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Sunday, August 01, 2021

Moths have been partying in your dark closet. What now?

There are some 160,000 species of moths, though only a handful of those, in the Tineidae family, eat clothing. It is not the adult moth that munches the merino but the larvae: tiny caterpillars that feast on any keratin-based fibers but are particularly partial to wool and cashmere.

By: New York Times |
June 24, 2021 10:30:49 pm
When the newly vaccinated opened their closets in late spring after a year spent in bottom-drawer athleisure, many discovered that while they had left their suits and fine knits undisturbed, the moths had not. (Photo illustration by Amy Lombard/The New York Times)

Written by Chloe Malle

“I’m not gentle with them anymore,” said Laura Love. “I see one and I’m like, ‘I’m coming for you.’”

Love, 29, a model in Los Angeles, has waged war against the webbing clothes moths that she recently discovered during a quarantine closet clean, finding the pests running rampant in her knitwear.

“I wore sweatpants and leggings for a year, and my clothes didn’t get touched,” she said. She had to throw away everything from wool ski leggings to a 50-year-old Lucien Pellat Finet cashmere cardigan. “These are some bougie moths, they loved that one.”

Love, who moved from the East Coast during the pandemic, has since wallpapered her closet with cedar sheets held up by painters tape, keeping a prized rainbow-striped Elder Statesman sweater in a special moth booby trap with a cedar ball in each sleeve and moth monitoring pheromone traps above and below it.

“The whole thing is a psycho moth trap now,” she said. “I never had a problem in New York, but in New York, pre-COVID, I was actually wearing my clothes.”

When the newly vaccinated opened their closets in late spring after a year spent in bottom-drawer athleisure, many discovered that while they had left their suits and fine knits undisturbed, the moths had not.

“It’s always the piece that gets put away in the dark — if not disturbed the moth is happy,” said Jill Gordon, an entomologist and consultant nicknamed “the moth doctor” and “Dr. Jill” by clients. “I’ve seen an uptick in the entire pest population, not just moths, and it’s definitely due to corona and people locking up homes and leaving. The pest population that may or may not have been there before had free rein to go in and eat, drink and be merry.”

Gordon, 62, who is also a competitive equestrian, was calling from Faraway Farm in Mount Olive, New Jersey, where she boards horses and keeps her own rescued thoroughbreds, Denali, King and Fred. “I’ve always loved animals,” she said.

She originally studied ornithology but shifted course when she realized the limited professional opportunities for bird specialists, and began working in pest control in the early 1990s. “It was really a good old boys’ club,” she said, interrupted by her whining Newfoundland puppy, Karina (named for the Bob Dylan song).

During the pandemic, Gordon said, the rats effectively took over New York. “This year there is a rodent population in places I’ve never had problems,” she said, noting that buildings with pandemic-shuttered ground floor restaurants were as challenged as more publicized outdoor dining spaces, if not more so. “A restaurant closes and the rat has to get their food somewhere so they go up. A rat eats an ounce of food a day.”

One client, she said, left a condo in Boca Raton, Florida, unoccupied during the first months of quarantine. When the owners returned, three dozen rats were living in the apartment with litters of baby rats nestled in their clothing drawers. The couple has since embarked on a gut renovation.

“Moths don’t get as much attention as rodents,” Gordon said, “but they should and they’re definitely on the rise.” (Climate change, she said, is also a factor; moths thrive in warmer weather.)

Lloyd Garten, president of Select Exterminating Co., which specialises in “high end residences” and businesses in Manhattan and Long Island, concurred. “We’ve seen a tremendous increase in clothing moth complaints in the last six months,” Garten said. “Really, really dramatic, to the point that we have specialists running all over the city every day for moths, which wasn’t always the case.”

He was not surprised. “Clients are in the Hamptons all of COVID, they’re not wearing the suits to work, then they’re coming back into New York and moving the clothing around and finding webbing and damage,” said Garten, 67 and a grandfather of 12. “Before they were cycling through their garments the insect wasn’t producing. A lot of people always had webbing clothes moths, maybe a few, but left uninterrupted with the temp at a constant and the lights off, it’s an ideal situation.”

