I only wish that I could say, like so many other cork enthusiasts and artisans, that I could have grown up in Portugal surrounded by the tradition of cork, running around in cork forests and finding cork lying on the ground all around. Instead, I grew up in suburban America, surrounded by pavement and sidewalks, with nothing growing in the neighborhood except perfectly manicured lawns and the odd fruit tree.
When I was a teenager, I started to become conscious of the effect that our shortsighted, fast-paced lifestyles were having on the planet, and also on ourselves. I decided to dedicate myself in every possible way to lowering my personal carbon footprint, and began looking for ways to help other people do so as well.
But, it wasn’t then that I discovered cork. In fact, I had really never paid much attention to cork at all. Like most people, I really didn’t know what it was, outside of its use for wine stoppers.
When I visited Portugal for the first time, I quickly came across all sorts of things made from cork - bags, wallets, jewelry, umbrellas, you name it. I couldn’t believe what a beautiful material it was, and how natural and elegant these cork leather items were.
At this point, I became incredibly interested in cork, but still knew very little about its production. How do they make cork leather, floorboards, and wine stoppers? Where does it come from? What gives it so many amazing properties that lend to its use in so many different things, properties that are seemingly unique to natural cork?
I soon started doing research, and learned that there was so much more to cork than I’d ever realized. Cork is truly one of man’s best friends in the plant kingdom, and always has been.
Cork is a rather paradoxical substance, as nature is always the best chemist. Down to its cellular structure, it is able to store air molecules outside of the cells in a highly intricate structure, comparable to a honey comb, in a way that retains enough moisture to keep it supple, but is incredibly resistant to penetration by water. It is able to store heat and act as an insulator, but at the same time, is highly resistant to catching on fire.
These qualities are all possible because of Suberin, the naturally occurring substance stored inside of cork cells. Suberin is a wax, which makes it hydrophobic like a fat, but a solid, malleable, rubbery structure at ambient temperature. A wax doesn’t melt at high temperatures or freeze at cold temperatures. But, it repels water and is insoluble in water.
I also realized that cork forests are not endangered because of the use of cork, but on the contrary, due to not using enough cork! Cork oaks can only grow in the soil and climate of the Mediterranean, and it is one of the most important trees for preventing desertification, as it retains water within its roots and acts as a watershed. It also contains an eco-system of other plants and animals, many of which are rare or endangered. Cork bark must be harvested and these forests must be protected to keep these trees thriving.
This was the spark that created HowCork. My partner and I realized, while spending time in both Europe and America, that cork products were nearly unheard of in America, and very difficult to find. So, we decided to take action and open HowCork, sourcing beautiful cork accessories straight from Portugal to help spread the word about the importance of using cork material in new and innovative ways.
People all around the world have begun to take notice of cork, as designers look for new ways to create things that are currently made out of unsustainable, polluting materials such as leather and synthetic petrochemical fibers. Slow Fashion is taking hold, and we are only at the very beginning of the move toward renewable resources in the textile industry. Cork has been used since ancient times, and cork has a huge role to play in the world that we create moving forward.