A Material Difference: Cork

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I really, really wanted to get a quilt pattern for Quilty that worked with cork. Everyone convinced me that I was nuts—cork is so perfect for bag-making, using it in a quilt would deny cork its chance to shine.

So we enlisted Jessica VanDenburgh of Sew Many Creations, a veteran bag pattern designer and cork enthusiast, to incorporate cork in a remake one of our favorite bag projects (originally by Sue Pfau).

Cork, which has been growing in popularity, has become a mainstay for VanDenburgh. She teaches working with cork at festivals and expos and carries cork in her online shop. VanDenburgh sources the cork directly from Portugal, and it comes in the most astonishing, lovely colors.

material-difference-cork-cotton-bagVanDenburgh chose a vibrant, hot pink cork for this bag, mixing it with fabric from Tula Pink’s Spirit Animal collection from Westminster. “For the base of the bag, I interfaced it like the cotton fabric and made no adjustments,” she says. “For the handles, I did cut them 2 inches wide and just folded the edges in to make them a little easier to stitch, though you can leave the raw edges since cork doesn’t fray. I also interfaced the handles to prevent any stretching.”

Cork’s rising popularity makes sense: it’s durable, easy to work with, cruelty-free, sustainable and natural. Primarily from France, Spain, and Portugal, the cork is the actual bark of a cork tree. It’s sustainably harvested, then cured and processed into thin sheets. Manufacturers apply a polyester/cotton layer to the back, similar to how vinyl and faux leather are manufactured.

Windham Fabrics recently produced a cork with metallic accent, as well as a cork look-a-like collection, Uncorked Metallics, if you truly want to stick to cotton. To explore the spectrum of cork fabrics out there, hit the online shops. The variety will amaze you. The sizing differs from quilting cotton; VanDenburgh, for example, carries pieces that range from 9” x 12” to 18” x 54.”

Machine Matters

material-difference-cork-cotton-bag-detail-1First things first, get the correct needle.

Because the fabric is a wee bit thicker, your gut may tell you to try a larger needle—STOP! Do not trust your gut; you’re probably just hungry!

You actually want your needle to be thinner. A 90/14 will work, and 80/12 or 80/14 is better. One of the drawbacks to cork, you see, is that once the fabric is punctured, those holes won’t disappear. So if you need to rip a seam, those holes will show. A smaller, sharper needle penetrates the cork better, and leaves a smaller hole.  (Because of this, you should also clip rather than pin; Clover Wonder Clips or bulldog clips from an office supply store should do the trick.)

A 40- or 50-weight thread is fine. Jessica Kapitanski, blogger and owner of Sallie Tomato, has been playing with cork a lot recently. Kapitanski says, “For most projects, I recommend using 3/8” to 1/2” seam allowance, 2.5 to 3mm stitch length for piecing, and 3 to 4mm stitch length for topstitching. If you’re sewing through several layers, you may need to lower your machine’s tension and foot pressure.”

You really don’t need a fancy sewing machine foot. VanDenburgh sewed the bag using her standard, quarter-inch foot, and recommends that for piecing. Some people have success with the Teflon foot, particularly in warmer weather or more humid conditions.

Fabric Prep

material-difference-cork-cotton-bag-detail-2Using your iron is no problem on cork. A touch of heat will even make it more pliable when working.

Bag patterns often require interfacing to provide the necessary body to hold a bag’s shape. Because cork is thicker and sturdier, you may need a lighter interfacing, or perhaps none at all. Cork has a touch of stretch, which a featherweight interfacing can address. When mixing and matching cork and cotton (or another thinner fabric), interface the cotton to make it equal thickness to the cork.

Because of its body, cork seams won’t lie as flat as quilting cotton. “That rounded look can be lush, so count that as one in the plus column,” says Joan Radell of Bucklebee by Me, another proponent of cork. “If you want a very flat look, topstitch your seams open with an edging or ditch foot, or use the tried-and-true leather method of gluing your seam allowances down with a thin layer of rubber cement.”

If you choose to that method, try using an old phone book to weigh down the seams while they set.

When sewing lots of cork, Kapitanski recommends keeping a separate rotary cutter and scissors for cutting cork. The thickness can dull an edge.

For your next patchwork adventure, put a cork in it!

(I’m sorry, I really couldn’t help it…)

Look for the Cork & Cotton bag pattern shown in the January/February 2018 issue of Quilty!

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