Gateway to the Classics: Display Item
Jean Henri Fabre


"I N our houses," continued Uncle Paul, "we have a redoubtable enemy to woolen cloth and everything else that is made of wool—an enemy that in a very short time will reduce a costly garment to rags and tatters unless we are on our guard against the ravager. Therefore it is worth our while to make the acquaintance of this devourer of woolen goods, this despair of the housewife, in order that we may hunt it down with some success. You know the little white butterflies that come in the evening, attracted by the light, and singe their wings in the lamp-flame. They are the ravagers of woolen fabrics, the destroyers of broadcloth and other woolen stuffs."

"But those little butterflies," objected Claire, "are feeble little creatures to tear in pieces anything so substantial as broadcloth."

"And for that very reason it is not the butterfly itself that we are afraid of; the delicate little flutterer is perfectly harmless. But before turning into a butterfly it is first a caterpillar, much like the silkworm and this caterpillar is endowed with a voracious appetite that makes it gnaw substances apparently uneatable, such as wool, furs, skins, feathers, hair. To the caterpillar and its butterfly we give the name of moth."

"There are caterpillars, then, that eat cloth and even hair?" asked Marie.

"There are only too many of them," was the reply. "One of these caterpillars, one that some day will turn into a pretty little butterfly all powdered with silver dust, would feast right royally on your woolen frock; and another would find much to its taste your fur tippet, which keeps your shoulders warm in winter."

"There can't be much to taste in a mouthful of fur, I should think, and it must be pretty hard to digest."

"I don't deny it, but those caterpillars have stomachs made expressly for that sort of diet, and they accommodate themselves to it very well. A worm that eats fur and digests hair knows nothing in the world so good, and one that gnaws old leather would turn away with aversion from a juicy pear, a piece of cheese, or a slice of ham, all of them repugnant to its taste. Every species has its preferences and, according to its mode of life, possesses a stomach designed to find nutriment in substances apparently far from nutritious. On the moth's bill of fare are skins, leather, wool, woolen cloth, fur, and hair. The larva does not merely feed on these materials, but it also makes from them a movable house, a sheath that covers its body, leaving the head free, and this house it carries about with it.

"All butterflies of the moth class have narrow wings bordered with an elegant fringe of silky hair and folded lengthwise on the back in repose. Of the three principal species the distinguishing characteristics are as follows:

"The woolen moth has black upper wings tipped with white, while the head and lower wings are white. Its grub, or larva, is found in woolen goods, and it is there that it makes for itself a sheath from the bits of the gnawed fabric.

"The fur moth has silver-gray upper wings with two little black dots on each. Its grub lives in fur goods, which it denudes, a hair at a time.

"Finally, the hair moth lives, in its grub state, in the curled hair used for stuffing cushions and couches. In color it is of a uniform pale red.

"The moth most to be feared is the one that feeds on woolen cloth. Let us discuss its habits more in detail, for in spite of its ravages you will admire, with me, the skill it displays in making itself a coat. To protect itself so that it may live in peace, the grub fashions for itself a sheath from the bits of wool cut and chopped with its sharp little teeth. In thus cutting down these upstanding hairs, one by one, the worm shears the cloth and makes a threadbare spot. The shearman himself could not have operated with such nice precision. But there is nothing so disfiguring in new cloth as these shorn spots showing here and there the warp and woof of the fabric, while all the rest retains its velvet finish. Furthermore, the mischief is not always confined to the shorn spots: too often it happens that the tiny destroyer attacks the threads themselves and makes holes here and there in the cloth, so that the latter is found to be nothing but a worthless bundle of rags. The bits of wool thus cut away serve the worm either as food or as building-material for its movable house, its sheath.



"This latter is most deftly put together, consisting on the outside of tiny bits of wool fastened together with a little liquid silk emitted by the worm, and on the inside of silk alone, so that a fine lining protects the creature's delicate skin from all rough contact."

"Just think of it," exclaimed Jules; "the detestable devourer of our woolen clothes lines its own coat with silk!"

"And that is not all," continued Uncle Paul. "The little creature indulges in the luxury of assorted colors. Its coat takes the hue of the cloth in process of destruction, and thus there are white coats, black coats, blue coats, and red coats, according to the color of the material. If this latter happens to be of variegated tints, the worm takes a bit of wool here and a bit there, making for itself a sort of harlequin outfit in which all the colors represented are mingled at haphazard.

"Meanwhile the worm continues to grow and its sheath becomes too short and too tight. To lengthen it is an easy matter: all that is required is to add new bits of wool at the end. But how is it to be made larger?"

"If I had to do it," Claire replied, "I should run my scissors down lengthwise, and in the opening I should insert another piece."

"The ingenious insect seems to have taken counsel of Claire, or of an even better tailor," said Uncle Paul. "With its teeth for scissors it cuts open its coat all down its length and inserts a new piece. So skillfully is this insertion made, so neatly are the seams sewed with silk, that the most expert of dressmakers would find it hard to pick any flaw in the workmanship."

"These moth-worms must be very skilful, I admit," said Marie, "but I shouldn't like to have them practice their art on my clothes. How are they to be prevented?"

"To protect garments from moths it is customary to place in our wardrobes certain strongly scented substances such as pepper, camphor, tobacco. But the surest safeguard is to inspect the garments frequently, shaking them and beating them and exposing them to the sun. All moths love repose and darkness. Garments that are shaken occasionally and hung in the light are not at all to their taste; but those that are laid away for months or years in a dark place offer just the kind of snug retreat they are looking for, the ideal abode for the raising of a family. Go to your chests of drawers and your wardrobes very often and shake, air, and brush the contents; then you will have no moths. Vigilance is here worth more than pepper and camphor. Finally, kill all the little white butterflies you see fluttering about your rooms."

"But those little butterflies do no harm whatever, you told us," objected Emile. "It is only the worms that gnaw our clothes."

"True enough; but those butterflies will lay eggs by the hundred, and from every egg will come a devouring worm. The destruction of the flying moth means therefore deliverance from some hundreds of future moths."