Lock up your cashmere!

Silent, ruthless, and deadly... to luxury knitwear. Moths are munching their way through the nation's wardrobes at an unprecedented rate. For followers of fashion, it's a nightmare. For pest-control experts, it's a bonanza. Susie Rushton gets the hole story

Tuesday 17 July 2007 00:00 BST

Invaded by "killer" oak pro-cessionaries that can trigger allergic reactions in humans and strip the bark off giant oaks in days; assailed by flocks of giant hummingbird hawks attracted by the warmer climate. Britain is this year's hot destination for moths, and as insect migration is an established environmental indicator, scientists are taking note.

Invaded by "killer" oak pro-cessionaries that can trigger allergic reactions in humans and strip the bark off giant oaks in days; assailed by flocks of giant hummingbird hawks attracted by the warmer climate. Britain is this year's hot destination for moths, and as insect migration is an established environmental indicator, scientists are taking note.

Most are harmless to humans, in spite of the headlines. But step inside the boudoirs of the nation, it's a different story. This summer, wardrobes are under siege as never before from clothes-eating moths - or, to be more precise, their larvae.

Rentokil reports a 25 per cent increase in call-outs to deal with serious infestations. And makers of moth deterrents are having a field day, with one British retailer of cedarwood products claiming that sales have tripled in only year.

Some experts say the current plague is down to warmer winters combined with overuse of central heating and improved insulation. Moths love to remain cosy and undisturbed in the darkest corners of your home, ideally at a temperature of 20C. And a recent EU ban on one of the few chemicals guaranteed to eradicate the problem - dichlorvos organophosphate, used in moth-killing strips - has also boosted numbers.

But it's not all science. These are hungry creatures - and their favourite dish is cashmere. With Marks & Spencer's shelves groaning under the weight of super-soft sweaters, St Michael has become the patron saint of moths, boosting both their numbers and their voracity. "The more expensive and exotic the fabric, the more the moths like it," says Iain Whatley of the pest control company Enviroguard UK. "They like tapestries and rugs but they love cashmere sweaters and cashmere suits."

Cashmere, a "must-have" luxury textile, was until recently only accessible to those rich enough to blow £300 on a jumper. But since EU import quotas were relaxed in January 2005, cheap cashmere made in China has flooded the UK. Last year, Tesco made headlines with its £25 cashmere sweaters, and bargain retailers from Primark to Uniqlo have helped to fuel the trend. In January, John Lewis reported that sales of men's cashmere sweaters were up by 134 per cent; they were selling at a rate of one every two minutes.

So what exactly are these tiny critters that play havoc with our favourite clobber? Meet the webbing clothes moth, Tineola bis-selliella. The adult is 4mm long and golden in colour, while its larvae - the grubs that actually do the damage - are white. Its destruction leaves a white silken trail that resembles cobwebs. Its partner in crime is the casemaking clothes moth, Tinea pellionella, which prefers to attack wool carpets. Slightly larger and grey-coloured as an adult, its larvae munch rugs and tapestries from the safety of a mobile cocoon.

Although webbing clothes moths chomp their way through cashmere, lambswool, fur, feathers, silk and even sometimes cotton, they turn their noses up at synthetic textiles. So those with the biggest and most fabulous wardrobes are likely to find themselves hit hardest this summer.

Alexandra Shulman, the editor-in-chief of Vogue, recently revealed that her own extensive wardrobe was under attack. The blighters had destroyed Jean Paul Gaultier, Rick Owens and Clements Ribeiro sweaters without compunction, she revealed. "This is war," she declared.

Whatley says: "We are going into some properties with expensive wardrobes," although he is the soul of discretion and refuses to name names. "This is a pest of affluence." New infestations might begin with a moth flying into one's wardrobe, but pest-control experts say that birds and second-hand goods are more usually to blame.

The moth larvae feed on a protein called ceratin. "It occurs in natural fibres, and it's that protein they look for. It's in wool, cashmere, feathers, human hair," says Savvas Othon, the technical director of Rentokil. Birds' nests, he adds, are often responsible for serious infestations.

Ivy-covered houses that provide nesting sites for birds are vulnerable to moths, as are properties where birds can roost in the eaves or even in a loft. The moths then travel down heating pipes and strike out, starting secondary infestations in airing cupboards, wardrobes and under-stairs storage.

Rentokil will treat chronic infestations with insecticide smoke-bombs, followed by spraying the edges of furniture and rugs with a water-based residual moth-killer. Depending on the size of a property, you can expect a bill of between £200 and £1,000 - on top of the cost of replacing damaged clothes.

A taste for vintage clothing, antique rugs and old upholstered furniture is often to blame. "Most of the time, the moths have been brought in on old clothes, especially car boot-sale buys, or on rugs, because the larvae are already in there," Othon says.

