The paper’s correspondent is disconsolate after finding out that his beloved Fair Isle pullover has been turned into a string vest by the impertinent fabric-munchers.

I got my Fair Isle pullover out of the back of the wardrobe the other day and nearly burst into tears. I had bought this old favourite of mine a good few years ago on Fair Isle itself.

Now it resembled a string vest, more holes than jumper. The moths had got it!


Fair Isle is set in the ocean between Orkney and Shetland. The distinctive striped pattern of the knitwear reflects the beauty of the place itself.

fair isle by air 2

I brought my sleeveless jumper from an 80-year-old island woman who raises her own sheep, spins her own wool and dyes it using natural colours derived from heather, lichen, berries and other plants. She knits the yarn by hand.

She explained that each family has its own distinctive striped pattern and the reason is pretty macabre. If a fisher was lost overboard much their flesh would haved been consumed by fish and other sea creatures, however, their body could be still be identified from their distinctive jumper.

Many fishing communities, like those of Aran, Jersey, Guernsey and some Brittany ports have distinctive woollen garments for similar reasons.


But it wasn’t denizens of the deep that had reduced my jumper to a lacy ruin of its previous self, it was clothes moths, more specifically the common clothes moth or webbing clothes moth (Tineola bisselliella).


This long-term, native pest has been joined by another clothes eating beast, the pale-backed clothes moth (Monopis crocicapitella) in recent years.

A plague of both of these tiny moths is sweeping through the nation’s wardrobes. They feed on natural fibres such as wool, cashmere, sheepskin and fur and are busy eating through favourite jumpers and cardigans in millions of homes in Britain including mine.

These clothes moths are not like other moths — which are attracted to light — they prefer dark and warm habitats, like the bottom of a chest of drawers or the back of a wardrobe.

The hot and humid summer of 2016 — which saw the highest September temperature since 1911 — meant the moths were even more active and numerous than normal.

It is only when temperatures start to fall and people search out their winter sweaters that they find that their best woollen jumpers are full of holes.

After the adult moth has laid her eggs on the threads of clothes, the larvae hatch out at anywhere between four and 21 days, depending on the temperature, and are only about 1mm long and will start to spin a small, silken tube, using some of the fibres of the fabric they are eating.

When moths strike, it’s vital to move fast. Experts suggest the first step is to deep clean your wardrobe. Wash or dry-clean clothes, then vacuum and wipe drawers and shelves.

Putting lavender bags, eucalyptus, bay leaves, cinnamon sticks and cloves inside wardrobe drawers are among some traditional folk remedies for moth.

Some swear by fresh conkers. As they dry out they produce a gas which works as a mild insecticide killing both moths and larvae.

Keeping valuable clothing in airtight garment bags can help.

If items do get infested put them in a bag and then into a freezer to kill the eggs.

Washing clothes at high temperatures is effective, but this is not an option with delicate natural fibres such as my pure wool Fair Isle jumper.

Organisations such as the National Trust and English Heritage have thousands of natural fibre items in their properties — some are priceless — now plagues of clothes moths are threatening these art objects too.

English Heritage with 500,000 artefacts has decided to declare war on the moth. The number of clothes moths caught on their traps has doubled in the past five years — it is now handing out free sticky clothes moth traps at all its sites for visitors to take away and use at home.

Climate change is certainly to blame, with milder winters proving a boon for pests and vermin of all sorts. The growing popularity of natural fibre clothing is also a factor.

Finally, and this fact makes environmentalists like me scratch our beards, recent bans on heavy duty insecticides have helped the moths.

Moth balls are still available but very dangerous and not very effective.


There are more than 2,500 kinds of moths in Britain and the number increases every year as invasive species take up residence here.

However, only two tiny species eat fabrics. Perhaps that is a good thing because one of the latest moths to be spotted in Britain is the 10cm wingspan convolvulus hawk-moth from southern Europe.


It is one of the largest moths in Europe and drinks nectar from tobacco plant flowers using its 7.5cm proboscis or hollow tongue.

Every year, several hundred of these are spotted and numbers are believed to be increasing, with some seen as far north as North Yorkshire and Shetland.

Around 40 species of migrant moths have appeared in Britain for the first time in the last 15 years with a small number becoming established, such as the black-spotted chestnut.

2015-12-18 11.19.59

Others, long-considered occasional migrants, have now also become established British residents. They include the Tree-lichen Beauty, Oak Rustic, Sombre Brocade, Blair’s Mocha, Flame Brocade and Clifden Nonpareil.

It is a boozy old hobby studying moths as they can be attracted by hanging out ropes soaked in wine or by painting a mixture of sugar and beer onto a tree trunk.

We need to know more about them. Recent research has shown that two thirds of common larger moth species are declining and the total population in Britain has fallen by nearly half since the late 1960s.

Find out how you can help at www.mothscount.org

This article first appeared in the Morning Star 28 April 2017.


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