As promised last week in our list of other considerations when choosing secondhand furniture, this week I’m giving you a bit longer of a primer on dealing with pests.

The best advice for dealing with pests that I can give is to avoid them and never get to the stage where you need to do treatment. Purchasing something infested can put the rest of your home — and you and your housemates — at risk. If you live in an apartment, it can be even worse because you don’t control the pest control approach and with some pests, treatment of only one unit will rarely solve the problem.

I’m going to focus on bugs that infest textiles because textiles make up such a major part of home decor and are maybe a little harder to recognize because their damage can be passed off as evidence of aging more easily than damage caused by termites or other wood pests.

Identifying Pests

If you’re going to avoid bringing troublesome pests into your home, you need to be able to recognize them “in the field” at an estate sale, store, garage sale, auction, etc. We’ll start the easy way — by identifying pests when you can actually see the bug.

Pests that infest and feed on textiles include the three below:

Cloth Moth

Clothes Moth (Image taken by Olaf Leillinger at 2006-06-13)

Varied Carpet Beetle (Image via Wikipedia Commons by André Karwath aka Aka)

Hide Beetle (via Wikimedia Commons)

Bed bugs don’t actual feed on textiles, but they do like to make their home in them. And they’re considerably worse, in my opinion, because they live in and ruin your things while feeding on you. Significantly grosser and less comfortable.

Bed Bug

Bed Bug (Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons by Center for Disease Control and Prevention)

It’s rare that you’ll actually see the pest. In fact, if you do see the pest it’s usually a sign that the infestation is pretty severe so you’ll want to know how to look for subtler signs of pests. Some common signs of insect pests are:

  • chewing marks
  • exit holes in the surface of wood
  • webbing
  • frass (debris or excrement created by insects) or cast skin and body parts
  • fecal pellets or stains – especially the case with Bed Bugs

The National Park Service put out a great brief on Identifying Museum Insect Pests as part of their Conserve-o-Gram series for museum reference. It’s short and easy to understand plus has loads of pictures so check it out!

Monitoring and Isolation

If you do purchase something that is at all questionable, it’s a good idea to keep it isolated from other textiles. This probably means keeping it isolated from your home but if you have a shed or even just a pest-proof bag — like a vacuum bag or if it will fit in a ziplock — you can keep it sealed away until you have time to inspect it thoroughly. You can also use sticky traps to look for pests. This may help you identify them.


There are a lot of  alternatives for treatment. For some pests you may be able to clean them to remove all of the pests. You can clean them or vacuum them to remove the pests. Just make sure that you dispose of your vacuum dust or remnants of your cleaning away from your house or any other textiles that the pests could re-infest.

When you vacuum, you can vacuum through a nylon mesh or other mesh fabric to protect a fragile fabric. If the fabric you’re dealing with is a family heirloom, a valuable antique, or really important to you, I don’t recommend vacuuming it yourself. Instead, contact a professional conservator.

You can also create an anoxic (oxygen-free) microenvironment to kill many pests or you can freeze them. For a simple how-tos on those processes, read “Anoxic Microenvironments: A Treatment for Pest Control” and “An Insect Pest Control Procedure: The Freezing Process,” also from the National Park Service. If you decide to freeze, make sure your fabric can withstand the rigors of freezing or thawing without being damaged by the process.

A Little More Detail about Bed Bugs

Bed bugs aren’t really a museum pest, at least, not so much in collections storage where food is not around at night hours or not still enough to feed on. They’re becoming a little more of a problem in cities with big bed bug problems but these mostly apply to public areas, so the conserve-o-grams haven’t caught up and provided you a handy couple-page PDF on what to look for and avoid. The following pictures show you a little bit about what to look for. The photo below shows some of the blood and excrement stains left behind by bed bugs.

The next photo shows some bed bugs hiding in the seams of a mattress. Check for both kinds of evidence of bed bugs along the seems of furniture you’re considering buying.

Know that isolation and freezing doesn’t work on bed bugs. If you isolate them, or put them in a mattress cover where they can’t get out or feed, it takes 18 months to kill off the last of them because their life cycle means they can breed before they starve to death. Heavy gas pesticides combined with an anoxic solution might work on small items but one of the only things you can depend on to treat them is heat. And it has to be at least 113-114 degrees Fahrenheit to kill bed bugs so, well, bed bugs are hard to kill. I would avoid them and be super super careful if you’re buying something used that could be home to a bed bug. Don’t risk it if you have any reason to think it might be home to a bed bug.


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3 responses to “Choosing Secondhand Furniture: Avoiding and Treating Pest Infestation”

  1. cinderski says:

    I can’t agree enough about the bedbugs! My partner managed to pick up a gorgeous bed frame for free once – we were planning to do it up and make it all pretty…only when we stored it in a downstairs hallway, we suddenly started getting bites.

    And they were *impossible* to get rid of. We bug-bombed, vacuumed the life out of the place, put the mattress in a black garbage bag in the sun, bug-bombed again. In the end, we had to move house. That was definitely a lesson learned!

    • Jess says:

      Yeah, I had bed bugs at our last apartment and they were so hard to get rid of them. We were lucky that our move was scheduled for the first week in August so they any stragglers after the two treatments fried in the back of our Uhaul while we drove through West Texas and Oklahoma. It was terrible though. I’m totally traumatized and still have some scars. Sucks.

  2. […] my post on avoiding or dealing with pests when choosing second hand furniture, I let a little bit of my museum knowledge creep into the home decor scene. This article on the […]

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So Eclectic is a blog dedicated to great ideas for home design. Austin, Texas-based writer Mary Marcum and Savannah, Missouri-based writer Jess Rezac feature affordable decor, decorating solutions, and inspiration. At So Eclectic, we experiment with design together. So Eclectic posts new content every weekday.

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