Reader Request: Wool Care and How to Get Rid of Moths

get rid of moths

Sue sent me this request by e-mail:

This morning I dropped off a blazer at the dry cleaners. The blazer is a lovely purple and it’s a thrift find. The shop owner commented that it could have been attacked by moths, there are some tell-tale tiny holes. I’m now on the fence about whether to keep it or toss it.

Anyway this experience made me realize how little I do know about wool, and seeing as the cold months are coming up, I was wondering if you might do a post on this on the site. Some of the things I wonder about are:

What to do if you think a garment could have a moth issue? In my case I would not want to have my other woolens ruined. How do you prevent moths in the first place? And in between trips to the dry cleaners, how do you “freshen” up those garments? Finally, can you get away with cleaning certain woolens or woolen blends in water?

There is so much conflicting advice on the web.

So this is gonna be one of those posts where I tell you what I know from my own experience and research, and then ask you to contribute your own knowledge.

Sue is right: I’ve read more conflicting advice on this topic than any other. (Except how to fit a bra, perhaps.) Which is frustrating, right? Because most of us have a woolen garment or two and we’d prefer to keep them moth-hole-free. So although I can’t offer definitive answers, I’m hoping to start a constructive conversation. Here we go:

If you’ve found moth holes in a garment …

… that means you’ve got moths. It’s similar to if you see a single mouse scampering around: That mouse is probably not flying solo, but instead a representative of the group of mice now living in your house.

Same with moths: One moth = many moths. So that sucks. Best practice, sadly, is to wash or dry clean anything in your closet that might become a target: Woolens, cashmere, fur, angora, alpaca, and any other fabrics made from animal hair. Also sadly, it’s best to discard the damaged item(s) since it/they may still harbor moth larvae. (Or carpet beetle larvae, which can stick around for a year. GROSS. Also ANNOYING.)

And if you’re bringing a used/vintage item into your closet that could be a carrier, wash or dry clean it before storing. If a certain closet or storage area has been attacked, vacuum it out before replacing your newly laundered clothes – including floor, shelves, drawers, everything.

In terms of storage and prevention, everyone has a favorite method: Pheremone traps, cedar storage, lavender, mothballs, airtight containers. During our last infestation I tried to stick to lavender and cedar, but they did virtually nothing to protect my clothes.

So now I seal my super heavy wool garments in airtight bags with mothballs, at least during the summer. The airtightness is key, since it keeps adult moths from getting inside where they can lay eggs.

How do you prevent moths in the first place?

Well, you can certainly keep your clothes dry and well-aired, for starters. Moth larvae feed on fiber that’s moist with something – mostly sweat, but also beverage or food spills – so the drier your clothes, the safer they are. Moth and beetle larvae also hate bright light, so anything that’s worn frequently is slightly safer. These guys are most likely to turn up in clothes that have been packed away somewhere dark. However, since these insects can also infest carpet and furniture, your best efforts with your closet’s contents may not keep them at bay. This is, of course, not your fault but infuriating nonetheless.

Are there ways to freshen garments between dry cleanings?

Yes, though some are more moth-safe than others. I have found that clothing refresher sprays like Febreze are effective on all but the most stink-tastic garments. I turn my garments inside out, spray the armpits heavily, and mist a little over the rest.

Then I leave the item to dry for 24 hours or more. You MUST do this in order for the spray to be effective, and if you don’t, you are storing a wet and dirty garment, which we’ve established is essentially moth bait. If you don’t dig the chemicals, I’ve been told that a vodka-water mist can help, though it never has for me. Airing garments outside in the sunshine, has worked for me and since this goes toward the clean/dry goal can also help keep the larvae away.

Can you wash wool in water?

Generally, yes. Natural fibers – including linen, silk, wool, cashmere, and cotton – can generally be hand-washed in cold water, even if care instructions insist on dry cleaning. Same goes for sturdy polyesters and nylon blends. BUT. If you’re dealing with a particularly thin or delicate fabric, a garment with loads of sewn-on embellishment, suiting, or just about anything lined, you’re safer going the dry cleaning route.

