|The Secret of Everyday Things|
|by Jean Henri Fabre|
|Fascinating conversations with Uncle Paul reveal the mysteries behind the dyeing and weaving of cloth, the lighting and heating of homes, the processing involved in bringing oil, coffee, tea, spices, and other foodstuffs to the table, and the power of water in all its manifestations. Excellent as follow-on to The Story Book of Science. Ages 11-14 |
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 is also makes from them a
movable house, a sheath that covers its body, leaving
the head free, and this house it carries it about with
"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
 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 by 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
"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 read 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
"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
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