Cork is being used in the apparel industry as a lightweight fabric and insulator.
Most people equate cork with wine stoppers or push pin boards, but what about cork in clothing? Cork fiber is harvested from the bark of a specific type of oak tree that naturally re-grows its bark, making cork a renewable resource and a crop that employs thousands of family farmers. Utilizing the fibrous, lightweight and naturally insulating material for fabric is a large leap in the right direction for the textile industry.
German company Schoeller is behind the development of these cork fiber solutions, proving their position as soft-shell material pioneers with the invention of their corkshellTM fabric. They’ve combined the insulating properties of cork with high performance fabrics such as wool fleece and jersey for the manufacturing of sensible outerwear or activewear. What’s more, cork fabric keeps the wearer warm, is extremely breathable and super comfortable. You could soon be seeing cork on the labels of your winter coat or running and hiking gear as clothing companies catch on to its functionality. But is it sustainable?
The raw cork material Schoeller uses is harvested from FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified forests through a process that doesn’t actually involve cutting down any trees. During its average 200-year lifespan, a cork oak tree can be harvested up to 16 times for the thick and rugged bark. The bark grows back naturally after harvest, causing no harm to the tree, and every gram of it is turned into a usable material. Schoeller’s cork is a byproduct of the wine industry and is biodegradable, making the process a waste-less and closed-loop system.
Cork oak forests are native to southwestern Europe and northwestern Africa and are considered superb habitats for wildlife and plant diversity. Cork oaks share forests with other oak varieties, wild olive trees and maritime pines, as well as endangered species such as Barbary Deer, the Iberian Imperial Eagle and the Iberian Lynx. Maintaining cork oak forests and harvesting the fiber also keeps several family farmers employed, skilled and aware of the natural growth patterns of plants and wildlife in their areas.
The cork oak bark is made up of a bubble-like structure that is insulating but lightweight, making it the perfect choice for a variety of textile types. After harvest and pulverization, the cork is processed into a coating that can be inserted between two layers of fabric or just one layer of fabric depending on the application. The lightness of the cork coating is ideal for thermal insulation that doesn’t wear you down, making it perfect for cold climate outerwear and exercise gear.
So Schoeller’s corkshellTM textile component seems to be very sustainable indeed, and even just won an award in the Material Innovation category at the 2012 OutDoor Industry GOLD AWARDS. Recognized for its functionality, level of innovation, durability and sustainability, corkshellTM is also a certified bluesign material, meaning that the resource productivity, emissions, fair labor and consumer safety of the processing and production facilities are rigorously monitored. Outerwear companies like Patagonia and the North Face will probably be quick to jump on Schoeller’s bandwagon and pop the cork on their collections.
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