An Ethical Alternative to Leather? Try Cork Fabric!
As we explore the world of sustainable and environment-friendly fabrics, we often come across surprisingly unique natural products. Some of them are so distinct, that we may have never imagined that it was possible to create. Cork fabric is one such amazing product.
Our post today is on this remarkable fabric, which is harvested from the bark of Cork trees that grow in the Mediterranean regions. Learn all about how cork is harvested, processed into fabric and other interesting details about this fabric.
What is cork fabric?
This natural product comes from the bark of Cork Oak trees. It is exactly the same material used to make wine stoppers. It is impermeable, elastic, lightweight and naturally fire-retardant. To create cork fabric, thin cork sheets from the bark are laminated to fabric using sealants and special techniques. This makes it strong and allows it to hold its shape.
Cork fabric is called nature's leather, as it has a similar texture and feel to leather. Being durable and strong, it can be used in accessories and bags, just like leather. Apart from being beautiful and soft, the fabric is hypoallergenic, anti-fungal and waterproof. Therefore, it is clean and easy to maintain.
How is cork fabric made?
The cork oak tree is native to the coastal areas of Portugal, Spain and France, and is the national tree of Portugal. These extraordinary trees thrive for centuries, when their bark is harvested at regular intervals. The oak tree is unique for this reason, as it is the only tree that survives even after the bark is stripped from it.
Does harvesting cork, destroy the tree?
No! Quite the contrary. In fact, removing the bark once in a decade allows the tree to thrive for two hundred years or more.
The bark is first harvested when the tree is 25-30 years old. This initial harvest is usually poor quality, and is not suitable for creating fabric. Subsequent harvests yield high quality cork, called “gentle cork”, and this is what is used in preparing cork fabric.
Extraction of cork is performed by skilled workers called "extractors". They remove the bark carefully, using firm and precise moves with sharp axes to free the cork from the trunk. They exercise great care when removing the bark so that the underlying layers aren't damaged, or the tree will be harmed. The harvested portions are called planks. Here's more of an in-depth look at the harvesting process from the cork accessories brand Laflore Paris.
Once the cork sheets are dried and taken to the factory, the process of creating cork fabric begins. Here are the sequence of steps;
- First, the cork sheets are boiled in water. This breaks down the cellular structure and makes it easier to work with.
- The cork is then dried. It is shaved into very thin transparent sheets that are as thin as tissue paper.
- The thin layers are laminated with cotton/polyester blend fabric in the same colour. It's then glued to the cork.
- A fabric protection spray is then applied to protect it from staining.
Why is Cork fabric eco-friendly?
As we have seen, cork fabric is produced without harming any animal or plant. No trees are cut down to obtain cork, and removing the bark is actually beneficial to its growth. It is bio-degradable and 100% natural. Cork oaks grow in forests, without the aid of chemical pesticides or fertilizers. These forests are home to a variety of animal and plant species, including the endangered Iberian Lynx. By promoting the growth of cork oaks, we protect this rich forest biodiversity to flourish in their natural environment. Here's a great article about cork oak forests in this Cork Oak landscapes article.
With no toxic chemicals involved in the production, harvesting and processing of cork fabric, we can safely conclude that it is eco-friendly and sustainable.
Uses of Cork fabric
Because of its rigidity, cork in its fabric form is mostly used for accessories. We wanted to find out a bit more about what it's like to work with, so we spoke to Shivani Patel, the founder of Arture—a brand that specialises in cork fabric bags and accessories.
Arture is the result of Shivani's passion to create an eco-accessories brand that is luxurious, but harmless. She first came across cork sheets while redecorating her bedroom, and found it intriging. Shivani says,
“I started thinking about how it would look on products and did more research. I found out about cork fabric and all of its properties. I realised that I had found the perfect material for the concept of Arture to come to life. I ordered samples from across the world and decided on the one that I loved the most. That's when the development began.”
In a year and a half, Shivani had developed a cork fabric collection of fashionable, practical and eco-conscious accessories. The Arture collection features stylish wallets, handbags and purses made from cork fabric for both men and women.
As we come to the end of this article, I hope you've learnt a little more about this amazing, natural textile, and might think about adding it to your list of must-have eco-friendly solutions.
If you like these articles, then please do sign up to our monthly newsletter, where I round up all the latest posts. You can tweet the article using the tweet buttons throughout the article and below.
Want some brand advice on using this material?
Find Interviews with:
Scott Joseph, founder of cork accessories brand Fashion Without A Face: Initiating Conversation With Ethical Cork Accessories
Rui Tati, owner and CEO of Pelcor, Portuguese lifestyle cork accessories brand: Cork Fabric And How The International Brand Pelcor Was Built On It