The name “fabric and paper pest” describes their damage, even though this group of insects naturally occurs outdoors. They are attracted indoors by a food source, or can be transported as eggs, larvae, pupae or adults on items made from animal fibers such as rugs, clothing, and art.
The insects that feed upon and damage fabric and paper include certain beetles and moths. We might see the adults, but it’s the immature stages that cause damage. Just as often, we do not see the insects at all, but only the holes left behind.
Why Should I Worry About Fabric Pests?
Fabric pests can significantly damage fiber products such as wool rugs, clothing, and taxidermy mounts. They are cryptic insects, meaning that they feed in hard-to-see places like rugs beneath furniture (where it’s dark and protected) or under folds and pleats of clothing or fabric.
Fabric-feeding insects get their nutrition from a protein called keratin, a component of fibers and found in hair and fur, fingernails and horns. Indoors, rugs and clothing made from animal fibers are concentrated sources of keratin, and very attractive to these insects. Other food sources for fabric pests are less obvious, such as a dead rodent carcass (hair, nails) or collections of human hair in an undisturbed corner. Fabric pests are naturally occurring outdoors, and can make their way in through windows and doors, or accidentally brought indoors on improperly stored, infested items.
Note: Fabric pests do not feed on all types of clothes. For example, items made of plant fibers (cotton) are not attractive to fabric pests unless they are heavily soiled. There are numerous reasons for holes to appear in non-animal fiber clothes, from missing threads to catching items on seatbelt buckles or pressing pant buttons against a counter top while cooking - strange, but true. Consider alternative explanations for holes found in materials not made of animal fibers.
The greatest challenge is identifying the source. Homeowners should look through closets and drawers, under furniture, and at the edges of wool carpets to find damage and larval stages of the pest insect. (Remember, although people often see the adult life stages, the larval stage is the one that does the damage.) Feeding damage may look like holes or as if fibers were cut at their base.
Pheromone traps are available to monitor for moths after an infestation. These traps capture only males, an early sign of moth activity. Some trap lures (moth pheromones) may attract more than the target pest, so identification is important. For example, too many traps in a basement might attract outdoor species such as the brown dotted moth.
Once infested items have been identified, they should be isolated in a tightly sealed plastic bag and cleaned promptly. This often involves taking silk, wool, or leather items to a professional dry cleaner, but some susceptible items can go through the regular wash cycle.
Read all clothing label instructions to make sure the item can also be tumble-dried at a temperature of 122 degrees Fahrenheit for at least 5 minutes (or lower temperatures for longer amounts of time). Drying is the lethal part of the process - washing alone does not guarantee that all insects will be removed or killed.
Avoid reinfestation of recently cleaned items by storing in a tightly sealed container, or space-saving bags in which the air is removed.
Treating Rugs, Taxidermy, and Large Items
If the infested material cannot be laundered or sent for dry-cleaning, consider hiring a professional pest control provider or having rugs professionally cleaned specifically to remove fabric pests. Special treatments may be needed especially for thicker carpets. It is important to make all surfaces of carpets accessible for the pest professional since fabric pests prefer to feed in protected areas such as under furniture and in corners.