Wardrobes beware

Clothes-eating moths are back - and they're hungry

There has been an explosion in the moth population in the past couple of years. This is due in part to our mild winters, but also because people aren't as good at looking after their clothes anymore - just chucking them about and expecting them to fend for themselves. Moths are associated with older people, times long gone and attics. But that's a moth myth. Moths are very much alive and eating through fibres (camel cashmere is preferred) in the wardrobes of pretty young things with no lofts left to convert.

It's not the big moths you need fear, scary though they can be with their huge, velvet wings and papery bodies. Big moths aren't interested in your clothes, other than to try to mate with a particularly large pattern. There are three moths known to be clothes moths, but the most common is the webbing moth. These are rather chic, small, fluttery and caramel in colour. If these moths can't get to your clothes, they will nest and lay almost anywhere. They will hunt out organic matter such as natural bristle hairbrushes, or cracks in the sofa where bits of skin, hair or nail clippings have lodged. It's the larva, or caterpillar, that does the damage; and clothes moths are one of the few organisms that can deal with keratin - a very strong, hard-to-digest protein found in nails and hair. So, you know they're pretty special, if annoying.

Washing clothes before putting them away in sealed plastic bags helps, as even the tiniest bit of food or body fluid will provide a feast for a moth. In Italy we used conkers to keep them at bay, but I can't - with any reliability - say it works. Because the eggs are almost impossible to detect, if you suspect something is contaminated you need to freeze it for several days, at 60 degrees. Not easy unless you know a museum curator who has access to such equipment. You can try using a domestic freezer though; it's better than nothing. You can get foul smelling mothballs, but since the odour permeates your entire wardrobe, I think of them as a real last resort.

Natural alternatives include lavender and cedarwood. Lakeland (www.lakeland.co.uk) has some rather nice cedarwood blocks that you can sand and re-energise with essential oil of cedarwood (Neal's Yard - www.nealsyardremedies. co.uk - sells it). Institutions that need to house valuable garments do so in cedar-lined wardrobes - but for most of us, this is an unaffordable luxury.

Of course, if I did have lots of money I would actually hire a private valeting company such as Total Wardrobe Care (www. totalwardrobecare.co.uk). A laundry mistress - hello! - comes to collect, clean and store your out-of- season clothes for you (central London only).

In the meantime, however, it has the most wonderful, but not cheap (from £15 each) garm ent bags in 100 per cent cotton. A more affor dable £5 buys anti-moth sach ets which encourage moths to fly by into next door's wardrobe instead.

Annalisa Barbieri was in fashion PR for five years before going to the Observer to be fashion assistant. She has worked for the Evening Standard and the Times and was one of the fashion editors on the Independent on Sunday for five years, where she wrote the Dear Annie column. She was fishing correspondent of the Independent from 1997-2004.

This article first appeared in the 12 November 2007 issue of the New Statesman, 3 easy steps to save the planet