A couple of years ago I found that Poppy, the tiny knitted red bear my sister made for my son, Julian, when he was little, had been eaten by critters – moths or carpet beetles, I don’t know which. I had found the little bear in some box after losing track of it for a long time and sat her on the shelf above the counter in the kitchen where we have a collection of treasures from different times and places. Some time later I found she was full of holes and I put her in the freezer. She has been there ever since. Now every time I get some ice cubes, I see Poppy, lying there in the drawer, her tiny scarf around her neck, her stuffing coming out through her side.
I saw some carpet beetles on the windowsill of my bedroom over the summer. My historic community doesn’t allow screens on the windows, as they are considered to disrupt the historic look of the community (though I suggest cars and electricity lines do that handily and more obviously) so bugs come in. Seeing the carpet beetles concerned me at the time but I didn’t find any evidence of damage until recently when I put on a wool skirt I rarely (never?) wore. I saw light through a constellation of holes in the fabric but saw no critters themselves.
Seeing the holes made me panic. My house is full of wool – clothes, carpets, yarn, fabric, embroideries. I started to search and found a tiny felted purse (made by my sister Noni) on my desk had been ravaged. A ball of yarn was lying in a shatter of fiber dust. A large tote I had embroidered showed small areas of damage. I felt agitated and sick with fear that there was more I couldn’t see being made by critters still too small to detect. I put the tote and some other embroideries in the freezer with Poppy, put a pile of carpets on the porch in the cold and started looking for internet resources on repelling and killing moths and carpet beetles.
Oil & Alcohol: Eucalyptus, Clove, Cedar & Neem
Based on what I found, I have begun to use essential oils – 10 drops suspended in a cup of isopropyl alcohol and sprayed over vulnerable woolens using a misting hand-pump: the efficacious essential oils are eucalyptus, clove, cedar & neem.
The oils I purchased came from https://www.bulkapothecary.com/standardized-and-commercial-grade/
A few online resources with detailed methods for managing infestations and controlling beetle populations can be found here:
BEWARE: Lavender, my sister found, attract critters instead of repelling them and so should be avoided (A shearling coat showed damage around the label where she had hung a sachet of lavender on the neck of the hanger; not the desired outcome!). Borax sprinkled onto fabrics and brushed into the fiber is supposed to kill the destructive beasts.
Despite these new measures, I also made a mistake. I pitied the skirt full of holes and didn’t throw it away right away. Now I have found some damage in a piece of knitwear I recently finished and which I worked on such tiny needles for so long that I damaged my left hand. And now before I have even woven in the ends I find that there is a hole and I feel stupid for pitying the material of a skirt I had really never worn. That pity – the thought that I could mend it or salvage parts of the material – has resulted in damage to things I care much more about. I didn’t think far enough ahead. I couldn’t see the critters in the skirt so I didn’t properly assess the threat keeping it posed. Looking at the shawl, I know I can not make it over given my injury. I can only repair it.
Since writing the paragraph above, I have thrown the skirt away, and resumed the process of inspecting everything else in the room for holes. I need to re-spray with eucalyptus, dust with borax, wash, repair, protect, purge.
Substituting natural fibers with synthetic fabrics is one of the recommendations for avoiding carpet beetles described in the different articles to which I have linked above. It’s also the solution I (and probably you, dear reader) am unwilling to try for multiple reasons Many of my wool things are beautiful examples of handwork – handmade carpets, embroideries, handsewn garments and knitted accessories. I won’t give them up as I am committed to them, invested in them as repositories of memories, of stories, my own time, labor, pain, love. The handmade fabrics made by others are beautiful in themselves and their beauty is justification enough for preserving them. At the same time, to me they represent social lives, even if I don’t know what those lives were before those textiles came to me. They were witnesses to particular truths and moments in the lives of their makers during their production, truths and moments that are unknowable to me. And the things I have made have similar social lives that are largely known to me, but not wholly. These social lives have a romance, a poetry, a history that should be guarded, shepherded into the future.
The beauty and value of textiles made in natural fibers is not the only reason I want to keep my natural fibers. Shrinking my carbon footprint is another that has an increasing urgency. I want to minimize the extent to which I use petroleum-based fibers and materials. I want to minimize the extent to which I use fibers that shed micro-plastics into our water supply. I want to minimize the extent to which I use fabrics that will never bio-degrade. I have always preferred natural fibers, over synthetic ones, for their sensuous qualities. Now I value them, too, for how they sequester carbon.