Humans have been using cork for over 5000 years.  From its early days as sealants and footwear to its continued use in various industries today.
Cork is most often found as a stopper for a wine bottle, and around 70% of the world’s cork production goes to that particular use. The insulation industry follows it at 22%.
Cork fabric or cork leather is actually a lesser-known use of cork.
That said, the cork fabric industry is still very young and isn’t as established as other textile industries. However, the development of natural cork fabric is proof that we can come up with sustainable options in our world of excessive consumption and waste.
In this article, we’ll go over all the basics you need to know about cork fabric—how it’s made, what it’s used for, and why it’s becoming such a popular sustainable option. If you love sewing and DIY, we also added a small section on tips for working with this durable fabric.
How Is Cork Fabric Made?
Cork fabric production starts with the cork oak tree, and the bark is harvested from the tree at a sustainable interval of 9-10 years on average. This will result in cork shavings that will subsequently be processed.
The best part about the cork oak tree is that harvesting its bark doesn’t kill the tree—some even say it’s the only tree where this is possible! Meaning it can be used over and over again, sustainably, for the rest of the tree’s life.
Even if you strip cork oak trees of more than 50% of their bark, they will still survive. 
No machinery is required to strip the bark from the tree. It only requires a simple ax and an experienced worker—emphasis on “experienced”, as cutting too deep could cause irreparable damage to the tree.
The bark is typically only harvested from the tree’s trunk since the branches still have a lot of growth potential. Once enough bark has been collected, we can then move on to the next step: boiling.
The cut pieces of cork bark are boiled in water, killing any fungus and bacteria that may have thrived on the bark. Since pesticides aren’t used to cultivate cork oak trees, boiling the natural cork is vital in achieving quality cork material.
But that’s not boiling’s only purpose. Applying heat to the stacked pieces of cork allows them to flatten and become easier to work with.
The weight of each cork piece stacked on top of each other serves as a natural way to flatten the material (no machinery required).
Once this process is through, the cork needs to rest and dry for a few months (3-4, sometimes more), and they’re ready to be cut in thin sheets and used in countless ways!
The middle portion of the bark is used to make thin cork sheets for fabric. This part is the best quality and the densest portion of the cork tree bark, so it’s the most appropriate material to use as fabric.
This portion is further cut into sheets, resulting in thin cork shavings. This is then attached to a fabric support backing, which is required as the cork itself would break easily without it. Common cork backings are PU, polyester, nylon, and cotton.
While PU as a fabric support backing isn’t on top of our list of bad vegan fabrics, it still isn’t the best option. If possible, we recommend buying cork with a cotton fabric backing.
This may not be possible in all cork products, but we still highly encourage choosing the natural option where possible.
All in all, making cork fabric is a pretty simple process that requires a reasonable amount of water and generates little to no waste.
Is Cork Ethical and Sustainable?
Knowing how cork is made, can we truly say it’s a sustainable alternative?
First off, the cork oak tree can live for around two centuries. Once a tree hits the 25-year mark, its bark can already be stripped and used as cork material. This process can be repeated commercially every decade, with an average commercial lifespan of around 150 years. 
But that’s not all! Cork forests are also some of the most biodiverse areas on the planet, with a number of species per square meter even higher than that of the Amazon rainforest!  These forests, also called montados, are highly multi-faceted and support local ecology and the local community’s economic health.
In Portugal, where close to 50% of the world’s cork production occurs, montados are essential aspects of the national economy. The cork industry employs more than 8,000 people and generates more than $900M in exports. 
These numbers illustrate how valuable cork is to local cork farmers and those in the near vicinity.
From an environmental standpoint, cork isn’t just valuable because it can be used repeatedly. Harvesting cork also reduces greenhouse emissions as they heavily sequester carbon dioxide during bark production.
Imagine, cork oaks that are regularly harvested produce 250-400% more cork in their lifetime than those not routinely stripped. And while the tree tries to grow its bark again, it sequesters a high amount of CO2, proven by the fact that cork forests sequester around 5.7 tons of carbon annually .
Summarily, cork production is not only environmentally sustainable, but it is also economically viable and supports small farmers and local industry.
Cork is one of those rare fabrics that, despite being an economical product, is still environmentally friendly.
Instances when Cork Is Not Sustainable and Ethical
Generally, cork is one of the best fabrics you can get, especially considering how it’s a comparable alternative to leather, which has a very high environmental cost. You can read more about the issues behind leather production in our article on vegan leather.
But, just like every fabric, it isn’t always perfect. No matter how great in theory, Cork fabric can still be harvested unsustainably.
The mismanagement of the wonderfully diverse cork forests could damage a vast body of species and the general biodiversity in the area.
This is why it is essential to always look for markers that a material has been sourced sustainably, and this goes for cork as well.
What's So Special About Cork Leather?
In asking ourselves: What is Cork Fabric? It’s crucial to address why this textile has been getting so much attention lately.
Is it all part of a trend, or is cork actually a good, eco friendly alternative to conventional materials?
One of the most beautiful features of cork fabric is that it’s stain-resistant, within reason, of course! Unlike other materials, cork is pretty good at repelling nasty stains that may get on it throughout use.
And if something does get on it and won’t budge with a wipe, then a quick wash with water and soap will do just the trick.
Some products may also be treated with a fabric protection spray to further decrease the likelihood of stains. However, be wary of these as additional treatments may affect a product’s biodegradability and overall environmental impact.
Cork’s water resistance is one of the best things about this material and plays a significant role in how it’s such a durable fabric.
Cork has a waxy substance called suberin that coats its cells, and it is this substance that helps repel moisture, thus prolonging the life of the product.
If you’ve ever held a cork stopper (which you probably have), you know that it’s very lightweight. The same applies to cork fabric.
