Wool Moths

What are Wool Moths?

Can wool moths really do much damage?  They’re only tiny little moths.

Have you seen evidence of moths eating clothes?  Tiny holes in your sweater?  Dusty powder in the corner of the drawer? Little cocoons stuck to some clothing that was in a dark place?   In my case, the damage to clothing is minimal compared to the damage to my fleece stash. As a handspinner, weaver, and felter,  wool is vital to my art.  Camel hair coats, furs, goose  down, alpaca and llama, angora– anything made from protein fibers can attract the wool moth and clothes moth larvae.

 picture of wool moth casing with wool damage eggs and dust

If you own wool rugs, sweaters,  coats, shawls, or wall hangings, you should read this article. 

Clothes moth damage can be devastating, and recognizing the culprits immediately is vital to prevent untold amounts of damage.  Wool moths, clothes moths,  closet moths, cocoon moths –there are lots of different names for a couple of different varieties of these destructive little insects. Even pantry moths, like Indian Meal Moths, will eat wool if it’s available to them! Carpet beetles are very different in appearance but can cause every bit as much devastation.  Extreme damage from all these pests can be prevented, but only if the little demons are identified before their eggs are tucked in every nook and cranny of a house, waiting to hatch and seek out any protein fibers they can find.

These tiny little demons don’t eat just wool, but angora, llama, and alpaca that are all common in sweater, hats, gloves, and home décor. They’ll munch right down on exotics like Grandpa’s camel coat, grandma’s mink collar coat or vintage karakul shearling coat.

To learn more about wool moths, how to prevent them and how to get rid of them once you have an infestation, check out Wool Moth Traps, @@@

Read more about my experience with wool moths, and why I’ve learned so much about them. @@@

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Here’s how I learned the hard way about the tiny Wool Moth, Scourge of the Devil:

I had been spinning for a few months when I heard an offer for some free llama wool. Cool! It was fiber, and it was free.  I took it, in a plastic grocery bag that wasn’t sealed in any way, set it in the middle of my stash of wool and other fibers, and forgot about it for awhile.

That was the single

most expensive free item

I ever received.

Over the next 29 years or so, I struggled to control the wool moths that were introduced into my stash through that “free” llama fleece. I had wool fleeces I’d bought at the Estes Park Wool Market. I had fancy rovings that were gifts from family. I bought tiny packages of exotic fibers to try spinning.  I had started raising angora rabbits, and had containers of the lovely soft angora fiber all over my house.  And that’s only the handspinning fiber! All the wool sweaters from the grandmothers, wool hangings, wool rugs, hats, mittens, coats… we had a lot of wool.

Over that first year, the wool moth damage began.

wool moth hole in rayon handweaving stored with wool

I would occasionally open the lid to a box, or a cedar chest (yes, cedar chest!!!), and find bags that contained not luscious fiber, but dust. I threw them out, more puzzled than alarmed. I’m not talking about a few chewed damage spots with moth egg dust or casings. I mean entire gallon sized Ziploc bags of angora turned to dust!!!   I and my family of Mensans did not recognize what was happening. We’d seen tiny moths around the house, but not swarms of them or anything obvious like that. And friends and relatives told us,

“There are no clothes moths in Colorado!”  It’s too high, or dry, or something.

wool reduced to dust by wool moth damage

So we figured the moths we saw were meal moths that had come in with some of the bulk grains I got at the health food store. Chalk it up as one of the drawbacks of buying organic food, right?

I began to put together the puzzle pieces when I started finding holes in wool garments. Then I spotted a few strange “casings” stuck to some of my clothes.  Occasionally, when vacuuming near my spinning wheels or wool stash, I would see these creepy little larvae husks that looked a lot like meal worms I’d seen in cornmeal a couple of times. Tiny black beetles were in a couple of my fleeces, and there was obvious damage to the fibers around them.

I had been invaded.

wool moth larvae closeup

Every type of wool eating creature seemed to have invaded my house, and I could trace it all back to that free llama fleece.

The war began.

So, what DID I do?

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Looking back, I probably should have just tossed everything woolen into a bonfire and given up on it. Or opened up every bag of wool so air could get in, put it all in a room, shut the door, and bug-bombed it. Keep the cats and kids out of that room for awhile.

