Moths Mites Silverfish and Millinery Supplies

Moths, Mites, Silverfish and Millinery Supplies

Moths, mites, silverfish and other critters can make mincemeat of our precious Millinery supplies. Find out how to rid yourself of millinery pests.

Keep It Clean, And Prevent Outbreaks

Studies support the idea that clothing moth larvae can’t survive on clean wool because it lacks some critical nutrients for their development, lending weight to the argument that washing woollen garments before storage is vital to prevent moths. Likewise, keeping your home and especially millinery storage areas clean and dry will prevent many infestations. It’s amazing how easily your products can get dirty. Perspiration from your body, pet hair, dust and grime from your workroom can all appear on your felt before you even put it away. Ensuring it stays clean is essential if you know you will store something for an extended period. Regular and thorough vacuuming, dusting, and reviewing your space can reduce or eliminate many pests.

Inspect and clean any product you buy, especially if it’s from someone else’s stash. If you’re unsure, store it separately (in another tub or bag) until it’s safe.

Being clean and mindful will go a long way to protect your valuable millinery supplies.

I Have An Infestation; what do I Do?

If you’ve discovered an infestation, don’t panic. There are several steps to get rid of clothes moths and other pests from your storage.

If you have an infestation, clean and isolate. Take everything out of your storage area and check it.

  1. Assess the damage – Bag and dispose of severely damaged items in the rubbish (outside). If the damage isn’t as bad as that, put them aside.
  2. Clean, clean, clean – Treat everything that could be infested (in the same box etc.) as if it is; put it aside until the next step. You need to clean your storage area. Vacuum, wipe and thoroughly clean all surfaces especially dark corners, under furniture, and nooks where pests might live undisturbed. Wipe shelves, and remove dust. Neem Oil or pyrethrin are both safe, natural insect killers. Adding these to water you use to wipe out areas will help kill any hidden eggs or larvae before placing items back in storage. Don’t forget the ceiling/underneath shelves, as some moths pupate there.
  3. Replace the undamaged stock – Now you are rid of all you can see and think of, you’re not going back to storing as you did before, right? So do as suggested below. If you had everything in sealed containers, it would only be that container you had to deal with. If it happens again, you only need to go through the relevant tub or bag rather than overhaul your whole storage.

If you’re sure it’s not infested, put your undamaged stock back in storage. Wipe/vacuum/clean and store containers as you go to prevent putting pests back there too.

  1. Deal with the damaged stock – Clean/vacuum it and bag it. Vacuuming may be enough to remove the pests, but some eggs or small critters may still remain. Put the cleaned items into plastic bags you can seal. Tie them or use zip-lock bags. Ensure the product is dry before sealing it to prevent mould or mildew.

Isolation and monitoring are key now. You’ll need to regularly (monthly) check this stock for signs of infestation while keeping it from spreading. If you have the choice, put them away from your primary storage. You can try putting the bags in the freezer for a few days to a week to kill anything you may have missed. However, there is evidence to suggest this doesn’t always work.

  1. Empty your vacuum – Remember to empty the vacuum cleaner bag immediately after cleaning to prevent survivors from emerging and re-infesting your home.

If they are in your clothes, you must wash everything in the cupboard/wardrobe. Dry-cleaning is ok too. Then, clean it as above.

What Are Clothing Moths?

With 160,000 known moth species on Earth, there are probably only two of concern to milliners (or anyone with animal fibres in their life). Tineola bisselliell and Tinea pellionella. Both are small (around 1cm) and range in colour from cream to grey to red-brown.

The moths themselves (adults) aren’t what does the damage, but it’s their larvae (tiny caterpillars) that eat your supplies. The adult moths mate, and the female will lay eggs on a food source (like your fur hoods). When the eggs hatch, the caterpillars eat the fibre, grow big enough, pupate, and become adults.

two species of clothing moth
Two species of clothing moth – adults shown here

What Do Clothing Moths Eat?

Clothing moths eat fur, hair, wool, silk, feather, and anything that contains keratin. So all your millinery supplies with animal origin. Some say they will eat cotton and other natural fibres, but it’s likely another culprit (listed below). Clothing moth larvae do not eat cotton.

How Do I Know I Have Moths?

It can be hard to know until it’s too late. The adults fly, but not far and tend to like the dark. So you may never see them. The larvae are tiny when they hatch but have a large appetite and consume the fibre leaving holes in their wake. They also spin a cocoon/case or small web around themselves with silk. The silk or the holes are what typically alert you to their presence.