Half of cork’s weight is actually air enclosed in the material’s cells. The trapped air contributes to a large volume at a much lower weight and density.
And because cork isn’t processed extensively, cork fabric retains much of natural cork’s features, one of which is extreme lightness. Of course, it’s still going to be a bit altered, but pretty similar nonetheless.
Many people buy leather because it ages exceptionally well, and its age adds personality to the leather product. Well, the same is true with real cork.
Cork’s durability and resistance to many environmental stressors work together in keeping it in good condition even through regular use. So if you are looking for a fabric that you can care for the years to come, you will absolutely love the versatility of cork.
All of the preceding features point to one thing: cork leather or cork fabric can be just as durable as leather. In fact, it might even be stronger, considering you can actually get cork wet. After all, cork leather is water and stain-resistant.
While there are many similarities between animal leather and cork leather in terms of durability, cork is clearly the superior option from an ethical standpoint. Trust us, knowing about the animal leather industry will change your mind about it being such a great material.
Cork’s honeycomb structure also keeps cork resistant to scratches that may be caused by friction, impact, or abrasion. This is another one of the reasons why cork is used as an industrial material.
So if you were wondering if cork can be used as your everyday wallet or if you can use a cork bag on busy errand days, the answer is a resounding yes! Here’s a list of our favorite vegan bags, some of which feature cork fabric.
Namely, this material has many unique properties that you will find difficult to find in any other single fabric, and it truly is an underutilized material.
Cork Fabric Uses
You probably haven’t heard about cork being used as a fabric until recently. That’s because until recently, it wasn’t really used in that way, or at least not commercially.
However, you’ll be surprised to see how helpful cork fabric actually is as an alternative fabric. Here are some of its most popular uses:
Contrary to what you may think, Cork fabric actually comes at reasonable thinness. If you were thinking about corkboards when you imagine cork fabric, it’s time to get that thought out of your head.
Additionally, cork functions similarly to leather, making it an excellent option for small objects that suffer plenty of wear and tear, such as your wallet.
There are a number of cork wallets on the market, and you can see one of our featured articles where we discuss vegan wallets.
Just like leather, cork fabric makes for sturdy bags, even ones you plan on using heavily. Since cork has plenty of prime features, including resistance to dust and scratches, it’s the perfect material for someone who’s always on the go.
However, we must emphasize that different brands use different qualities of cork, so it’s still always best to buy from a brand you know produces high-quality products.
You will also see some cork belts, noting again that most premium belts are made of leather.
However, we would recommend purchasing one that isn’t made of several layers.
Layering and folding cork too much may cause tiny cracks in the material, so you may want to avoid too many folds.
These are simply the most common items and aren’t at all representative of everything you can do with cork. Cork fabric can be used for shoes, upholstery, and so much more.
Caring For Cork Fabric
Unlike animal leather, cork fabric is quite a low-maintenance material. Since cork does not absorb dust and is resistant to staining, it’s relatively easy to clean and maintain.
Your cork wallet or bag will easily be cleaned with some water, soap, and gentle cleaning. Just make sure to fully air dry the cork fabric to keep it in the best condition.
Some sources say you can wash cork in a washing machine. However, we can’t attest to that. For best results, follow the cleaning and care instructions of the specific product you buy. Most product listings will explain how to properly clean your cork to make it last as long as possible.
Can You DIY With Cork Fabric?
If you’re reading this article because you have some cork fabric and don’t know what to do with it, we’ve got you covered. Making handmade products with cork is pretty easy! Sewing with cork is quite similar to working with leather, so it is a bit different from working with soft fabrics.
Here are some ideas you should keep in mind when working with cork:
- Use the right-sized needle. As we’ve previously mentioned, sewing with cork isn’t like working with soft fabrics. You might need a leather needle or a jeans needle for best results. However, we have seen others use a regular-sized needle and get away with it. You might want to start with a jeans needle first and see how it goes from there.
- Use Clips. When sewing with cork, don’t use pins as you usually would a piece of fabric. Poking a needle (of any size) into cork will result in permanent holes, which you definitely don’t want. Instead, use clips to keep the fabric together while sewing.
- Use the right sewing foot. If you’re working with cork, it’s best to work with either a Teflon foot or a walking foot as it helps keep the cork fabric moving along your machine nicely. A roller foot could also be a good alternative.
- About stabilization. If you want to add fusible interfacing to your cork (although you probably won’t need it), you won’t need to use a pressing cloth. Fusing it directly onto the back of the cork will do just fine.
- Glue or tape the seams. You also have the option of using a double-sided basting tape or some glue for creating straps, keeping seams in place, as well as placing pockets correctly.
- Keep a separate pair of scissors for cork. As cork fabric is quite a unique material, it’s best to use different cutters for cork than most projects. A rotary cutter or just regular scissors will do fine. This way, you won’t dull your regular shears too quickly.
- Experiment! Cork is a magnificent fabric you can use in countless ways. You can make wallets and leave the edges raw, make small bags, totes, straps, belts, and whatever you can think of.
So, what is cork fabric, really?
Overall, cork fabric is one of the best materials you can work with. It’s useful for such a wide variety of projects, even the ones you’re doing on your own with a sewing machine!
Whether you’re into making bags and wallets or just want to purchase cork products from your favorite store, learning about cork is one of the best ways to become a more responsible consumer.
And fortunately, cork doesn’t disappoint. It’s not just this other fabric that was invented as a marginally better alternative than synthetics. It’s an actually sustainable option with applications in ecology, society, and even economics.
But although cork is mostly an excellent fabric, we can’t forget to be vigilant about where we buy it. As always, we recommend sourcing from suppliers or brands that use the highest quality and most responsibly-sourced cork.