On the Spring Equinox, I have my own ritual to celebrate the turning of the seasons. I call it, affectionately, Moth Patrol and I do it at the beginning of each new season.
It’s the weekend that I go through most of my personal belongings in search of evidence of moths. This is what I do:
1) Take everything out of my closet and examine each piece for holes or traces of moths. I look for casings (the larvae cocoon left behind when it hatches into a moth), eggs, dead moths. I keep my eyes open for living moths, although rarely do I see them.
2) If I find any piece of clothing with evidence of moths on it, it goes into one of two piles: for the laundromat, or for drycleaning. After moth patrol, I take the piles to the appropriate place.
3) Spritz cedar essential oil (mixed with lavender or a little orange) on everything. There’s only anecdotal evidence that cedar is effective, and I feel intuitively that it’s useless, but it smells nice and makes me feel better, so it’s part of the ritual.
4) Empty drawers, searching for aforementioned signs (particularly my precious lingerie drawer, full of bras and silk teddys).
5) Vacuum. Everything. Every little crack and seam in my floorboards. Then empty vacuum bag (since eggs are hearty and can hatch inside).
In the beginning
I saw the first moth flutter through my living room on an autumn afternoon a year and a half ago. Then I saw another. I pulled a big wooly sweater out of my closet and found a hole in an odd place. Then I found the same thing on (my favourite) sweater dress. And when I pulled a pair of mittens (that I had knitted myself) out of my winter things sac and discovered huge holes, I knew I had a problem.
I read almost everything on the internet about moths, finding a lot of conflicting and possibly inaccurate information (Pest Control Canada was the best resource). I hung out on forums and read blog posts about others’ experiences. “Fabric pest detection requires a thorough knowledge of pest biology and behavior,” I learned in an article called How to Kill and Get Rid of Clothes Moths. The first thing I learned is that it’s not the moths themselves that eat holes in clothing – it’s their larvae, which feed on natural fibres (wool, but also cotton, silk, leather; pet hair, as well) for the keratin protein.
On the weekend before the 2011 Spring Equinox, I cleaned everything out of my single closet (a weird long closet with two doors, one in my bedroom and one in the living room, which when empty, allow it to function as a little tunnel between the rooms). I examined every piece of clothing for holes and signs of moths (casings, eggs, larvae excrement). And I found plenty. I was especially worried about my collection of mostly wool vintage dresses. I relieved to find them intact, although I did end up throwing out a bag full of infested clothes.
Getting to the source
It’s difficult to nail down exactly where the moths came from, but I suspect the culprit was a fur coat that I found on the street in my neighbourhood, brought home (potential Halloween costume!) and shoved in my closet. Without ever wearing it. There was something about the coat that gave me the creeps.
But the hanging clothes in my closet were the least of my concerns. A bigger issue was all the other stuff piled up in my closet: a shopping bag full of yarn and knitting supplies; a pillow with a knit cover, covered in cat hair; an old blanket; shoes, purses and shoulder bags.
I pulled everything out of the closest, wiped down all the big items (even non-fabrics, like some shelves made of wood, because moths can lay eggs in dustballs and clumps of animal hair) and vacuumed along the baseboards and the cracks in the hardwood floor. I threw away anything that felt dubious (including the fur coat and most of my knitting stash). I developed a finely tuned moth evidence radar.
Then I wiped down the empty closet space and spritzed it with a cedar essential oil blend (even if it is useless, it lifts my spirits and feels just a little bit aggressive). I checked my drawers and was relieved to find no evidence of moths. My shoe/coat shelving by my front door was vulnerable (moths love wool – hats, mitts, scarves – and leather – most of my shoes).
I vacuumed every pair of shoes and boots, threw away some elbow pads that I’d acquired during my brief roller derby career, and went through the dreaded wooly bits bag (where I’d found the original mittens with holes). I feared I’d find a festering clump of larvae in the bottom of the bag, but it was nothing like that. But everything in that bag was washed and dried thoroughly.
I let the closet sit empty for a few days, to air out; I hung some clothes on the back porch, where the minus 20 air would kill any remaining eggs and larvae. I packed the more high-risk woolens to the dry cleaners, and I washed many, many loads of clothes at my neighbourhood laundromat.
After the great unexpected spring clean, my house felt clean and contained. I could stop imagining unseen bugs chewing up my favourite dresses and sweaters. I felt like I’d been aired out, cleansed in some way. But I also knew that I couldn’t feel complacent. I had learned enough about moths to know that they’re cyclical, that I may not see any adults flying around and there may be eggs, which I’d missed, coming to fruition and larvae feasting on my clothing.
Cycles of disruption
All was well for a few months. Then, in mid-summer, I saw a moth. Then another. I went through drawers that I had examined four months earlier and thought were moth-free, only to find casings and other evidence. I did more laundry, cleaned more, spritzed more cedar oil and placed cedar shavings. I installed pheromone traps to catch male moths and try to break the cycle.
I decided that regular patrolling of my belongings was in order, and I chose the quarterly seasonal change as the time to do it. The Autumn Equinox was my first official moth patrol, in which I took on the deep clean and close inspection of my closet. Opening doors and shuffling clothes around awakens dormant moths and disturbs larvae and eggs.
The interesting thing is, in the four seasons that have passed since my first moth cleanse, I’ve felt more connected to the cycles of life. As a busy urbanite, I pay little attention to the changing seasons and cycles of nature. I have few ways to mark the changes, yet my seasonal Moth Patrol has given me a reason to pay attention.
Cleaning out my closets and monitoring the life cycles of moths is the closest I get to tilling the fields, planting seeds and watching crops grow. Of course, the symbolism of the closet isn’t lost on me. Each time I open the closet and trudge through my belongings, I feel like I am digging into the subterranean corners of my psyche. I feel like I’m confronting my own stuff that I’ve shoved away, to be dealt with later; it’s an opportunity to reflect on what pests are eating away at me and what unnecessary ideas and concepts are slowly germinating.
Lessons from the moths
The moths have also been an interesting practice of diligence. I can’t be complacent. I can’t assume that just because I haven’t seen a moth in six weeks, there are no larvae nibbling on my silk lingerie. What I’ve learned is that things may seem okay on the surface (e.g., there may be no moths around), there can still be something festering below.
The moths have helped me develop a strange balance of attachment/non-attachment with my material possessions. When I do my seasonal clean of my closet, I handle each piece of clothing, reminisce about the last time I wore it, think about favourite memories, and just appreciate the item for what it is. I take care of my clothing better than I ever have. Everything is obsessively laundered, my closet is neatly organized, I store my winter things in airtight containers, I’ve created efficient systems of prioritizing and wearing my clothes.
My cramped urban apartment feels refreshed and cleansed after Moth Patrol. Although the moth evidence was slight, I will go through the whole process again in three months, in parallel with the Summer Solstice. The cycle continues, and I play my small part in it.