Avid Moths Invade My Humble Abode: A Life’s Yarn Unraveled

On a recent cold and bleak Sunday afternoon—when by natural right I should have been curled up under a blanket at home—I instead found myself in the anxiety-provoking, brightly lit aisles of the Container Store on Sixth Avenue. It’s not that I can’t understand the allure of the store (though the cheery sign—“Life’s More Fun When You’re Organized!”—was doing little to improve my mood). The Container Store is more than a place to buy colorful pants hangers and stainless-steel toilet brushes. It’s a place to buy—or at least imagine—a new life. A life where pasta, coffee, pretzels and cat food are decanted into cool glass jars; where bills aren’t thrown into a wooden box with chopsticks, menus and matches; where back issues of magazines will never be found stacked in unmanageable piles, but either thrown away or stored in an attractive (and functional!) bin. A life where stainless-steel pots remain stainless, there are no mysteriously crowded corners under the bed, and a lifetime of photos is filed chronologically in prettily colored boxes, with clearly printed labels, then put away on some dust-free minimalist shelf (lined with sweet-smelling paper printed with pineapples or ducks).

Alas, this life will never be mine. While I’ve regularly toggled between total despair and grudging acceptance of my messy packrat existence, in the last few weeks I found that I had to face the consequences—for, while participating in the great New Yorker’s tradition of switching my wardrobe over from summer to fall, I discovered that an unseen coup had taken place in my bedroom closet. There had been an infestation of moths, an army of them that pillaged and conquered. The carnage left behind was my sweaters.

To say I’m a fan of sweater weather is a bit of an understatement. When the weather drops below a certain point, all half-hearted attempts to look even remotely fashionable are lost and I return to my college uniform: jeans, knee-high socks, boots and a heavy sweater. Maybe it’s poor blood circulation that makes me chilly in any weather under 66 degrees, maybe it’s laziness, but I find ducking my chin into a wooly turtleneck or pulling oversized sleeves down over my thumbs the ultimate comfort. The result is that I’ve accumulated what most would consider an excessive number of sweaters.

So, needless to say, it was with abject horror that I pulled sweater after sweater out of the pile at the bottom of my closet and (clearly not cedar) trunk at the beginning of this season, only to find light shining through numerous holes. Not a couple of little holes down by the hems or bottom of the sleeves, the kind you could dismiss as the consequence of a stray nail or hook, but giant holes. As I assessed the damage, the questions began. For starters, where were all these suckers? While I’m a mess in the clothing-and-clutter department (sometimes it does seem important to keep the matches from the restaurant I went to on a first date in 1998), my kitchen and bathroom have always been reasonably hygienic, and in the four years I’ve lived in my teeny West Village one-bedroom, I rarely see anything more ominous than the occasional summer fly. Secondly, do moths naturally have expensive taste? I couldn’t help but notice that the more expensive cashmeres and fancy wool items were particularly picked over (fact: moths love J. Crew), while my less precious (read: cheap) items were spared.

As we do with most of life’s problems these days, I turned to Google. After I input the search terms “moths,” “clothes” and “why,” the information tumbled in. The entomology department at the University of Kentucky informed me that clothes moths are small and buff-colored, and that they’re seldom seen because they avoid light. O.K., good, that made sense. I learned about the history of the moth, its Latin name, and looked at some fairly revolting pictures. I learned their life cycle and egg-laying patterns. But then I discovered a sentence to stop the heart; “Clothes moth adults do not feed so they cause no injury to fabrics. However, the adults produce eggs which hatch into the fabric-eating larvae.” Blech! Why it is so much more repulsive to know that it was fabric-eating larvae destroying my clothes rather than hungry little buff-colored moths, I don’t know. But it was. A feeling of panic set in. Had my entire bedroom become one giant moth-egg-laying, fabric-eating wasteland?

Thoroughly clean garments before storage,” suggested Pest Control Canada. “Clothes moths are attracted to articles soiled by food, beverages, perspiration, and urine, rather than the clean wool itself.” While I was reasonably sure there was no pee on any of my sweaters, I certainly hadn’t dry-cleaned them before putting them away (I hate the way sweaters smell and feel post-dry-cleaning, and my inner cheapskate really hates spending $3.50 a sweater; I usually choose the ol’ Woolite-in-the-sink method). Suddenly I felt grubby and dirty, like Pigpen from Peanuts. After all, it doesn’t matter if you shower twice a day and have an obsession with bath products if you have insects laying eggs in your closet.

Looking at my pile of ruined clothes, I felt a sense of impending loss, a wave of sentimentality. I have at least two sweaters from my senior year of high school (1993) that I don’t wear out of the house but like to have around, just ’cause. There’s the dark gray wooly sweater I wore throughout my trip to Ireland seven years ago; the red hand-knit cardigan I bought for a dollar at a street fair; the green pullover I wore on a romantic apple-picking adventure last autumn; and so on. I didn’t think I could give them up, holes or no. I’d spend the money to dry-clean them all and wear them on Sunday afternoons, preferably with a heavy shirt underneath.

“Maybe you should think of this as a good thing,” my best friend from college (who’d lived with me and my sweaters for years) gently suggested. “This could be an excuse to get rid of everything and start fresh.” Fresh—I liked the sound of that word. I began to imagine a sparse closet where I’d have just four or five good sweaters, hung on padded silk hangers. I could become one of those women that talk about buying just “a couple of really good pieces” per season. I could line my drawers with scented paper and hang lavender and cedar balls from hangers, like they do in Real Simple magazine. I resolved to do it: I’d throw everything out—every stained T-shirt, nightshirt and mismatched sock. I would start again!

In the end, I donated two big piles of clothes to a local charity, threw out a garbage bag full of sweaters, and sent a few truly cherished items to the dry cleaner. I have started lurking around J. Crew. At the Container Store, I grimly picked up a variety of cedar products and an ugly utilitarian bin for future storage. In the aisle beside me, a nattily dressed man sighed heavily. “It’s just horrible, isn’t it?” he asked as he grabbed some scented mothballs. We exchanged commiserating looks before I headed off to the peppy cashiers, where I was checked out with Germanic efficiency.