If you haven’t yet experienced clothes moths in your home, count yourself lucky. These little critters feed on clothing and household textiles, and they can ruin many garments if not discovered and quickly controlled. Here’s everything you need to know to spot the signs, fight an infestation, and avoid them in the first place. Note to the squeamish: We’re also including some larger-than-life photos so you’ll know what clothes moths look like.

Photo by The Container Store 

A quick guide to getting rid of clothes moths

  • First, identify exactly what the moths are eating. It could be your clothes, textiles such as bedding and rugs, or your furniture.
  • Next, treat all affected items. For clothing, the treatment options are washing your outfits in hot water, freezing them, or dry cleaning. If you’re worried that the moths have laid eggs throughout your closet (which are too small to see), you may want to treat all your clothing. For bigger items such as sofas or large rugs, you may need to call in a pest control company.
  • Vacuum the affected area thoroughly to suck up any remaining eggs or moth larvae and to prevent future infestations. Immediately seal and dispose of the contents in an outside bin.
  • Monitor your closet by thoroughly inspecting your clothing at least once a year. Make regular vacuuming a habit.

Life stages of the webbing clothes moth: larva, pupa (resting stage) and adult. Image from Clemson University, USDA Cooperative Extension Slide Series, Bugwood.org

What are clothes moths?
The most common species of clothes moths in Australia and New Zealand are webbing clothes moths (Tineola bisselliella) and casemaking clothes moths (Tinea pellionella). Adults of both species have golden-coloured wings and are just over half a centimetre long. Webbing clothes moths have a tuft of reddish hair on their heads. Casemaking moths have dark spots on their wings. 

Clothes moths are known for feeding on wool, but they’ll also consume synthetics or cotton blends that contain other animal fibres, including silk and even horsehair. They’ll attack blankets, household linens, pillows, curtains, carpets and rugs, upholstered furniture, animal bristles in brushes, wool felt pads in pianos and fish meal in fish food. They also like to eat fur, feathers and dead insects.

Where do clothes moths come from?
Clothes moths are attracted to textiles soiled by food, sweat or urine – yet another good incentive to keep your clothing clean. But even with neat-as-a-pin habits, you can still get clothes moths. You’re particularly vulnerable when moving into a new home. If the previous occupants had clothes moths, the adult moths may have disappeared with the former owners, but it’s likely they left their eggs behind – and those eggs will eventually hatch. If you live in an apartment and your neighbours have an infestation, it could also spread into your space. Purchasing secondhand clothing or textiles and not washing them can put you at risk as well.

How do you know if you have clothes moths?
Clothes moths prefer to stay in dark places and hide when disturbed, so you may not discover you have a clothes moths problem right away. Eventually, however, you’ll find unexplained holes in your clothing or see a moth.

Adult clothes moths don’t damage your clothing; it’s their larvae that feed on garments. The larvae of webbing and casemaking clothes moths are nearly identical: just over one centimetre in length and white, with brown-to-black heads.

Larva of a case making clothes moth (Tinea pellionella). Image by Patrick Clementon Flickr

Casemaking clothes moth larvae create and carry with them a feeding case that takes on the colour of the fabric they have eaten. The larvae emerge from either side of the case to feed and then retreat into it to hide. Webbing clothes moth larvae don’t carry a case. Instead, they produce patches of silken webbing that carry bits of the fabric they feed on.

How to get rid of clothes moths
1. Identify your insects
In addition to clothes moths, carpet beetles also feed on fabric, so your first step should be confirming what type of infestation you have. It’s a good idea to get a specimen from your home identified if you can – make sure you don’t squash your clothes moth as that will make it hard to identify. Try to catch it in a container and put it in the freezer, then call a local pest control professional.

2. Find out what the clothes moths are eating
Moths are pretty slow eaters, so if you catch them early, they may only be munching on a single item of clothing. Check woollen garments and fabrics first, but keep in mind that moths may also be attracted to other clothing, especially if it is stained or soiled. Look for silken tubes under collars and cuffs of your clothing and check for silken patches on fabric.

Also look for evidence of grazing on your garments, indicated by a furrow in the surface of the fabric – this furrow may look similar to a pulled thread – or for any outright holes. Once you find a garment that has been a food source, the next step is to carefully inspect nearby items for signs of further damage.

photo by Tailored Living of North Dallas

3. Finally, treat (or throw away) moth-eaten items
If you want to keep an item that moths have clearly fed on or that you suspect may contain eggs, follow these steps to rid your wardrobe of adult clothes moths, their larvae and eggs.

  • Wash clothes in hot water: Wash clothing for 20 to 30 minutes in water that is at least 50 degrees Celsius (typically the hot setting on your washing machine). Hot water can shrink or ruin some fabrics, so be sure you know what your fabric can handle before you toss it in the machine.
photo by HSH Interiors
  • Dry-clean affected clothing: This is a good option for woollen garments and delicate items. Dry cleaning – even methods dubbed ‘green’ – involves either a strong solvent or heat that wipes out all life stages of moths. Keep in mind that after dry cleaning, you may actually see more damage in your garments than you noticed before dry cleaning if clothing moths have damaged your garments by weakening clothing fibres.
  • Freeze items: Moving a garment from a warm environment to one below freezing can also kill the various stages of clothes moths. The key is to do so abruptly. Moving a jumper from your closet straight to your freezer and leaving it there for 72 hours should do the trick. For this method to be effective, your freezer should be set at -18 degrees Celsius or lower.
photo by Colorado Classic Cabinets

How to prevent clothes moths
1. Monitor your clothing
Remove all items of clothing from drawers and closets and inspect them carefully at least once a year. And, of course, keep all your garments clean.

2. Vacuum regularly and thoroughly

Thoroughly vacuum inside and outside wardrobes and in the crevices of shelves and drawers using an edge tool for reaching corners. Also regularly vacuum pet bedding, cracks and crevices in floors, inside and behind heaters, air ducts and vents. After you vacuum, be sure to empty the bag outside as it may contain moth eggs or larvae.

3. Consider traps
Pheromone traps attract and trap adult male webbing clothes moths (though not casemaking moths)Traps won’t control a population as it takes only one male moth to mate with all the females, but they can be a good alert system.

4. Battle humidity
The greater the humidity level in your home, the more insects can survive in it, so consider running a dehumidifier where clothes or linens are stored.

5. Store clean garments in airtight containers
Thoroughly clean your garments before putting them away in airtight containers for the season. Plastic bags should seal properly and storage containers should have tight-fitting lids. 

6. Consider using mothballs
Mothballs contain paradichlorobenzene (PBD) and napthalene crystals that let off toxic vapours. However, for protecting items of high value, mothballs may be a good idea providing they’re used in airtight containers and you wash the items they’re stored with before using them.

7. Don’t rely on cedar or lavender
While cedar oil can kill young larvae, it may not be effective with older ones, and although herbal oils (such as lavender) are touted as repellents, little is known about their effectiveness.

When to call a pest control company
The decision about whether and when to call in a pest management company will likely depend on your circumstances, but professionals are more experienced in treating infestations in larger rugs and carpets as well as sofas and other furniture.