One way of detecting their presence is by setting traps. Clothing moth traps lure male moths with a pheromone. Traps prevent moths from breeding by eliminating the male moths that stick to their surface. But they also alert you to the presence of moths, so you know to have a good look at your storage. Where there is one moth, you’re bound to find more.

Clothes Moths or Pantry Moths?

Clothing and pantry moths are both pests in your home, but they are very different. While clothing moths eat protein-based products, pantry moths feed mainly on carbohydrates and so infest flour, grains, nuts and food storage. However, pantry moths won’t eat your millinery supplies.

Pantry moths or Indian Meal moths (Plodia interpunctella) are small (8-15mm) long and are now common in pantries worldwide. They usually come to your home as eggs in your dry food like flour etc. but can spread once established.

As seen below, pantry moths are larger than clothing moths and have wings divided into distinct light and dark brown/tan sections. Clothing moths may have small spots but are basically uniform in colour (see above).

Adult pantry moth
Adult pantry moth
pantry moth larvae infestation
Pantry moth larvae infestation

How to Keep Pest Moths Away

The best way to stop clothing moths from doing damage is to prevent them ever getting near your millinery gear (or wool jumpers etc.). Clothes moths can enter your home in several ways. But most likely, they are carried in as eggs on your purchases (clothing included). Perspiration, urine, food stains, and moisture attract adult moths, so thoroughly cleaning your clothing before storage is necessary. Once you have a population, they can spread.

Purchasing new products is unlikely to be a problem because they are factory clean. But if you buy second-hand, then there is a higher risk. If you purchase second-hand materials, thoroughly cleaning them is advised. Some say putting them in the freezer (in a plastic bag) for a few days (a week to be sure) will kill any moths and eggs. But there is little evidence for that. Moth infestations persist in places that freeze all winter, so I put more stock in cleaning and monitoring stock.

You can kill pantry moth eggs by placing food in the freezer for a week before adding it to your pantry. Eradicating them is similar to the method above, but here is a page that goes into more detail.

The good news is that if you’re careful and clean, clothes moths are rarely a problem.

How to Get Rid of Clothes Moths?

If you follow the steps above, you are well on your way. However, I suggest doing the following.

Set some fresh clothing moth traps. If you’ve cleaned well, they won’t catch anything. However, if they do, you may have missed something. If it’s one or two moths straight away and then no more, you may not have anything to worry about. Maybe the adults hid somewhere when you cleaned, then got caught in the traps. But if you catch anything, you need to keep a close eye on your storage.

Moth Traps

The traps work by luring male moths using a pheromone. The male moths fly to the trap and get stuck (and die), preventing breeding and disrupting the lifecycle. Clothing moths don’t tend to fly far, so you may need more traps if you have a large storage area. But I have found pantry moths in my traps at the other end of the house to my kitchen.

I keep traps in my house all the time just to be safe. However, I find the clothing moth traps also sometimes catch pantry moths, so become familiar with the difference to save yourself the work and bother cleaning out your storage.

I always use these Australian Made traps in my pantry and millinery rooms. I don’t always have room in my freezer to put all of my flour and such in there before I store it, so having the traps helps prevent the spread. In any case, they are cheaper than ruined food or felt.

What are feather mites?

If you have something eat your feathers, it’s probably not feather mites. Stories of ‘Feather mite’ infestation have been going around the millinery community for a while but are probably not factual. Feather mites exist on most birds. But there is not one species/type of mite that ‘feather mite’ is used to describe. Most of the mites referred to in the poultry and aviary industries feed on the bird’s blood or eat dead skin rather than feathers. One microscopic mite burrows (eats) into new feathers on living birds, but there is no evidence that they can live off the host bird. Also, mites are usually tiny. Many are invisible to the naked eye, but people report seeing them eating their feathers.

So what is eating your feathers? Clothing moths, silverfish and several beetles (like carpet beetles) do.

Preventing Feather Mites

As with moths, the steps are similar for whatever creepy crawly is munching down your feathers. Purchasing new products is unlikely to be a problem because they should be clean if not dyed (dying kills all these pests in the hot water bath). But if you buy second-hand or collect feathers from the wild or domestic birds, that’s a whole new ballgame. If you purchase second-hand feathers, putting them in the freezer (in a plastic bag) for a few days (a week, to be sure) is a good idea. Whilst it may not kill everything that can harm the feathers, it will kill some.

