Fighting wool moths
I was knitting by the wood stove, with the little dog on my lap and the big dog on my feet. Well, I was trying to knit. I was casting on, over and over, with some old yarn that kept breaking at around 95 stitches.
Old wool yarn will sometimes do that. Usually it’s because of moths or, more precisely, their larvae, which are adept at turning wool into sustenance.
I have a drawer full of old yarn, some that I bought years ago, some left over from other projects, some donated by people who had their own overflowing drawers of yarn. Years ago, I put some small blocks of cedar wood in the yarn drawer to ward off the wool-eating moths.
But sometimes instead of putting it in the drawer, I leave yarn in random knitting bags, which offers no protection. Every once in a while, I’ll pull out a skein and find spots where something has eaten through the strands. Usually it’s just on the outside of the skein, and after unravelling several layers, I come to the good, strong wool and can get going on my project.
We are a family of savers, always working off leftovers. We make soup out of yesterday’s chicken dinner and pudding out of yesterday’s rice. We make boxes and little shelves out of scrap lumber, heat the house with fallen trees, and adopt used and discarded pets. And I make mittens and hats out of old yarn.
The two dogs helping me knit were throwaways, both dumped on the road before they found their way to our house.
“I don’t think that one would place at Westminster, but she is a super-cutie,” my husband said of the little rat terrier flattened against my lap to avoid being poked by a knitting needle. The big dog, a yellow Lab mix, got up and climbed into my husband’s lap, all 60 pounds of her, because she thinks all dogs should sit on laps. And besides, my husband wasn’t even knitting.
The yarn broke again, and I kicked the little dog off my lap to better inspect the skein. I was trying to make a replacement hat for a friend who lost her favorite hat earlier this winter. I unwound about five layers into the skein, piling short and long strands of yarn around me, finally satisfied I had gotten all the chewed wool off.
Wool damage is generally done by the larvae of the so-called “clothes moth.” The moth itself does not eat — it’s one of those breed-and-die creatures — but the larvae can cause a lot of damage. There are mothballs, of course, to repel the moths, but I think of those as both stinky and toxic.
Mothballs, those white crystals or flakes, are a combination of deodorant and pesticide. They used to be made of naphthalene, but since that is flammable they are more likely to be made of para-dichlorobenzenes, a “chlorinated aromatic hydrocarbon compound,” according to the National Pesticide Information Center.
Mothballs aren’t considered particularly dangerous, unless your kids or pets accidentally eat them (call poison control if that happens). The smell is an indication that the substance is slowly morphing from a solid to a gas, and the crystals will eventually disappear on their own. If thrown away, they can be harmful to birds and small rodents.
There is reason to worry about too much exposure to mothballs. Rodale.com cites a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention linking high levels of dichlorobenzene exposure in girls to early menstruation, which in turn has been linked to breast cancer. Some people suffer headaches or nausea after breathing or touching mothballs, and the Environmental Protection Agency classifies dichlorobenzene as a possible human carcinogen. High doses can cause liver damage.
There are natural moth repellents you can use instead: rosemary, sandalwood and lavender offer protection, as does cedar. You can make herbal sachets to put in your yarn drawer or to hang with your winter coats, or put blocks of cedar in a drawer, box or closet.
Moths like moisture, sweat and dirt. So before storing woolens, always wash them and air them well. Storing them — once they are completely dry — in sealed containers helps to keep the moths out, preventing them from laying eggs in the first place. Bins with tight fitting lids, or those plastic zipper bags new blankets or sheets come in, work well.
If you think you already have larvae in cloth or yarn, you can freeze it for a few days. If you have a big freezer, you can use that. Or wait for a nice cold snap and put the clothing outside.
I’m going to try to protect the rest of my wool supply that way. The next time an extended cold spell is forecast, I’m putting all my yarn into pillowcases and setting it on the back porch for a few days. Then I’ll vacuum out the yarn drawer, to make sure there are no eggs waiting to hatch there. Moth eggs can hang around for years and still hatch out damaging larvae.
And maybe it’s time to replace my little blocks of cedar — they might not be aromatic anymore. I can reuse the old ones in the wood stove.
As for the lengths of yarn I pulled off that mothy skein, I have to admit I am saving them, too. I’m sure they’ll come in handy one day for stuffing pillows or toys. But first I’ll throw them in the freezer.
Margaret Hartley is the Gazette’s Sunday and features editor. Greenpoint appears in the Gazette’s print edition Sundays on the Environment page.
Have a question or a topic you’d like addressed on Greenpoint? Email email@example.com.