Here is the problem with that kind of chemical treatment: How long is long enough to keep the kids out? The chemicals have half lives and might not be poisonous forever, but the carriers that deliver the chemicals are often toxic, and if I spray them into my wool then there are chemicals in my “all natural” wool products. I’m going to spin that wool into yarn for my kids’ garments, or sell fleece or yarn to other people.  One of the bragging points about my wool was that it was raised naturally. I was not certified as an organic flock, but followed nearly organic husbandry.  Coating my fleece with chemicals was something to avoid. On top of the toxicity problem, does it help with the eggs that are going to hatch some time in the future? Not at all.

What I did do:

  • Tossed the obvious infestations.
  • Vacuumed the corners and cracks wherever I could
  • Put diatomaceous earth powder in crevasses and cracks, corners, and carpets.
  • I washed all the wool garments as vigorously as I could without felting them, then put them inside the cedar chests.
  • I opened those twice a year to shake out the garments and make sure they hadn’t started a breeding ground inside the dark chest.
  • I made quarantine areas for fiber I thought could possibly be infested but I’d not seen evidence yet.
  • Any new fiber entering the house or coming off the rabbits was put into thick, sealable plastic bags, double bagged, with lavender or cedar packets inside, and put into a safe chest or plastic bin that could be sealed.
  • The best storage containers for wool are ones which let light in. Wool moths like the dark.

For more about the steps for prevention or for dealing with an infestation, read further at @@@

This infestation destroyed many thousands of dollars of wool over the years. At one point, I had a flock of rabbits, sheep, and angora goats, and each fleece had to be protected with the double bagging system. I could not in good conscience sell any wool products unless they were sent away straight off the sheared animal, or I was certain that they had been protected throughout the entire time they were at my house or barn.

I moved last year. I tossed any fiber that even might be infested. So far, I seem to have escaped the infestation, as the wool I have shows no evidence of damage. I continue to follow all my safety procedures, and won’t sell any wool I am not 100% certain is moth free.

But I know… all it takes is one free fleece.

 

Copyright ©  2014 – 2018 Kelley Adams.  All rights reserved.

All text, photos, and graphics are the property of Kelley Adams unless credit is given to an alternative source.

12 Comments

  1. I’m sorry for what you had to go through but I thank you for sharing it here. I am facing a similar predicament right now. Yes, I got careless. I used to always quarantine the new stuff until I was sure. Not sure how I am gong to handle the problem but I’m on the job.

    • Alyson, I’m going to write a whole series of articles about dealing with wool storage and moth prevention, as well as what to do once you have them. I hope you’re having success in your dealing with them now!

  2. Thank you so much for sharing this. I am a relatively new knitter and as much as I would love to work with wool it is so far out of my budget so acrylic reigns. But a friend’s coworker breeds alpaca and passed along some samples from each that she uses to spin from, and after it was put aside and forgotten for a couple months (sound familiar?) I got out the box to find the bags full inside with wool moth larvae. Needless to say I will NOT be buying from her but it was quite a shudder. One of the few times I can be happy knowing most of my stash is acrylic and the rest cotton. Now I am terrified to buy directly from the farms locally even though I know most are probably awesome.

    • Once you’ve seen it, you will quickly recognize that powdery look of infested fiber. Do check even your acrylic and cotton yarns, since you know there were moths in your stash. They will starve, but they’ll try eating even non-protein fibers. When you feel ready financially and psychologically to try natural fibers, just check them before you buy them. Fiber producers are usually vigilant– that’s their livelihood that can get chewed into dusty oblivion if they don’t keep an eye out for moths.

  3. Thanks for writing this. Having this problem now, so demoralising. Maybe 80 kilos of perfect top grade (albeit very dusty) alpaca I’ve been saving up because my circumstances changed and I was unable to process it for the past few years… 6 of the xlarge polythene bags are eaten so bad the super long fibres are like 1 cm bits of felt powder. Little monsters! And I felt sorry for them :’O

    • I’m so sorry! I don’t know why they’re so attracted to alpaca, but they are. I’ve been experimenting with using cheap hair conditioner in the last rinse of my alpaca handspun yarn. The cheap perfume in it smells so strong to me, I’m hoping it covers the sulfur smell of the fiber the moths are so attracted to!

