Cork Zero to Cork Hero: Our Discovery of Cork

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. I’ve become rather envious of this type of upbringing. 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 about 18, I started to become aware of the effect that our shortsighted, fast-paced lifestyles were having on the planet, and also on ourselves. I decided then to make many changes in my life.

I started eating an organic, plant-based, “whole food” diet and learning how to cook. I also threw away every liquid soap, shampoo, and piece of makeup that I owned, and vowed to only use toxin-free personal care products and natural ingredients for cleaning. I started walking and biking everywhere possible, rather than driving a car.

A little later, I started to also question how my clothes were made and where they came from. Even though I was never really into following the latest fashion trends, I realized how important it was to pay attention to what we wear. I started reading more about sustainable fashion and about the benefits of using natural fabrics that are made by fairly compensated artisans. I started donating clothes that no longer served me, and getting into thrifting.

Thrift Shop Image

But, it wasn’t then that I discovered cork. In fact, I had really never paid much attention to cork at all. I really didn’t know what it was, outside of its use for wine stoppers. For many reasons, I realized that I needed to experience life outside of the United States, to gain a wider perspective on how people in other countries live. As a nutrition major, specifically focusing on olive oil, I started to wonder about what made the typical diet and lifestyle in the Mediterranean so widely renowned for its health benefits. So, I decided to start traveling in the Mediterranean countries of Europe to see for myself.

Unexpectedly, cork followed my journey from this point out. When I was planning to go to Europe for the first time, a good friend told me that I absolutely needed a pair of cork sandals if I planned on walking miles a day in the heat. I took his advice, and quickly realized what a difference cork soles made for support and comfort when walking. With cork underneath my feet, perhaps I became more “attuned” to the high vibrations of cork bark. I started noticing more and more things made from cork. When I visited Portugal, I quickly came across cork bags, wallets, jewelry- you name it. I couldn’t believe what a beautiful material it was, and how natural yet classy these cork leather items were.

I also started learning more about the benefits of using cork for wine stoppers. I realized that cork plays an important role in wine preservation. Cork allows the wine to breathe, and prevents the development of mold and fungus growth, contributing to the freshness and quality of the wine. I realized that cork was irreplaceable, and that plastic screw caps didn’t measure up.

Wine Corks Image

At this point, I became even more 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. What a shame that even trying to live in such a natural way, I’d never been aware of this before!

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 completely 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.

Cork Forests Full European Map

I also realized that cork forests are not endangered because of the use of cork, but au contraire, 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 How Cork. My partner and I realized that we had an opportunity to get close to the cork forests, which line the western coast of Italy, not far from where we live. We also 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 How Cork, sourcing beautiful cork accessories 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 we want to see cork play a huge role in the world that we create moving forward.

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