Whereas some collect art, or wine, or watches, I collect clothes. A storage unit larger than my first flat in London — and a second bedroom that used to be the master — houses roughly 3,000 items, including Christian Lacroix haute couture ball gowns, a wasp-waisted John Galliano suit once worn by Madonna and many Vivienne Westwood corsets, most unworn. So for many years the threat of moth has filled me with dread. I like calling it “moth” rather than “moths” because it sounds both vaguely 19th century, and also more manageable. Moth is a singular intruder, easily vanquished. If I find a moth, I will try to assume it is the only one, to prevent me from descending into a re-enactment of that scene in Mommie Dearest where Faye Dunaway plasters a bathroom with soap powder, only repeated with insecticide.
First the facts: damage is caused by the larvae of the common clothes moth, not the actual adult moths — although those are what you see first. Moth larvae feed on keratin — a protein found in natural fibres, especially wool, cashmere and feathers. I’ve had friends ask me about moth prevention for taxidermy — yes, those can get hit, as can carpets. The addition of natural oils or liquids — spillages from food, sweat — can attract the creatures more readily. Even cotton isn’t immune.
Adult moths are repelled by strong aromas, hence the traditional use of cedar, lavender and pungent naphthalene as deterrents. I have a friend who swears by the scented terracotta pomegranates from Santa Maria Novella, which are prettier and smell nicer. I have an arsenal of the above, including the much-maligned mothball, which personally I don’t mind but many find highly objectionable, not least because naphthalene can be toxic when ingested and inhaled at certain levels.
The best tool I’ve found is the Zero In Demi-Diamond (£4.99, johnlewis.com) — an overly fancy name for a plastic pyramid containing a pheromone strip, which attracts moths more than egg mayonnaise spilled down a sweaty cashmere cardigan. I have a few dozen of these. Beware if you leave a window open: it draws moths better than any flame, and you may easily convince yourself you have an uncontrollable infestation. The priceless haute couture archives of the Musée Yves Saint Laurent Paris use them too — so they must be good. As with lavender sachets, mothballs and cedar, they should be replaced every three months (cedar wood has the benefit that a sanding will reactivate the fragrance). I order mine in bulk from eBay and Amazon, and acid-free tissue paper from a retail supplier named Caraselle (£3.99 for 25 sheets, caraselledirect.com). This is an industrial-scale operation.
In my wardrobe-cum-stockroom, certain systems and solutions have fallen into place over time. Garments are individually covered, mostly with plastic, either wrapped in acid-free tissue paper and boxed, or hanging in clothes covers. Protective and transparent, the latter are used in many “working archives” such as those of the fashion house Alexander McQueen, where garments need to be seen. It also means that if pests are present, they are isolated to single garments. Most archives keep garments individually covered — London’s Victoria and Albert Museum sheaths its garments in Tyvek, a paper-like polyethylene material that is breathable and acid-free. Acid seems like something that would concern only museums: yet I know a former model who unpacked her haute couture wedding dress to find that the fashion house’s tissue had, over a decade, discoloured the silk to a delicate but distinct yellow.
As an unofficial expert, I figured it paid to speak to an official one: Sonnet Stanfill is the curator of 20th century and contemporary fashion at the V&A, whose textile and fashion collection includes more than 75,000 items. The management of this is no mean feat and the V&A takes no chances: every textile item, upon entry to the museum as either acquisition or loan, is subjected to temperatures of -30C for 72 hours, “a strong guarantee to kill eggs, larvae and adults”, Stanfill says. “Sometimes you can’t see the pests — they may be embedded in the seams.”
Acid-free tissue — used by the mile in the V&A — not only protects clothes but can indicate moth activity: droppings of the larvae will be the same colour as any fabric they have consumed, leaving specks of colour across the tissue. Extreme cold or warmth kills moth larvae: heat is sometimes used on larger items such as furniture — difficult to cram into the chest freezers that even the V&A use — or for entire rails of clothes, brought into a chamber and slowly heated to 48C-55C to prevent temperature damage. In London, the company Thermo Lignum undertakes this for museums, including the V&A, the Tate and the British Museum, as well as private clients.
If deterrents haven’t worked, the next best thing is eradication and repair. The second is probably simpler: the British Invisible Mending Service, located in London’s Marylebone, can seamlessly weave fabrics to mask holes caused by moths, or more regular wear and tear. Dry cleaning is a guaranteed way to kill larvae: the best in the capital, in my opinion, is Five Star in Islington, whose list of celebrity clients have included Stephen Fry and Cherie Blair. Freezing, however, can be as simple as bundling up a sweater in a plastic bag and leaving it next to the peas, no specific equipment required. Here, an admission of defeat: I have a chewed-up Prada cashmere sweater in there right now. Even with all my measures, a moth can get through. But I like to think it’s just the one.
Follow @financialtimesfashion on Instagram to find out about our latest stories first
Listen to our podcast, Culture Call, where FT editors and special guests discuss life and art in the time of coronavirus. Subscribe on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you listen