To make sure you don't introduce the moths, vintage clothes should be dry cleaned before going in a closet. If you've got a large, empty freezer, putting woollens in sub-zero temperatures (from minus 18 to minus 25C) for a few days can also destroy any eggs, although the garments should be wrapped in plastic first to a prevent a potentially damaging build-up of condensation. Secondhand furniture and larger quantities of clothing can also be moth-proofed by heat-treatment experts such as Thermo Lignum, a west London-based company used by stately homes and auction houses.

It is only by destroying eggs, the experts say, that the problem can be solved in the long term. Clothes-eating moths have a life cycle of 65 to 90 days - a relatively long time in the insect kingdom - and the adults can lay 40 to 50 eggs in that time. "By the time you've seen the adults flying around, it's too late," Othon says. The next generation will already have established itself in a trouser turn-up or wardrobe hinges, waiting to hatch - and insecticide is almost useless against eggs and larvae.

So it's little wonder that fashion insiders - who typically have plenty of cashmere and silk and a weakness for vintage clothing - have developed their own preventative strategies.

The designer Giles Deacon, a self-confessed insect geek who keeps a vitrine of exotic specimens on his studio wall, often recommends conkers as a moth repellent, but he cautions:

"I don't think any of those ethical things work, really. We buy in a lot of second-hand clothes to our studio, so we have to be really careful and get them fumigated beforehand. I have had problems with moths at home, but not at the studio - so far."

Sheila Cook, a specialist in antique fashion and a Portobello Road textiles dealer, has a world-class collection of 18th- and 19th-century clothes to protect against moths. After much experimentation with various poisons, she now uses a knock-down smoke bomb called Mitex - "It looks a bit like a Roman candle firework" - that she buys over the internet from Laboratoire du Cerf Noir in Paris.

But chemicals alone don't work, Cook says, and she recommends both frequent vacuuming and, most of all, keeping the critters on their toes. "My main thing is to keep them moving all the time," she says. "Then they don't have time to settle and lay eggs. It doesn't really matter what chemicals you use; you have to move them, too. They really don't like it. It's my own pet theory, but if you think about it, there's quite a lot of common sense behind it. No insect likes to be disturbed."

Cedarwood and lavender might help to repel moths temporarily, but careful storage of clothes is also part of the fashion professional's battle plan. Lucile Troquet, a freelance fashion consultant and collector of vintage clothes, recommends: "Invest in some garment bags, especially for storing winter clothes in the summer."

New cashmere should be washed frequently, says Doreen Keen of Queene & Belle, a Scottish cashmere label stocked in chichi stores around the world, from Harvey Nichols in London to Fred Segal in Los Angeles. "It's quite surprising, but some people don't do this. Then, put the garments in plastic bags and then put them in large plastic boxes. Use cedarwood balls, which are much nicer than mothballs. We put our stock in plastic bags in plastic containers and that seems to do the trick - the moths really can't get through."

Those whose wardrobes would put the average New York socialite to shame might want to take a longer view. Bizarrely, the answer might be to sexually frustrate them out of existence.

A device called Exosex - tested for two years in the costume department of the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden, and before that in agriculture - uses female attractant pheromones to confuse the insects. The male moths are lured to a tray of statically charged powder containing female pheromones. The powder sticks to their bodies, making them appear to other males as female. Breeding is stymied, leading to a long-term decline in population. Enviroguard installs the device, which can cost from £400 upwards, in museum archives and in walk-in wardrobes of private homes.

"There's no quick fix if there's a deep-seated moth problem within a property," Whatley says. "Treating the house with insecticide is not the complete answer, because that only kills the adults. This device stops the life-cycle."

Left alone to their orgy of feasting and reproduction, Tineola bisselliella are causing untold damage to the nation's sartorial wellbeing. And, as enamoured of cashmere as the moths clearly are, it's unlikely that we'll be making a wholesale switch to synthetics this autumn. Doreen Keen echoes other cashmere retailers when she says that, in spite of the damage being done, her customers have not been put off - in fact, they are often buying to replace damaged knits.

So could this plague of moths turn out to be good for business? "Yes, I was actually thinking that yesterday," she says happily. "Good point."

Of moths and men

Pest-control experts have seen moth calls rise by a quarter this year. If your clothes or carpets are developing tell-tale holes, there are some preventative measures you can take:

If your windows are open on warm summer evenings, be sure to draw the curtains or even use a fly-screen. Moths are (famously) attracted to light.

Keep watch over your high-risk zones: dark cupboards, spare rooms and the space under the bed. Moths like to lay their eggs in these dark and seldom-disturbed nooks.

Wash your clothes frequently. Laundry baskets full of soiled clothing are a recipe for moth mayhem - they love the dirt.

If you have any sheets or other fabrics in deep storage - say, in the loft - be sure to keep them in sealed plastic bags or containers.

Vacuum regularly - especially under beds and chairs. This will get rid of any moth eggs that are waiting to hatch.

