Cork Fabric: Everything You Need To Know

Cork has been used as a stopper and sealant for thousands of years to bar air, water, or other things from entering or escaping whatever it is that we wish to keep dry.

But our beloved, organic wine stopper, has in recent years seen other applications. Wine is not all that cork is known for these days. It also offers some unique insulation for our hungry electronic devices in the form of high-tech corkboard, a material meant to keep your phone cool while it computes. Natural cork has been transformed into a temporary skin covering for burn victims, even in the creation of biodegradable cell phone cases. Cork Fabric has developed into a modern-day marvel of performance wear, with bulletproof vests and space suits made from its magical properties.

What is Cork Fabric?

Natural Cork Fabric is a soft, thin fabric made from the bark of cork oak trees (Quercus Suber). This tough and renewable natural resource can be used to make a wide variety of products including ecological wallets, bags, and accessories. Cork fabric or Cork leather can also be used as a lining or as an interior supporting structure in such things as corsets, belts, hats, upholstery, and even shoes.

Cork fabric can find a ton of application as an eco-friendly faux leather alternative.

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How is Cork Fabric Made?

Cork Fabric is a mix of modacrylic and cork manufactured in the same way as a regular cotton fabric: modacrylic is spun into yarns, these are then woven together with tows of natural cork. The Cork component gives the fabric its softness, warmth, and eco-friendliness. Modacrylic lends strength, flame retardancy, and increased abrasion resistance.

Cork Fabric can be obtained in several natural colors including browns, olives, and creams. The natural pattern of cork's bark can be used to make very decorative fabrics, but if this effect is not wanted, the cork tows are mixed with white or grey yarns that give the fabric its "natural" look.  The bark surface can be roughened with a plain or corrugated effect depending on how it will be used.

Properties & Applications of Cork Fabric

Cork fabric has all the properties required for clothing that provides warmth and comfort: It insulates from the cold by creating a microclimate next to the skin, It wicks moisture away from the body and spreads it over a larger surface so that it evaporates more easily, and It has excellent elasticity, which allows it to adapt better than conventional fabrics and gives greater freedom of movement to wearers. It is naturally resistant to creasing and dirt: water-based substances, such as wine or fruit juices, can simply be wiped off.

Cork fabric can be used in several products such as clothing (jackets, sweaters, shirts), especially sportswear and casual wear, and upholstery accessories (cushions, pillows).

At present, the main consumers of cork fabric are ski and mountaineering companies. Cork fabrics have many advantages that make them ideal for outdoor wear: high resistance to abrasion, good insulation properties, lightness, low specific gravity, fire retardancy, and recyclability.

Since cork material is very sensitive to extreme temperatures, the fabric used in cork clothing is usually layered with another synthetic or natural textile.

The most commonly used choice is fleece because it is lightweight, warm, and very absorbent. It gives cork fabrics excellent insulation properties.

Other materials that are sometimes used to protect cork fabric from high temperatures are polyester, cotton, and wool.

Cork fabric is not dyeable, but it can be printed using water-based inks. The most common printing technique is sublimation printing, which involves applying the ink directly onto the cork fabric. This means that the prints are resistant to washing and creasing and do not fade or dissolve when exposed to sunlight.

Prints can also be applied using digital or screen printing techniques. A standard cork fabric with a 50 mm pile has around 30,000 pores per square meter of which only three are needed to apply the design. This means that smaller prints can be applied on more delicate surfaces requiring less water than traditional methods. Cork print designs can be made using computer design software, directly onto the cork fabric using digital printing equipment or screen printing.

Cork fabrics are naturally fire retardant, which is achieved by adding non-toxic substances to the yarns during production. The treatment can be removed if required by washing, but this will reduce the flammability of the fabric. Although cork fabric is not inflammable, it can smolder if exposed to a naked flame.

Cork Fabric: Spotlight on Sustainability

Natural Cork Fabric, when not mixed with any other chemicals or raw materials is both easily recyclable and biodegradable. However, to increase its durability and make it more corrosion resistant, it is often mixed with other materials that are not as kind to the environment as natural cork fabric. This greatly reduces its eco-friendliness.

Natural Cork fabric is a completely biodegradable material with no chemical finishing treatment. It can be recycled by grinding into granules that can then be reused in manufacturing or used as fuel in power stations. The environmental footprint of pure, Natural Cork Fabric is therefore very low.

To understand the sustainability of cork, we also need to look at the origins of its most prominent raw material: cork. Cork is harvested from the cork oak tree (Quercus suber) which thrives on more than just its bark. Only a third of the complete tree is turned into cork – the rest providing food and shelter for wildlife - making it an extremely sustainable resource.

Cork Oak trees are major contributors to biodiversity, playing a vital role in maintaining the health of natural ecosystems, particularly in Mediterranean regions. They also prevent soil erosion and desertification by retaining vital nutrients and protecting topsoil (the skin that makes up cork) from wind and rain damage.

Cork oak trees usually live for 200-300 years or more, growing slowly to an average height of between 15m - 20m. They multiply through the production of acorns, which are dispersed by jays and pigeons. Cork oak trees are harvested every 9 - 12 years without causing harm to the tree itself. The bark is removed in one piece around the tree for easy re-growth and cork harvesting requires no fertilizers or pesticides due to its natural resistance to disease and pests.

In a perfect world, Cork harvesting is performed by skilled workers who selectively remove bark from cork oak trees (Quercus suber) without inflicting any damage to the tree. Cork oak forests occupy 2 million hectares of land and are one of the world's rarest forest ecosystems. Cork harvesting can be carried out at different times of the year depending on the region, but it usually takes place between May and July when the cork trees are 18 to 20 years old. It is performed by specialized workers called "Montadores" in Portugal or "Subericultores" in France who climb by the trunk of the tree to extract pieces of bark measuring roughly 25 cm long by 20 cm wide using a special tool called an "Esquilhador" or "Corta-Rabo". To avoid damaging the tree, they follow a precise set pattern.

Cork harvesting is completely free from chemical treatment and does not damage the environment. Cork harvesting is a very specialized industry, mostly found exclusively in the Iberian peninsula (predominantly Portugal), and has supported local communities in that region by being their main source of income for decades.

Up until now, Cork Fabrics were manufactured using a spinning frame with tows of natural cork mixed with synthetic fibers. New fabric structures are now under development that will use an entirely natural product: cork fabric made out of pure cork fiber, without any artificial additives. The new fabrics that already exist in the pilot series will be softer, warmer, more flexible, and lighter yet equally durable, making them perfect for clothing.

Cork Fabric Care Guide

Cork fabric is a durable material that needs no special maintenance. It can be hand washed with warm water and mild detergent, then rubbed gently to remove stains without the use of abrasives or scouring pads which could damage it. In Portugal, where cork fabric originated, people often wear shirts made of cork fabric for several years. This is possible because cork fabric can absorb perspiration and release it, making it extremely breathable.

Most of today's clothing requires special cleaning using detergent solutions that are often very harsh on the skin. The use of these detergents together with hot water can dry out or irritate the skin of people with sensitive skin. Washing cork fabric requires no special cleaning agents and its use can help to reduce skin irritation caused by contact with conventional fabrics. Selecting organic clothing is one way of reducing your exposure to harmful chemicals, but many organic materials require special treatment that can expose you to environmentally hazardous substances.

Cork fabric washes just as well as conventional fabrics yet has natural anti-bacterial properties that help to keep it clean. This makes it an excellent choice for people with sensitive skin or allergies. Cork Fabric can be worn by anyone of any age, including babies and those with sensitive skin.