What is cork leather?

Cork bottle stops aren’t so common these days. But you may have noticed it more and more in everyday accessories – from watch straps, to wallets, to yoga mats.

These increasingly sought-after items are made from cork leather (also known as cork fabric). It’s a durable textile, made from thin shavings of cork oak bark.

So what’s with the cork leather hype?

Here’s what’s giving it a good name among designers, fashionistas and eco-conscious shoppers across the globe.

Eco-friendly

Cork is one of the most ecologically-friendly materials you can get your hands on. It’s responsibly farmed, completely natural and 100% sustainable.

Waterproof

Cork has waxy substance in its cell walls. It’s called suberin, and it makes it effectively impermeable to liquids. That’s why it’s been used for centuries to seal wine, and float fishermen’s nets. Thanks to its natural weather-resistance, it’s also used to make flooring and footwear.

Low maintenance

Because it’s waterproof, cork leather is much easier to clean than absorbent fabrics. If it gets grubby – or you spill something – no worries. All you need to do is give it a wipe down with a little soap and water. 

Biodegradable

Cork leather can last for decades. But when its job is eventually done, you don’t have to worry about it releasing harmful microplastics. Or clogging up landfill.

Hypoallergenic

Cork doesn’t absorb dust, so it’s helpful for people with asthma and allergies.

Tactile

Cork fabric has a unique softness, which feels great to touch. For this reason, it’s increasingly popular in the fashion industry. Almost every item of clothing you can think of is now available in cork, including belts, bow ties, baseball caps – even aprons.

Lightweight

More than 50% of cork is actually air, so it’s light enough to float. Another reason why it’s a top material for clothing and handbags.

 

Is cork leather vegan?

Short answer – yes!

In all honesty, cork leather is the vegan dream.

Other vegan leathers are made from plastic-based synthetic materials. These include horrors like polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and polyurethane. Some of these materials can take half a millennium to degrade.

Once discarded, they break down into microparticles. From there, they’re free to release toxic phthalates into the atmosphere and food chain.

In other words, they’re terrible for the planet, and they’re terrible for you.

Cork leather is different. It’s a completely organic, sustainable, biodegradable fabric.

In fact, it actually helps the planet.

Cork oak trees can be completely stripped of their bark, without harm.

As a result, they can live, grow, and yield for up to 250 years.

So they offer habitats for wildlife, while creating a valuable natural resource.

 

But how durable is it – really?

Here’s another impressive thing about cork leather: it can last for hundreds of years.

Its honeycomb structure makes it highly resistant to abrasion. So much so, NASA use it to protect their rocket engines from extreme heat.

Naturally resilient and fire-retardant, cork’s been used to make flooring for over 100 years. You’ll find it in busy public spaces, including churches, banks… and even IKEA stores.

It’s also tough enough to make hard-wearing furniture and car interiors.

 

How is the cork harvested?

Cork bark harvesting is a pretty remarkable process.

It grows well in dry climates, so most of it comes from Mediterranean countries. Mainly Portugal.

The trees and ecosystems are carefully preserved, maintained and harvested by patient specialists.

Once a cork tree is 25 years old, it’s finally ready for its first harvest. The bark is skillfully stripped from the tree with a machete.

After that, the tree takes nine years to re-build its bark. Only then can you harvest it for a second time.

But it doesn’t just sit there doing nothing.

During the recovery process, a harvested tree absorbs 3-5 times more carbon dioxide than an unharvested one. So cork actually helps remove pollution from the atmosphere!

 

How is cork leather made?

Harvested cork bark needs to air dry for 6 months.

It’s then boiled and steamed to increase its flexibility, before it’s pressed into blocks.

Finally, the blocks are cut into sheets of beautiful cork leather.

And there you have it! A natural, durable, tactile material that can make hundreds of stylish accessories.

So next time you pick up something made with cork, you’ll know it’s much more than a bottle top. It’s one of the most eco-friendly materials in the world.