By Tim Walker



Moved to a new property in Fulham, west London, and found that her heirloom knitwear had been targeted by moths

"It was very distressing. I went to take out an heirloom cashmere jumper that had belonged to my grandmother, and it was full of holes. Then I found another cashmere jumper and a cashmere scarf - they were the same, holes throughout. Really, really distressing.

"They only go for the expensive stuff, not your cheapo Gap jumpers. They'd also munched away at a pair of very expensive Corsa Bella pants. They didn't touch anything else.

"The garments were just kept in closed drawers in the bottom of my wardrobe. Now I know that you're supposed to pack expensive cashmere jumpers away properly, but I didn't know that then. There was nothing wrong that you could actually see. I'd moved into a new property, and it is a ground-floor apartment that gets very little light, so I think it is moth heaven.

"We've now got these moth sheets from a hardware store. They don't seem to smell, and they seem to be working; I haven't had any problems so far. My mum has darned the holes in the sweaters for me, but they're not the same now that they have big patches of darning on them, which isn't very luxurious. And there's just the feeling that they've been eaten by pests... "Next time I get any cashmere sweaters, I'll definitely find some way of sealing them up in plastic bags."


Suspects that the moths were stowaways that got into his luggage on a trip to Mexico

"I picked up some boxes in a corner of the room and they were all over the bottom of the boxes. At that time, you could see them flying about. They were small and beige-coloured. One of my sweaters literally disintegrated in my hands as I picked it up. This also happened to three suits and six sweaters. We ended up moving out of that house.

"The way they destroyed everything was like a cartoon. We had a wool carpet and they had systematically gone through and destroyed an entire room's worth by the time we'd noticed it.

"I commissioned a cabinet-maker to make a beautiful dresser out of cedarwood to protect my cashmere, and everything has been fine after that. I've moved now, and I haven't noticed the problem recurring yet. But it's still a worry because I have a number of paintings in the house, and I'm concerned about the canvas. I've found that the moths will eat any fabric; they'll go through anything. It's not a pleasant thing when you pick up a sweater and it just falls apart in your hands."


"I have had terrible problems in the past. My last house had wooden floors, and moths are really hard to get rid of if they get between the boards.

"It was really bad. I lost a load of second-hand clothes, plus two Louis Vuitton sweaters. They seem to love Vuitton. They love Luella, John Smedley and Comme des Garçons too. It's always the same things. They never go near Prada or Marc Jacobs. I had two Comme des Garçons sweaters that had synthetic bases and natural pile - the moths ate the pile.

"After that, I had Rentokil round and they said I had to dry clean or wash everything. I did. It cost thousands, but the moths still came back.

"Then I thought I needed a more regimented approach, so I got hold of a fumigators called Beaver House. Now, they come and spray every two months and lay traps that target the females to stop them breeding. They seem to understand my situation. The Rentokil man says: 'What have you got all these clothes for?' You're hysterical at the idea of stuff worth thousands of pounds being ruined - clothes you've kept for years, some of it Sixties haute couture - and some bloke's telling you to go to the dry cleaners.

"But the problem seems to be under control now. I couldn't pack everything up in plastic; I have three rooms full of clothes, and I'm not sure that packing really works, anyway. I had a Helmut Lang coat that was on a cedarwood hanger, with cedarwood hanging around it, with mothballs in the pockets, packed in plastic. There were just two centimetres exposed at the bottom - and moths came and laid their eggs there. It was disgusting."


Found moths in his flat in Hoxton, east London, shortly after buying a vintage suit

"I buy a lot of second-hand clothes, and I'd bought this Thirties suit from Oxfam in Dalston. It had been hanging in my wardrobe for a while, and when I went to put the trousers on, the crotch area was full of holes. It was disgusting. Big holes, and there were cocoons everywhere on the trousers. I'd hung the trousers to keep the crease, and the moths had obviously found a nice dark area in the crotch.

"And then I looked at my other trousers and they were all like that. I had two pairs of Helmut Lang trousers that were completely ruined. I had a really huge tie collection and they'd eaten all the wool and silk ties, every single one, but they'd left anything man-made.

"I actually had my MA collection in there too. It was a nightmare. Luckily I had it all hanging in plastic, but you can imagine, I was terrified. I had a lot of designs from my old BA collection there as well, and they'd eaten loads of that, all my knitwear. It was really sad.

"But you know what? I was so poor after my MA that I couldn't afford to get anything dry cleaned. But I'd also read that you could kill them by freezing your clothes, so I stuffed my freezer full of clothes. It kills them and it kills the eggs, too, which is important, and it worked.

"I threw away anything that was eaten, because I wasn't going to wear clothes that had holes in them. I washed anything that was cotton at 90C because apparently that kills them, too. Any knitwear that had survived - silk shirts, jackets - I put in the freezer for a week. After that, I hung everything up in the daylight. I was so paranoid; I scrubbed my wardrobe and put lavender everywhere. I think that 1930s suit was to blame, because they came after I bought it."

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