Webs of Destruction

There are some 160,000 species of moths, though only a handful of those, in the Tineidae family, eat clothing. It is not the adult moth that munches the merino but the larvae: tiny caterpillars that feast on any keratin-based fibers but are particularly partial to wool and cashmere.

“The moths live to reproduce and make more eggs,” said Gordon, who, like many moth battlers, uses synthetically produced female sex pheromone sticky traps to attract male moths and tries to avoid using pesticides, especially for the handful of major New York City museums that retain her (and which she charges on a sliding scale because she is a “big museum nerd,” who grew up wandering the halls of the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, where her mother was a docent).

Manny Guzman, CEO of Pestrol Pest Management Services, is another specialist in high demand of late. “We have gotten not just increased complaints from tenants and consumers in their homes but also carpet businesses because their stores were closed,” he said, noting that during COVID many businesses cut pest control and cleaning costs. “Things get closed down, there’s a lack of maintenance and pests increase, and now we’re playing catch-up.”

A sweater littered with holes in Jackson Heights. (Photo illustration by Amy Lombard/The New York Times)

Guzman, 46, who was bitten by the exterminating bug while working in a Washington Heights deli at age 17, agreed with other pest patrollers that city dwellers abandoning apartments is a major contributor to the increase in complaints.

But he offered another nuance: “It’s actually the combo of people leaving their homes and also people who are spending more time in their homes so they’re noticing them more. The homeowner could have the problem and not know about it, then you’re home more, you see them more.”

Over in Watertown, Connecticut, Heather Millette, owner of Millette Pest Control, said that “people are paying attention to areas they hadn’t in the past. People who used to call when they were up for the summer about the ants now were realizing there was a lot more going on at the house. They were seeing more than a couple of rodent droppings on the weekend.”

Millette, who runs the company with her husband and son, also pointed out that the quarantine craze for redecorating and renovating has unearthed dormant moth and pest problems. “People decided to redo their homes and found areas where the moths were underneath the ottoman or couch,” she said.

The Millettes have added three staff members to their team of a dozen to meet the increased demand. “Unlike the restaurant business, COVID kept us busy,” she said, “We were considered an essential business and we were just that.”

Certainly Rachelle Hruska MacPherson, 38, the designer of Lingua Franca, the cheeky line of cashmere featuring activist witticisms, can attest to just how essential.

“I had clothes that looked like rags,” said Hruska MacPherson, who during the unseasonably chilly Memorial Day weekend combed through her closet in Montauk, New York, for the first time in months looking for a sweater to wear out to dinner at the Crow’s Nest, the bayside inn and watering hole owned by her husband, Sean MacPherson. “I started pulling clothes out and I thought it was sand.” She then realised it was frass, or larvae droppings, and the weblike silk that the caterpillars spin for their cocoons.

“Traumatising,” Hruska MacPherson said. “I mean if it’s little holes I can fix them, that’s my business. In the cashmere ones they only made little holes but the wool looks like a web, it’s destroyed.” An oversize black and tan Adam Lippes caftan is beyond repair, as is a navy jumper by the Row.

“They’re now sitting in our garage,” she said. “I can’t bear to part with them yet.”

She ordered BugMD pheromone traps that her Instagram algorithm served her — “I guess because I’d been Googling moths all weekend!”— then later posted a woeful Instagram Story featuring a moth-eaten Lingua Franca crew neck sweater and was so inundated by fellow moth victims that she is starting a Lingua Franca hole-patching service.

“Definitely if I had been going out I would have worn my clothes more,” Hruska MacPherson said. “I would have taken those clothes out in November and worn them more, but we just weren’t doing that this year. My nice cashmere I wear out, not really around the house so it stayed in the closet … with the moths!”