  4. Hi,
    Did you ever try steam cleaning to kill off the eggs? Will that damage the wool?
    My childhood kilt and regalia came back into my possession about 4 years ago, when the package was opened there was obvious moth damage but didn’t notice the dusty particles you mention, I put it all in a bag and put it in the freezer for a long time, maybe a few months. Recently I have seen holes in some of my expensive dress pants and my wife and I both examined the area thoroughly but saw no evidence of eggs or larvae or moths (although we have also been battling pantry moths after infected bird seed came and went unnoticed, but don’t they look anything alike.?) that was 5 months ago now and last week I brought out a heavy sweater to take out on the boat as it’s cold, when I came back from work I was feeding the baby who decided to swat his mash all over the sweater so my wife lovingly washed it the next night in cold water and when squeezing out the water noticed there are holes (around the area that got splattered) again we didn’t notice dust.. but I guess didn’t look for it before the wash.
    I have a really nice kilt that I checked for holes last night but didn’t notice anything and my wife has several wool coats, can we protect them with steam.? we have this powerful steam cleaner that I was just about to use when I thought “hey I better google this, maybe theres a better way..” I understand about getting in all the corners and being thorough for long term success but with 3 kids under 3 and having been battling pantry moths too our time and workload has been chaotic..
    will this steam help as a temporary solution to then put all the really nice wool stuff in clear plastic till we can really get around to it all..?

    • I am currently awaiting a definitive answer from an entomologist about whether Indian Meal Moths (Pantry Moths) will eat wool. This has been a burning question for me since I made a handspun/handwoven scarf for my boyfriend which got eaten. He has parrots, and therefore birdseed, and therefore Indian Meal Moths in his house, but I have not spotted a true Wool Moth there of either variety.

      As for steam-cleaning– yes, that should kill moths in any stage, including eggs, which are in your kilt and coats. It won’t, however, prevent immediate re-infestation if the nasty little things are elsewhere in the house.

      I would recommend a several step process with all your wool products.
      1.} Clean them. Handwash sweaters or jumpers and beat rugs outside. I wash all my wool, but with the kilt you may need to go chemical and have it dry cleaned, in order to preserve the pleats. The cleaning removes most of the pests and eggs, but more importantly removes any residual oils or sweat… or baby food, which might attract the pests again.
      2.) Steam them. This should kill any eggs that remain.
      3.) Dry them well. You don’t want to store damp wool.
      4.) Store them carefully. If you have a good, airtight cedar chest, use that. If you have garment bags made with durable materials (moth larvae can chew right through thin plastic) then you can hang wool garments sealed in that. Add some cedar blocks, oil, or other moth repellent potpourri to repel them and to cover the natural sulfur odor of wool. If you need to use a box or bin to store wool in, make certain that it is truly sealed.

      Note: If you live in a humid climate, which sounds likely since you were out in a boat, I’d recommend using a dessicant in any of these storage methods, since you’re sealing them off from outside air.

      I hope this helps! Good luck with your precious woolens. It’s not too late to keep them safe from further damage.
      Best wishes,
      Kelley

  5. Hello Kelly

    How can i salvage a bump of karakul which has some moths and possibly eggs in it?

    Thank you and regards

    Norma

    • Norma,
      If you are determined to salvage it and not, in the words of the late Aldan Amos, “give it a Viking funeral,” I’d try the following steps. Unwrap the bump and watch carefully for where the damage seems to stop showing up. Look for dust, broken fibers or abrupt “cut” sections, moth casings, and eggs. Depending on the amount of damage in the infested part, you can either toss it or try steaming it in the microwave. That should kill any eggs in it. Keep in mind that the last thing you want is to go to the effort of spinning or felting your lovely wool and then having eggs hatch and eat their way out from inside the yarn. The rest of your bump should go into a sealed clear bag and kept in a light area. The sealed bag is to keep it isolated in case you didn’t get all the eggs. Good luck! I hope you can salvage some of your karakul.
      –Kelley

  6. Found the solution. Clean or dry clean every garment that looks like it is vulnerable or already has holes. Turn your oven to the very lowest number mine is 170°. Evenly place the racks two from the top two from the bottom and put clothes in for one hour. Do not stack your clothes this is a process that may take days. After they come out of the oven take a lint brush to clean them again and then store them with lavender sachets which don’t work but make everything smell good! If I put them back in my closet I take them out periodically just to look and sometimes I see those squiggly things but they’ve done no damage so I think they are dead. I thought I would go crazy but now I am confident that I am damage free. By the way I never saw a flying moth ever. I have even taken my rugs and done the same in the oven. Not an easy task but seems to have worked. Also direct sunlight works. If you have this possibility you must leave them for days turning them cleaning them and it’s a real pain,honestly the oven is quicker and better!

    • I’ve never tried an oven, since mine is notoriously uneven in temperature and I’m afraid I’ll burn more than moths! I know some people use their hot car to cook the little demons. Now that you’ve gotten them under control, stay vigilant! Just air out all your stash every couple of months- they hate the light. You might want to take a look at my article on eliminating wool moths in 10 steps.

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