Typically when you think of cork you think of wine, I know I do. A pretty common use for cork, but now cork leather is becoming all the rage as the new sustainable vegan leather in the USA. But how exactly does the cork you find in a wine bottle become a material?
Cork leather is actually a common find in Portugal, I remember when I visited Lisbon every shop had bags, hats, and shoes made from cork. Portugal is the largest producer of cork and 23% of it's forest are the cork oak (Quercus suber). It was even recognized as Portugal's national tree in 2013. Portugal has been harvesting cork as a trade commodity since the 13th century!
Cork is sustainable in many ways. The first way is the trees are not cut down to harvest the cork. Cork is made from the cork oak's bark, and the bark cannot be harvest until the tree is 25 to 30 years old. Once the tree has reached the proper age the bark is expertly hand removed by "extractors." The tree is then allowed 9 to 13 years to regenerate it bark before being harvested again. This is the perfect definition of sustainability, the tree not only is unharmed and can continue to suck carbon out of our atmosphere, but the bark can be harvest over a course of many centuries with no machinery.
Once the bark is stripped it is boiled until it is soft and cut into thin strips. The strips are then glued to backing like cotton or rayon in a "patchwork" style. It is then dyed or printed to create all the amazing selections of cork we see today.
Cork is naturally durable and moisture resistant so naturally it is used for everything from wine stoppers to building materials and even musical instruments! Portugal even made a cork stamp, I mean why not.
It is light weight due to its composition and is buoyant, elastic, and fire retardant which makes it perfect as a vegan leather. The challenge of replacing leather is you are losing the good aspects of leather which is its soft feel and durability. Cork is the perfect match to leather in those properties and it has tons of character from the bark.