The first time that I used cork fabric, also known as cork leather or vegan leather, was in 2015, when a European customer approached me for a shopping bag project. Prior to that my knowledge to cork was only limited to cork wine bottle stopper and cork boards. At the beginning, I was a bit skeptical whether this type of fabric could work well on this bag project, but as the project moved on, and I did more study about it, I learnt that this material in fact has many benefits, including its biodegradability and eco-friendliness.
What is cork fabric?
As many of us might know, cork is widely used as wine bottle stopper, which was invented by a Benedictine monk Dom Pérignon, who sealed his bottles of champagne in seventeenth century (Duarte & Bordado, 2015).
Cork is the outer layer of the Cork Oak tree, Quercus Suber, which are found in forests surrounding the West Mediterranean Sea. They are cultivated in Spain, Italy, France, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and China. Particularly, Portugal is the world’s largest cork producer (Where does cork come from, 2021).
According to Duarte and Bordado, Cork can be removed periodically, usually every 9-12 years, from the tree without harming it. However, the cork oak must be about 20-25 years old before removing bark for the first time. The entire process does not involve cutting down any trees. It is literally an eco-friendly material.
The most common cork fabric in the market are compressed cork granules laminated with a thin layer of cotton or poly fabric. These fabrics are very light weight, but easy to sew. There are also some cork fabrics that are laminated with PU leather to enhance the thickness. Apart from plain color, colored or printed cork are becoming more popular. However, when using colored cork, one should beware of color fastness issue.
Why are cork and cork fabric so incredible?
Cork contains high concentration of waxy and rubbery substance called suberin, which is responsible for its low permeability. Because of suberin, cork is incredibly water-resistant, and that prevent the material from the growth of mold, mildew and moisture (Where does cork come from, 2021). Thus, instead of using plastic or fabric with chemical coating like PU coating or vinyl lamination, one can consider using this wonderful natural material as a substitute.
After cork is peeling off from the tree trunk, they are assembled with natural glue and then cutting into thin slices with sharp knife. These processes do not involve any poisonous chemicals. Also, as mentioned above, the waxy suberin makes cork free from dust. Cork is therefore anti-allergic.
Why cork is very suitable to be used as wine stoppers is due to its nearly odorless and tasteless property due to high concentration of suberin (Duarte & Bordado, 2015).
Therefore, it is also an advantage to cork fabric over PVC, PU, EVA or even real leather as it doesn’t have any smells. It gives a more natural, function and hygienic impression to the whole product.
If cork fabric is taken care properly, it can be long lasting.
The distinctive high concentration suberin contribute to its high durability. It doesn’t deform nor deteriorate easily, and thus can be used for a long time. Cork wine stopper is an excellent example of this unique feature. Cork is even used in NASA’s space shuttle Columbia to insulate the tank’s storage center for the super-cold liquid hydrogen and oxygen used to power the engine! (What is Cork Fabric and Is It Eco Friendly?, 2021)
Cork is a natural, renewable, sustainable, biodegradable and recyclable material. Its harvesting and processing don’t cause much water waste nor contributing to air or water pollution. Unlike processing real leather, cork production does not require additives and tanning, in which the chemicals are hazardous to the workers and the environment (Platzer, 2021).
More importantly, cork harvesting does not require cutting down the tree. It doesn’t harm the tree itself. Therefore, cork oak forest are home to many rare species of plant, fungi, and animals (CORK [Fabric, Material, Textile Guide for Home, Environment, Animals, Laborers], 2021).
Recently, color dye of cork is also very popular. However, we should pay attention if these color dyes contains toxic substances.
Absorbs Carbon Dioxide (CO2)
Another unique feature of cork is that it is “carbon neutral.” Cork absorbs carbon dioxide, which remains during the lifetime of the products. That means cork helps delaying the emission of carbon back to the atmosphere (Gil, 2014). That means, after cork is harvested, the new bark absorbs even more carbon!
Flame, stain and scratch resistant
Apart from being water resistance, cork is also highly resistant to combustion (Duarte & Bordado, 2015). Moreover, because of high content of waxy suberin, cork is stain resistant. Cork is easy to clean. Simply use a damp cloth to gently rub the stain. The stain will then disappear.
Because cork is elastic, it is scratch resistant, too. Thus, it will restore to its original shape after being pressed or scratched.
Should cork fabric be compared with leather?
People love comparing cork to real leather. There are many blogs and articles that foster replacing real leather with cork fabric. In my opinion, this is unnecessary because cork fabric is such a unique material, in which composition and features are different from leathers and even typical cotton or synthetic fabrics.
In order to make cork a fabric form, it is compress and rolled into very thin layer. It cannot be used as fabric without laminating with a thin layer of fabric underneath. As such, cork fabric cannot fully replace leather because of its thin feature. However, it is still good for making bags, wallets and some parts or garment such as collars, hand cuffs and pockets.
Use of cork fabric
In some cases, one would add some extra backing such as PU to cork fabric in order to make it as thick as leather, so that the finish goods are more erect and stiffer. We should keep in mind that if cork fabric is laminated with synthetic fabrics such as PU or polyester, that will impact its biodegradability.
Some customers asked me if the cork granules would peel off from the fabric backing. Well, so far, I don’t see this problem. Even when we sew, flip and turn the material over, no peeling off is ever seen.
As for washing, I do not recommend machine wash, even though some claim that cork fabric is machine washable, I never dare to try. However, because the high content of waxy suberin, the material is basically dust free and stain resistant. So simply use water to gently rub the dirty area, the stain would usually be removed easily.
When we do products designs, especially with purpose of being good to Earth, it is sometimes impossible to eliminate all synthetic materials. However, what we can still do is try our very best to avoid using as much non-natural materials as possible. This is such a big challenge, but it is not all impossible.
For instance, if the purpose of using cork fabrics is to be eco-friendly, then we should avoid extra lamination with PU, and beware of use of colorants when adding colors.
For all our cork fabric products, over 85% of materials are biodegradable. Some are even 100% biodegradable.
From design perspective, we do our very best to make a balance between beauty, quality and eco-friendliness. We hope our customers can feel this sincerity.
See our cork products: Click here
Duarte, A. P., & Bordado, J. C. (2015, February 2). Cork - a renewable raw material: forecast of industrial potential and development priorities. Frontiers in Materials.
Where does cork come from. (2021, June 23). Retrieved from The Cork Marketplace: https://www.howcork.com/pages/about-cork
What is Cork Fabric and Is It Eco Friendly? (2021, June 23). Retrieved from Sustainable Jungle: https//www.sustainablejungle.com/sustainable-fashion/what-is-cork-fabric
Platzer, L. (2021, June 23). Cork Versus Leather: An Honest Comparison. Retrieved from howcork.com: https://www.howcork.com/blogs/news/cork-versus-leather
CORK [Fabric, Material, Textile Guide for Home, Environment, Animals, Laborers]. (2021, July 12). Retrieved from healable.com: https://healabel.com/c-fabrics-materials-textiles/cork#sustainable
Gil, L. (2014, April 11). Cork: a strategic material.