For days at the tail end of the Obama administration, I haunted my neighborhood thrift store, casing the free pile and the clothing racks for anything pink. I took it all–shrunken cable-knit cotton pullovers, flowery girls’ sweatshirts, a well-worn cardigan in gorgeous lilac wool, its simple design and roomy size rendering it perfect for deconstruction and rebirth.
Drawn to my sewing machine, I used my basic skills to stitch these discarded garments into hopeful, or at least cathartic, pink ‘pussyhats’ for the 2017 Women’s March, and passed them out to anyone who would take one. Forty or so of these hats joined a river of pink flowing toward Vermont’s capital on January 22; the interstate highway became a parking lot as over 15,000 people converged on Montpelier. Heads encased in repurposed threads, wrapped in fibers perfectly evolved for strength and warmth, we emerged all together, metamorphosing to flutter haltingly toward some uncertain future.
As spring emerged from that winter’s cocoon, I became aware of a distinctive shift in my house. Something new had made a home here. My first reaction to finding several oblong, delicately swollen tubes in my sock drawer was wonder. These tiny structures spun of fine fibers were beautiful, like tree buds. They lay alongside dark brown, perfectly pocked spheres resembling ancient pollen grains cored from a bog, clearly distinct from flecks of dirt or dust. Curious about these newfound works of some tiny craftsman, I continued exploring. I rifled through the rack in my closet — when was the last time I had worn that silk dress or my grandmother’s mink coat? Surely not in this decade. From those long-dead minks’ lustrous pelts, a tiny pale insect emerged, like a petal caught in a breeze. Wonder mutated into panic.
I compiled a dossier on my awe-inspiring, though not-entirely-welcome housemates. Casemaking clothes moth (Tinea pellionella) larvae consume the protein keratin, found only in animal skins and their derivatives – feathers, wool, silk, hair, and leather. These larvae spin tiny, cigar-shaped cocoons, about ⅜ of an inch long, retaining the color of the fiber they’ve digested. They can spend as little as a month and as long as two and a half years foraging and spinning their cases, in some cases molting, or shedding their soft exoskeletons, up to 45 times. Temperature and food govern their metabolisms — their life cycles accelerate in warmer climates and summer months, and vice versa. A litter of eggs hatches from a toothpaste-y looking smear (laid, for example, on a folded thrift store sweater) at the same time and each larva has similar access to the same food, so the larvae tend to mature and pupate as a cohort, emerging together as adults.
Those discarded cases and frass in my sock drawer were signs of transformation. Adult clothes moths are weak fliers and tiny, eating nothing during their final life stage. They don’t seem fleshy, but rather constructed of fiber and powder and dimness themselves, with an uncanny ability to disappear in midair, in the center of a room.
As realization dawned that these tiny insects were inhabiting far-flung corners of my home, I periodically found myself standing as still as I could, trying to detect the flutter of a tiny wing or the telltale isosceles triangle lurking on a wall. I trained my eye to distinguish their awkward flights into the shadows from the light-seeking, stronger flights of the outdoor moth fauna that sometimes ventured inside. Yet often, the clothes moths I knew were there — had just seen! — seemed to render themselves invisible, leaving me powerless and exasperated at my failed peripheral vision.
The fliers I see are almost all male, following chemical pheromone trails emitted by females waiting in dark, soft corners and folds. These airborne males are taking risks (me and my subpar spatial perception) to expose themselves and cross unfamiliar terrain. Meanwhile, their more successful counterparts are already in the drawer, simply crawling down a collar or across a sleeve to meet their mate. Once they mate, eggs safely laid on a delectable bit of forgotten fiber, the parents die.
Clothes moths drummed their faint but steady wingbeats through the ensuing years. I suspect they arrived on that beautiful lilac cardigan that made so many pussyhats, explaining some of the worn patches on the fuzzy wool nap. Friends told me that they were probably here to stay, unless I wanted to mount a dramatic push to wash every single textile in my house (I didn’t).
I developed a strategy involving woollens in ziplock bags, expensive European pheromone-coated cardboard hanging in closets, once-worn clothes kept out of drawers until washed, all anchored by the bulwark of an antique cedar chest, which provided ultimate sanctuary for vulnerable natural fibers. I took to periodic bouts of obsessive vacuuming, spraying cedar oil and vinegar on shelves, slow-roasting wool toys and clothing in my oven. In summer, I gratefully anticipated heat waves that could heat my car’s trunk to moth-broiling temperatures, and stuffed it with bags of bedding.
Our relationship, the moths’ and mine, centered on our mutual yet conflicting desires for the same resources, and we each used our distinctive powers to gain an edge — my hulking size, intel gained from internet as well as actual stalking, and access to a global marketplace containing cedar oil and German cardboard; their surreptitiousness, patience, and exquisite powers of keratin discernment. Despite my wish to see them gone, I felt, sometimes, a strange kinship with these aggravatingly successful creatures, as I began seeing and inhabiting my home through their epidermally-focused senses. I became intensely attuned to animal fibers, mentally mapping my space with woolen landmarks. ‘Mothish’ things began to draw me: keratin, darkness, dusty stagnant crevices, the need to chew and spin and mate.
It’s not entirely clear to me why clothing moths exist. Though larvae feed on proteins associated with animal skins, they thrive only when these external coverings, once providing protection and personality to a living creature, are removed from the animals that made them, tucked away, forgotten, left in the dark. The classic moth habitats, both uncovered in my research and discovered in my home, are patches of dense wool rug beneath a heavy piece of furniture pushed against a wall, or a forgotten knitted mitten, its mate long lost, at the bottom of a box in the basement. Clothes moths seem to have coevolved to some degree with humans, exploiting not just our need to warm our pathetically furless bodies, but also our tendency to accumulate extra garments and store them out of sight.
Two years into my moth cohabitation, I visited a coworker’s home, a stately place that feels more Downton Abbey than Bennington. It was built nearly 200 years ago, at the height of Vermont’s Merino sheep craze. Donald’s wife Margaret raises sheep, creates dyes and spins wool. While showing me her latest projects, she mentioned that she had recently noticed a moth flying out of one of her wool bags. Eager to be helpful, I jumped in ready to share my accumulated storehouse of knowledge, tips, and experience with Tinea pellionela. I couldn’t imagine the work it took to produce wool and then see that get eaten away. Smiling, she said she had read that moths don’t like sunshine, so she had simply decided to keep her wool bag on the windowsill.
Margaret’s approach bent my moth mindset forward. I had felt like I always had to be on guard to keep my home from becoming a moth haven. Just one errant wool sock unsealed in a drawer of plant fibers and synthetics could spawn an entire eclipse of moths! At certain crazed moments, I had pondered tossing everything but a tiny basic wardrobe, never storing anything long enough for a moth to alight.
But if dark, stagnant corners and discarded, forgotten layers can breed lives of their own, I’m drawn to the idea that a bit of sunshine and transparency can help me coexist fully in the changing ecosystem of my own home. The starker the boundary I try to place between my own life and the rest of the living, chewing, reproducing, case-spinning world, the more intense the frustration and the more deep the self-delusion.
For now, the moths and I continue our dance of shelter and sustenance, destruction and retreat, guided by our own prerogatives. My sock drawer is still filled with ziplock bags and the moths still show up in surprising new places every couple of months, keeping things interesting. They are here to stay and so am I, trailing cedar vapors and pheromones in our wake.
Image: “20140605_211638_moth_merged” by Dann Thombs, licensed under CC 2.0.