Where the Wild Things Are

When Moths Attack

A clothing and rug horror story.

May 23, 2019
Photo by Danie Drankwalter

We spend a lot of time at Food52 offering up ways to improve your home life, with inspiration for cooking, handsome home goods, and tips to keep it a beautiful, organized, welcoming sanctuary. We don’t spend a lot of time on the realities of home ownership. Well, buckle up—that’s about to change. In Where the Wild Things Are, Amanda Hesser introduces us to some of the critters with whom her family has not-so-willfully cohabited over the years, hoping to inspire you to share your own stories. Bring on the funny disasters. The rants. And the helpful solutions, too!

(This is the fourth in Amanda’s six-part series—check out her prior story here.)

After we spent several years ridding our apartment of rats and squirrels, our peace of mind didn’t last very long. My mother came to visit later that spring.

My mother is the tidiest person who ever lived. My best friend from childhood likes to say, “At Judy’s house, you do cry over spilled milk.” Judy, or the Judester as we call her (@judester10 on Instagram), had us polishing our brass beds and doing dishes from age six—activities I was less fond of then, but am grateful for now.

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Top Comment:
“ABSOLUTELY loved this piece - reminds me of Gerald Durrell's writings. Need to whip out my copy of 'Cooking for Mr. Latte' for a re read. Any chance this collection of essays will be published as a book? PS: Thanks for triggering an obsessive urgency to check up on my stash of heirloom silk sarees. Long overdue!”
— Panfusine

The Judester liked to clean late at night. Once we were all asleep, she’d get a cake in the oven and then whip out the vacuum cleaner. Her love of vacuuming and order unfortunately coincided with a trend for plush wall-to-wall carpeting. Once, when we went away, she made us all get in the station wagon in the garage so she could vacuum herself out of the house. Only in this way could she make sure the vacuum marks on the carpet were in straight lines.

I've come to deeply admire my mom's all-in approach to the home, which is such a big part of her character and values. Having a well-appointed and organized house was something she and my dad worked hard for, and she wasn't going to let dust or disorder sully what she saw as a reward. Because of this, it's hard to compete in home care with Judy.

My mom has also had her share of battles with animal intruders—bats flying around the bedrooms, a snake in the basement, mice, pantry moths—but on this front, she had to concede to me. Judy was empathetic to a point. She just didn’t understand why we’d chosen to live in a “dirty” city like New York.

A few years earlier, when she was moving from Pennsylvania to Florida, she had lent me a short fur coat my father had given her in the early 1980s, when his car business was booming. It was one of her few luxury belongings, and it was a style that had stood the test of time. I’m not much of a fur coat person, but I liked this one and wore it a few times. Since we’d had kids, though, our life afforded us fewer and fewer opportunities to go to events that required anything nicer than jeans, and I was thinking of returning it to her because it was just hanging in our closet, out of commission.

As parents do, my mother has a habit of inspecting how we live when she visits. She did her usual snooping and eyebrow raising as she moved from room to room. Then she emerged from the closet with her coat. It had been mostly eaten by moths; fur was falling from it like the paper at a ticker tape parade. When the Judester gets upset, she goes silent. The rest of the visit was as quiet as a tomb.

We had noticed a few moths here and there but hadn’t realized that they were clothing moths. And we were completely clueless about how widespread the damage was.

The closet with the fur coat contained all of our winter coats and blankets, too. The moths had also nested in our new wool living room rug, the boiled wool armchair cushions, and the vintage Moroccan rug in Tad’s study—and in our bedroom closets, on the opposite end of our apartment. Once again, we were surrounded. Moths are more pleasant than rodents in that they’re tiny, but this is also what makes them more savage. You can’t see your enemy, and your enemy has Champagne taste—so while you’re busy donning loose linen in the summer heat, the moths are busy ravaging all the cashmere they can find.

We lost wool blankets, most of our good sweaters, and even Tad’s wedding suit.

When you have a clothing moth problem, you’re gold to an exterminator. The upfront costs of fixing the problem are high—easily $1,000—but exterminators know moths are almost impossible to get rid of completely, so you’ll be a regular customer for years to come. Four years later, we still have regular moth checkups.

But while your money goes to the exterminator, most of the work of getting rid of the moths and safeguarding your apartment against future invasions is on you.

The carpets required special care, which first meant finding a company that would take on a nasty moth problem, then rolling up the carpets and having them taken away for a couple of weeks to be steam cleaned. This was another $1,000.

Our carpet, a moth's paradise. Photo by Amanda Hesser

Next we dry cleaned any clothing that required dry cleaning—ka-ching! $1,000!—to rid it of any nested moths and keep it out of the apartment until the extermination was complete. Any piece of fabric that didn’t require dry cleaning had to be dried for 30 minutes on high, then packed into plastic bags until our house was treated. This included throw pillows, stuffed animals, socks, blankets, dish towels, everything. We emptied our closets and drawers, said goodbye to anything that had been nibbled, and waited for the exterminator to do his magic.

Once the house was sprayed and moth traps set in every room, we reassembled our exploded home, and hoped it worked.