If you’re unsure how a garment will fare when washed instead of dry cleaned, do a patch test. Wet a small, non-prominent area with cold water and blot with a dry, white paper towel. If the fabric puckers, shrinks, or bleeds color, take it to the cleaners.

Use your judgement and make calls on a garment to garment basis. But when in doubt? Do what the tag tells you to.

And that’s what I know. Please share your own experiences and advice in the comments! How do you moth-proof your clothes? How do you deal when you find those telltale holes? And other clothing-freshening advice? Let us know.

main photo: J.Crew

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8 Responses to “Reader Request: Wool Care and How to Get Rid of Moths”

  1. Andrea

    I’ve lost items to moth holes a few times over the years, but a too-close call convinced me to find a better solution. I found a dime-sized hole in a beautiful camel-colored cashmere wrap that my husband had given me. In a panic, I went to my tailor and begged her to see what she could do — she worked her magic and now I can barely find the repair site (only if I look really, really hard). Whew. Immediately after that, I bought a couple of these: http://www.spacesavers.com/Storage/Waterproof-and-Airtight-Storage-Containers/7-65-Gallon-Ultimate-Clear-Box-by-Iris-Airtight-Water-Resistant This size fits under the bed and it’s where I keep anything cashmere or wool. Never again will I chance it!

  2. Karen Olson

    My woven garments go to the dry cleaners, but I machine wash (top load machine) all wool and cashmere sweaters. I use whatever liquid soap/detergent I can get at a yarn shop. I’m currently using EucaLan, which you don’t even have to rinse (but I rinse anyway.)
    Wool will felt if water runs over it, so I keep the garments out while the machine is filling. I start on the regular wash cycle so that the agitator pulls the garments down into the water. As soon as the garments are submerged, I stop the machine and let it soak for 5 to 10 minutes. Then I switch to the gentle cycle and agitate for about 30 seconds – just long enough to “jiggle” the garments. I repeat this process two or three times, letting the load soak for 5 to 10 minutes (sometimes longer, if I forget!)
    Then – I advance the dial to empty the tub and let the machine spin (still on the gentle cycle.) I make sure to move the garments out of the stream of water when the rinse cycle starts and usually let the rinse cycle go its regular length (mine is short.) After spinning, I take the sweaters out and shake them from the shoulder seams and hem to stretch them a little, then lay them flat. I do a bit of shaping when laying them out so they maintain their shape – squish up the cuffs or waistband, pull the length if I want the sweater longer, etc. Sometimes I use a rolled up washcloth to shape a collar if need be.
    Obviously, this takes some effort, but it’s been worth it to me. The sweaters smell amazing and there’s no better moth prevention than a really clean garment!

  3. cryptdang

    Long time lurker, first time commenter, but you’ve touched on a subject near and dear to my heart! I love my woolens, such a great material. Thought I’d share my experiences as well, though I’m no expert. There are several perfectly good ways to wash a wool garment, but my method, built up after some trial and error, is to use COLD water in the sink, barely a drop of laundry soap (but I do use conventional arm and hammer – not sure if other types might have additional additives), a long soak time (45 mins), minimal agitation, gently push out the water from the item when done soaking, and 2-3 ‘rinse’ cycles, again letting soak for a while. Then I dry by folding and pushing on the item in a towel before laying it out. Might sound like a lot, but it’s mostly a passive process.

    One thing I have discovered: for thin, dry clean only items, shrinkage seems to happen a little easier (on the order of about 1/2-1 full size). For said type of garments, definitely don’t use even lukewarm water, as this will really shrink them! I’ve had some luck with stretching out shrunken items and adding a cm or 2 to their circumference, but nothing miraculous (even using that pin-it-to-a-board-while-it-dries method).

    As for freshening, I read recommendations of spraying a solution of 1/2 white vinegar and 1/2 water. I tried this and it seems to work for very slightly smelly items (but that might still be past just airing out; luckily it takes wool a while to get to that stage). The only thing to watch out for is not putting too MUCH of the solution on your clothes, or this will result in another problem! (smelling like vinegar).

  4. chilibrarian

    I only send tailored items with linings to the dry cleaners.

    I’m a knitter and I treat my store-bought wools and cashmere items like I do my hand knits.