‘Crack and Crevice’

Millette recommends storing items like rugs in climate-controlled areas of the house, avoiding humid attics or basements, which provide an ideal environment for a moth. “We are the biggest enemy to clothes moths,” said Gordon, adding the easiest trick for moth deterrence is making sure every item in your closet gets taken out, shaken or worn.

When that is not an option, Guzman, the CEO of Pestrol Pest Management Services, advises keeping clothing that you don’t wear frequently in proper sealed clothing bags or containers, the best being vacuum-sealed plastic bags if storing for a long period. The goal, he said, is to eliminate the moth’s food source.

Things that can’t be isolated, like one’s wool carpet, should be professionally cleaned twice a year and vacuumed consistently, making sure to get the underside of the carpet and the parts of it hidden under furniture.

“Pull that dresser off the carpet and clean!” Guzman said, describing a client who had the whole carpet cleaned except for a small section under the radiator that a wood frame had been built around. “The little buggies found this overlooked little area and that became an infestation.”

Clothes should also be cleaned consistently. “Moths like a scent,” Guzman said, “Something soiled. They love sweat.” Sending your clothes to the dry cleaner is a fail safe — if expensive — way to kill moths. “Dry cleaning fluid kills all moths,” Gordon said, but, she hastened to add, if you have moths, let your dry cleaner know so they can keep your pieces separate — moth etiquette!

If you can keep your woolens in the freezer, that is a great way to kill moths, she added. (One client has a dedicated sweater freezer in which she stores knits before heading to Florida each winter.)

“There’s not an easy answer,” said Guzman, who is often referred to as “the Mothman” evoking the winged “Watchmen” superhero, though he said that after successful rodent extermination he has also been called the Rat Man.

His process includes identification to confirm it is a clothing moth, separating the synthetic fiber items from the natural fibers that are appealing to moths, sending the carpets and clothes out to be professionally cleaned before storing them properly, placing pheromone traps for monitoring, and finally a “crack and crevice” treatment of spraying pesticides.

The moths, he said, prefer fine knits but “if you’re all out of food and they’re hungry, they can even feed off of dead skin.” Horsehair, such as in your grandmother’s mattress or stabilizing the plaster of prewar apartments, is also a buffet. “They really love it,” said Guzman, who also described instances of dead rodents trapped in walls whose coats become moth feeding grounds. Bon appétit!

Speaking of Manhattan co-ops, the politics of moth mitigation can also be hairy there, as it were. Linda Gawley, a managing director for Charles H. Greenthal Management Corp., believes it is important for a building to pay for pest management rather than leave it to the individual tenant or shareholder, as many buildings do.

“One person’s pest problem becomes everyone’s pest problem,” said Gawley, who fired one exterminating company after it set pheromone traps in the hallways, inadvertently drawing moths into the halls and then into neighboring apartments, and said neighbors have hurled accusations at each other.

“Old buildings are not a closed system,” Gordon said, “In apartments, wall boards are major highways for something as small as an insect.” Like the ascending rats, moths can travel up to three floors away. “They will explore!”

Insurance typically does not cover bug damage, meaning moth remediation can run into the tens of thousands of dollars, from professional cleaning to carpet replacement. In 2017, actress Monique Zordan (“Surviving the Outbreak”) tried to sue Travelers Insurance for not reimbursing her after the lepidopteran cashmere and wool gourmands ate through “a great deal of unique and expensive clothing” in her apartment at 75 Wall Street. She said she missed the Oscars because she was afraid of leaving her belongings subject to further moth damage.

Even the pest patrol is not immune to critters. Last summer Gordon discovered moths in a beloved blanket belonging to her mother at her Willard Beach home in Maine. “I freaked out,” she said. “I said, ‘It’s them! They found us!’” (She dry cleaned everything in the house.)

Garten said he is constantly battling bees and ants at his home. “I’m like the shoemaker whose kids have holes in their shoes,” he said. “I try to get to it, but this year we’ve just been too busy.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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