How to get the mothball smell out of clothing

Two years ago I resorted to storing my winter woolens in mothballs after a particularly nasty clothes moth infestation wreaked havoc on my yarn stash. That was a painful week, throwing out skein after skein of expensive yarn because–grr–the moths had a particular fondness for the skeins that cost a fortune!!! I didn’t want to lose any handknits to those damn pests so rather than relying on lavender, cinnamon, and bay leaves (which repel, not kill), I went the mothball route to ensure all buggers were dead.

Here’s the thing about mothballs: they smell terrible. And yes, I know, they’re terribly toxic too, but my infestation was so great, I figured one or two seasons of mothballs would be a risk worth taking as long as I was careful handling them and I minimized my and my family’s exposure to them. I would not use them if I had young children in the house, and we store off-season clothing in a room where our cat isn’t allowed.

So back to the smell–it seems like mothballs evoke all kinds of different images and memories for people. For my mom, the smell reminds her of walking to school in her winter coat and every time she moved, getting a whiff of mothballs she hoped no one else could smell. My friend says the smell makes her think of “old people.” For me, I think of a metal wardrobe my parents had in the 70s. It must have stunk of mothballs.

Mothballs are a sure bet at killing moths and larvae, but what you can’t count on is getting the stink out of your clothes afterwards. The first year I used mothballs, I did what I thought was the logical thing: I washed all my stored items to remove the residual smell. Unfortunately, not only did it not work, it actually made everything smell worse!!! Drycleaning? Useless, as well as expensive. So I tried some other tactics, such as soaking garments in white vinegar and water (helped a little) and storing them in a plastic container with some baking soda (which maybe masked the odor more than killed it). I also tried lavender sachets and even “Febrezed” some of my more “hearty” knits. Eventually I couldn’t smell the mothballs when I would take the item out of the container or my closet, but here’s the weird thing — if the garment got damp, such as from rain or being in the snow, it would start to reek of mothballs again. So frustrating that I couldn’t get rid of the chemical odor!

Near the end of last winter, I was doing some research to find out if mothballs can repel snakes (nope–snakes can’t smell). I hit on a description of naphthalene, the chemical in mothballs, which said naphthalene gas is broken down by bacteria, fungi, air, and sunlight. WELL! No wonder water didn’t work so well for me! I piled all my woolens in a laundry basket and headed out to our sunny backyard with a bag of clothespins. By the end of the day, all of the woolens I’d hung up on our clothesline were virtually free of mothball smell. For good measure, I aired them out the next day too, and for the rest of the winter, I could wear woolens that didn’t smell as though they’d come out a steamer trunk in my great-grandmother’s attic.

That’s what I’m doing today — airing and sun-cleaning all my woolies for the coming winter. What I do is every hour or two move things around and flip garments over so they don’t get sun bleached, especially if there’s a fold in the fabric. (I ruined a sweater when I was a teen by leaving it in the sun too long with the arms crossed across the body. Learned that lesson early!) Some of the heavier items, like my Aran cardigan, will get a second airing tomorrow. Then I’ll handwash everything to get rid of any dirt or insects that landed on the garments while airing and then store the clothing on shelves lined with lavender and cinnamon sachets.

 

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