Picking Up Wild/Dropped Feathers

Picking up feathers on your walk or from your backyard hens etc. can be a cheap and ethical way to get feathers. However, your job does not end with that. If you live in Australia, picking up, using or selling any part of a native animal is illegal—even an ordinary magpie feather. Technically, you need a licence to do so. So keep that in mind.

Also, feathers straight off a bird are always dirty, often smelly, and can carry pests you don’t want in your house/studio. So at the very least, you should wash them. Wool wash or shampoo with warm water works just fine. But drying them can be difficult. You’ll most likely need to ‘preen’ them as they dry, or they won’t return to their former shape when dry.

Once you have a clean feather, you could also give them a stint in the freezer as an added precaution. Then store them as suggested below. Keep these feathers separate from your bought ones unless dyed in hot water or chemically treated to kill pests. That way, you can monitor them for any problems.

What are Silverfish?

Silverfish (Lepisma saccharinum) is a wingless insect. They feed on materials like paper, cotton, silk, glue, and foodstuffs – most organic products. Hence, they are a pest in the home or your studio.

adult silvefish pale colour

How do I know I have a silverfish problem?

Even though they get quite large (around 2cm fully grown), it can be hard to know if you have silverfish. This is because they move quickly when disturbed or exposed to light and can be gone before you see them. However, if you have enough, you’ll eventually see them and the damage they have done. They tend to eat the bottom of objects or between layers. So when you pick up something from storage with lines/tracks eaten in the bottom, that’s probably from silverfish.

Again with silverfish, cleanliness and good storage are crucial to preventing infestations. They love damp conditions, so keeping things dry can help prevent their invasion. If you store your materials as below, silverfish shouldn’t worry you. But if you get an infestation, do the same as with a moth infestation.

How To Store Millinery Supplies

Good storage can save your felt (wool and fur), silk, and feathers from disaster. It’s not difficult to store your materials well, but it does require some discipline. Again, I want to reiterate the importance of cleanliness in preventing pests. Clean, dry storage solutions will rarely be a problem, but excluding pests is the most surefire way to avoid infestation. Store your susceptible supplies in bags or tubs with tightly fitting lids. However, if you want to seal your products away, be sure they are dry. Swapping moths for mould is not something you want to do. If you live in a humid climate, your best bet is to allow airflow and focus on other methods to keep pests away.

The above measures should be enough if you don’t have any pests or their eggs on your products when you store them. But you can do more. For example, mothballs will kill moths and other creepy crawlies if used correctly. But they are also toxic to most animals, and the smell is hard to eliminate. Cedar or lavender will not kill pests, but it may deter them from moving in, and the scent is much more pleasant. Place cedar balls or dried lavender in your sealed tubs or bags, and rest easy. Periodically moving and inspecting your stock is not only a great way to check its condition, but you will know what stock you have stashed away (fewer trips to Millinery Hub).

A Note On Lavender And Cedar

We’ve used cedar chests to store woollens for generations. Cedar is stylish, smells fresh and keeps your jumpers and blankets safe. Right? Well, I’ve got no arguments with the first two, but as for keeping moths away, the jury is still out. Studies on the effectiveness of cedar oil and chests give confusing results. Indeed, nothing to hang your hat on. I think researchers have asked the wrong questions. Instead, studies focus on killing the gubs/larvae or keeping them off fabric. As discussed above, keeping the pests from ever discovering your stash is better. If the grubs are there, you already have a problem.

There are arguments on both sides of this one. However, the research supports the idea that if someone washes, airs and stores their woollens away in a chest, the work is probably done before they go near the cedar chest. A chest with a snuggly fitting lid also acts as a physical barrier to most pests. So did the cedar smell keep them away, or did the other measures?

Any Google search on cedar balls will tell you that strong smells like cedar will deter insects. They say, “Throw a few in your wardrobe, and you’ll be fine”. But in practice, that’s more conjecture than evidence-based. For one, plenty of insects feed on strong-smelling plants that are touted as repellants. Cedar forests are full of insects. Bees love my lavender bushes. There is no research to say odours like cedar or lavender keep moths away. But that doesn’t mean they don’t.

Ultimately, it’s up to you what you want to do. But, if nothing else, popping some cedar balls in your storage is cheap and smells great. So why not?

Cedar balls in tub