Last month a friend invited me to lunch at the Garrick Club. As an impoverished writer, I don’t get many offers like this, so the week before, in a state of anticipation, I took my good suit out of the cupboard to check it wasn’t too rumpled. To my horror there were two holes the size of a five-pence piece in the trousers. Moths! I tore through my wardrobe and found web-like trails all over my coats, suits and sweaters. ‘No!’ I cried and shook my fist at the heavens.
This year we’ve enjoyed the warmest winter since the 17th century, so you may not have been snuggled up in your woollens. But something else almost certainly has been. Mild weather is perfect for Tineola bisselliella, the clothes moth. Insect experts are warning of an unprecedented epidemic.
Whatever the weather, central heating and the ever-improving quality of home insulation has made the past 30 years a golden age for the moth. They flutter inside, mate and look for a warm place to lay eggs. Thanks to your radiators, your home is full of them. Over a three-week period, the female lays around 40 eggs before dying. These hatch into tiny larvae, which then feast for up to two years on your clothes before turning into moths. Then the whole process starts again.
In the age of smartphones and self-parking cars, you’d think science would have an effective way to deal with this problem. One brutal-sounding solution is the Pheromone Destruction System, which the Natural History Museum used last year to protect its stuffed animal collection. This consists of a system of traps filled with the love chemical given off by female moths. The smell is irresistible to male moths, which fly in and become coated in it. On emerging, they try to mate with each other rather than females.
Mothballs are a more traditional remedy — as are camphor wood, bay leaves, cloves, lavender and conkers. But all target mature moths, not the clothes-munching larvae.
If you find larvae, you’re in trouble. You must clean everything and vacuum thoroughly. I did this last week and kept expecting to find a queen moth as big as a giant rat. (I didn’t.) Then you must wash everything on as hot a setting as the fabric can stand. Delicate items must be dry-cleaned or put in the freezer for three days to kill the eggs and larvae. Then you have to spray your cupboards down with insecticide, stuff your clothes full of moth repellents and put your most valuable garments in sealed bags.
Even all that might not be enough. The only way to avoid moths is eternal vigilance. Moths are filthy blighters. They love sweaty, dirty clothes — and dust. Some attribute the current ‘moth invasion’ to the fact that we don’t clean as thoroughly as we used to. In most middle-class households today, both parents work and don’t have the time to clean as thoroughly as Victorian servants would have. Furthermore, powerful insecticides that would previously have kept moth numbers down — such as DDT — are now banned.
But fashion is also to blame. Moth larvae are particularly drawn to protein-rich fibres such as silk, which they can digest more easily. They’re little fabric snobs, turning up their noses at polyester. You could take a moth infestation as a compliment on your taste.
Our little flat is full of old Persian carpets inherited from various family members. My wife, who dresses mainly in hand-me-down cashmere, is getting twitchy. Every time she sees a moth she shouts ‘There’s a moth, Henry — kill it before it eats my favourite scarf!’ Moths don’t just eat clothes, they eat memories. My savaged suit, bought from Cordings of Piccadilly, is the one I was married in. My wife would be heartbroken if they attacked her silk wedding dress.
Moths are fiercely expensive. I took my suit along to the jolly man at the Invisible Mending Service in Marylebone, who said he’d fix my trousers for £66 a hole. I retreated and bought a kit online that promised to mend the holes invisibly with glue powder. Suffice to say the trousers are now ruined.
The day of my lunch date came around and I arrived at the Garrick feeling like Gordon Comstock, the moth-eaten hero of George Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying, visiting his rich publisher friend. Nervously I walked up to the bar on the first floor, ordered a drink and sat in the corner hoping no one would notice my trousers. Soon the room filled up with old buffers drinking champagne and martinis. Almost to a man, their suits were in far worse state that mine. Thanks to the moths, I fitted right in.
Henry Jeffreys is the author of a history in 12 alcoholic drinks, Empire of Booze. It will be published in November.