    I hand wash most items using either Eucalan or Soak no-rinse soap. These both condition the wool and smell great, and clean items are not attractive to moths.

    My method: Fill the sink with tepid water and the recommended amount of soap – it should feel neither hot nor cold. Then add the garments. Soak a minimum of 30 minutes. Wool naturally repels water and it takes at least 20 minutes to truly soak it all the way through. If items are dirty, I let them soak an hour or more. I swish stuff around gently a few times, let the water out, squeeze out water without pulling, wringing or stretching. For really heavy or large items, I pick them up in a ball, and put them through a gentle spin cycle. For most things, I roll them in a towel and stand on it to squeeze out the water as much as possible.

    Then, everything is laid out and gently pushed and pulled into shape to dry. If you’re a stickler, you can measure your items before you wash them and reshape to those measurements (essentially blocking the items).

    Cashmere LOVES water and will become softer and fluffier if you wash it. It’s really the preferred way to clean it, no matter what the tag may say about dry cleaning.

  5. Keilexandra

    I use Eucalan liquid detergent to hand-wash my wool and cashmere sweaters; I’ll probably send heavier wool sweatercoats to the cleaners though, along with my wool coats at the end of every season. Eucalan is designed for washing wool yarn, and I love that it’s no-rinse. I can start a small bin of sweaters soaking, forget about it for a short or long time, and then finish up when I remember. I squeeze the water out very gently, lay it out on a towel, and roll it up while pressing to extract more water; then I lay out the sweater on another towel, or a drying rack if I’m willing to deal with some stretch lines.

  6. Liz

    I don’t think it’s possible to moth-proof garments totally unless you’re willing to use old-fashioned mothballs, which really aren’t good for either the environment or you.
    I’ve had success in the past, when I lived in ultra-cold western New York, by putting wool garments on a drying rack out on the porch in the winter for a week or so . It freshens the garment and also seems to kill moths in whatever stage they happen to be in. (BTW, this is also a good thing to do with rice, grains, flour, or any food stuff that tends to develop weevils or weevil moths–put newly purchased packages in the freezer for three weeks and the cold will kill the weevil eggs that may be in them. I learned to do this in Asia, where otherwise I would have had weevils and weevil moths throughout my pantry.)
    I have never washed blazers, trousers, or other large garments made of wool at home, but generally do wash sweaters. I have used Eucalan, which can be difficult to find, but I prefer another plant-based liquid cleaner called Vaska, which is available online. It produces low suds and washes out completely with no residue. (It’s great for using in the washer for regular clothes, too, because it washes out completely and is kind to sensitive skin, especially in the winter when detergent residue can cause me no end of itching.)
    Put a few drops of Vaska in a clean sink or basin full of cold water, put in a sweater, then gently push the garment up and down through the water a few times. Let it sit a few minutes, then repeat.
    Drain the water, fill the sink or basin again with fresh cold water, and swish garment to rinse. I generally rinse twice to be sure all the detergent is gone. Drain the water and allow excess water to drain from sweater, then fold the garment gently lengthwise and put it in a washing machine & run the gentle spin cycle. Remove the garment and roll it in a towel and push on the towel gently to blot any excess water. Do not ever twist or wring out the garment.
    Dry the garment flat, pushing it gently back into shape.
    This is not as onerous a job as it sounds and really doesn’t take long.
    You spare yourself the considerable expense of dry-cleaning, and VASKA is biodegradable, unlike a lot of dry-cleaning solvents. And the garment is generally softer than it would be if dry cleaned. And a lot more fresh smelling!
    You can gently iron sweaters once they’re dry if they look like they need it.
    As for moth holes, if they’re small I’ve had good luck taking them to my tailor to mend. Sometimes the tailor can do invisible reweaving, but with knits he/she may just have to mend. Generally it’s almost impossible to see the repaired area if your tailor is good.
    Clean items shouldn’t be stored crowded into dark areas. Leaving some space seems to deter some moth larvae (it’s the larvae that actually eat the fibers) activity.
    My husband was a real sweetheart and lined a small closet for me with cedar. That really put the kibosh on moth larvae activity.

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