on the market, all designed to deter our winged foes. Blackhurst particularly recommends sticky pheromone traps, which target common clothes moths. The glue board ensnares male moths by using the same pheromone which females use to attract their mating partners.

“It’s certainly worth seeking some of those out,” says Blackhurst. “They’re a very good monitor. They’ll tell you whether they’re there, and if the numbers start coming down, it shows you that your control programme could potentially be working.”

Call in a professional

According to Blackhurst, people tend to contact Rentokil after unsuccessful attempts to get rid of moths – but he recommends getting professionals involved sooner.

“When it comes to moth control, I think you should be seeking out a professional straight away. Certainly, I know how much damage they can do.”

Professional treatments involve heat treatments for furniture, freezer treatments, chemical control and mating disruption programmes. They’ll follow up to prevent the infestation from returning.

To stop a moth infestation once and for all, diligence is key. “People aren’t being thorough enough – that’s the thing that I see,” says Blackhurst. “They treat the pocket of infestation and they don’t think that it could be somewhere else, several metres away.”

How do you know when you’ve got rid of your moths, then? “Really, it’s if the damage stops,” he says. When you can’t find moths, their frass or their webbing anymore, and you’ve stopped finding holes in your clothes, you may be in the clear. To be certain, Blackhurst recommends using sticky traps.

“Some of these things that [moths] damage are irreplaceable, and people are at their wits’ end,” says Blackhurst. “If pest activity is really causing people problems and distress, and we go in and solve it, it’s such a buzz. It’s absolutely brilliant.”

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