We still see the occasional moth, and when we do, we go rogue on it. Our exterminator promises us that a few moths are normal. But that’s what we thought the first time around.

I had my mother’s fur coat rehabilitated and cleaned and quietly returned it to her. We haven’t spoken about it since. That year for Christmas, she sent me a dozen lavender sachets—which are supposed to deter moths—to help.

Unfortunately, the smell of lavender still reminds me of dead rats.

Check back next week for part five of Amanda’s series.
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Amanda Hesser

Written by: Amanda Hesser

Before starting Food52 with Merrill, I was a food writer and editor at the New York Times. I've written several books, including "Cooking for Mr. Latte" and "The Essential New York Times Cookbook." I played myself in "Julie & Julia" -- hope you didn't blink, or you may have missed the scene! I live in Brooklyn with my husband, Tad, and twins, Walker and Addison.


M June 5, 2019
This is my fear, though I have never seen a moth where I now live, because I find tiny worms or their hard carcasses in drawers/dark corners, piles of forgotten clothes, anywhere things are stored.
Samantha May 28, 2019
I’m just now at the end of an 8 month battle of wills with PANTRY MOTHS! Not the same kind as Amanda’s, I know, but just as destructive and pernicious. At first they appeared one or two at a time, tiny, slow fliers and I thought of them almost as little fairies. Soon I began seeing them everywhere and I resented being invaded by these interlopers. I did what all red-blooded American girls do - I researched them on my iPhone. I found plenty of tips and tricks assuring me if I followed ALL the directions on ALL the websites these evil flying monsters would be but a memory and, yes, we’d all laugh about it someday. Liars. I decanted everything in my pantry into (expensive) glass containers only to find my bread, my AP flour, my packets of instant oatmeal already being enjoyed by the evil creatures. For months I cleaned egg pockets from my pantry, I put out lavender, bay leaves and the like, I bought so many moth traps I felt ignorant for not having bought stock in the company beforehand. This craziness went on for MONTHS - eight, to be exact. Finally I was prepared to admit defeat: I called the exterminator. I didn’t know what to expect: would I have to pack clothes and items for my pup Kaci to stay away for a few days, would I have to wash every single item in the kitchen, would there be several applications to ensure the creatures were truly gone, and how many thousands of dollars would this cost? Kaci and I couldn’t be in the house for a couple of hours, I didn’t have to deep clean, one application did the deed and it cost $65 to restore bliss in my household because I’ve not seen another since. I chased and swatted moths through my house for 8 months and all it would have cost was two hours and $65. I’ve placed Jacob the Bug Man on speed dial.
Amanda H. May 31, 2019
So glad they're gone!
M June 5, 2019
Those traps are a joke. The only thing that worked for me was dumping everything in the pantry and getting impenetrable containers for every last thing.
Mary W. May 27, 2019
Oooooooohhhh noooooooo not Tad’s wedding suit!
Amanda H. May 27, 2019
I know, it was so sad! It was a dark navy windowpane fabric, very handsome. The moths loved it.
Bevi May 24, 2019
I make a mixture of dried lavender, dried cedar bark shavings, and a touch of peppermint oil that I place in small muslin bags. I string them over clothes hangers and stuff them in drawers. Not sure if they work, but there has not been a moth infestation since I started this ritual. You can order everything you need for this hippie-esque project from the Atlantic Spice Company. https://www.atlanticspice.com/

Amanda H. May 24, 2019
Thanks for sharing this tip!
Margaret May 24, 2019
I will never forget the look of joy on our dry cleaner’s face when i brought in all of my work clothes to get rid of carpet beetles. So expensive, I could have just walked in with a bag of cash and handed it over.
Amanda H. May 24, 2019
witloof May 23, 2019
I do not own a single piece of wool clothing anymore! Or any wool rugs!
Amanda H. May 24, 2019
Sorry -- moths, ugh!
dymnyno May 23, 2019
Just this week I retrieved a favorite Moroccan rug from the rug repair shop. It is now about 14 inches shorter because the moths quietly feasted on the part that was under the couch. I keep a can of moth spray at the ready now.
Amanda H. May 23, 2019
I didn’t know moth spray existed! Sorry about your rug. :(
LL May 23, 2019
Thanks for sharing your war with closet moths with your trademark humor. I'm in the midst of my own and have not found my funny bone with it -- till now. Hopefully I'll keep giggling as I attempt to rid my roof garden of an army of snail slugs. Ah, Spring.
Amanda H. May 23, 2019
Stay strong! You'll laugh once it's all over.
Panfusine May 23, 2019
ABSOLUTELY loved this piece - reminds me of Gerald Durrell's writings. Need to whip out my copy of 'Cooking for Mr. Latte' for a re read. Any chance this collection of essays will be published as a book?
PS: Thanks for triggering an obsessive urgency to check up on my stash of heirloom silk sarees. Long overdue!
Amanda H. May 23, 2019
Thanks Panfusine! No plans for a book; just getting it off my chest here. :) Hope your silk sarees are safe and sound!