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How We Make Our Cork Yoga Mats

How Gecko Cork Yoga Mats are Made

Quick Poll: do you know how your yoga mat was made? 

And what about where?

And by who?

Before we started making our own, we couldn’t answer these questions either. 

In today’s globalized world, we’ve become so disconnected from the source of just about everything we buy. Even something as simple as the Nº2 pencil can take up to a dozen countries to produce.

Don’t get us wrong, globalization has given us a lot of amazing things. Yoga itself, for example.

But these complex supply chains, like those used to mass-produce pencils and yoga mats, create a lot of opportunities for accountability to fall through the cracks.

It’s our belief that when something is done in the name of yoga, there needs to be accountability- accountability to our practice, to our planet, and to our community. And the only way to be accountable, is to be transparent. 

So in this article, we’re giving you a peek under the hood. We invite you to join us on the journey to making one of our yoga mats- from start to finish. 

It All Starts with a Cork Tree

montado cork forest in portugal

Cork material comes from the Cork Oak Tree (quercus suber)- a species native to the Mediterranean Basin. However, the highest quality cork comes from Portugal.

Majority of Portugal’s cork forests (“montados”) are found in the Alentejo region, located roughly an hour south of the capital of Lisbon. 

A lot of the harvestable cork comes from small, family-owned farms, like our friend Pedro’s (pictured below).  These farms make up the patchwork of Portugals rich and diverse agricultural landscape. 

pedro and anna alentejo cork tree

Pedro and his partner, Anna, standing in front of a cork tree on his farm in Alentejo

Next, Cork Is Harvested From the Tree

harvested cork bark portugal

Due to its ecological and cultural significance, the Cork Oak is a protected species in Portugal (in fact, it was named the country’s National Tree in 2011). As such, there are a lot of regulations when it comes to harvesting cork. 

Cork can only be harvested from the tree once it is 25 years in age, 70 centimeters in diameter and 1.3 meters in height. The cork tree must never be cut down, and the bark must be removed following a highly skilled practice called “stripping.” 

Stripping is an ancient technique, and it is still performed the same manual way today. The bark is dislodged from the tree using an axe, and the bark is gently peeled off from the tree by hand. The larger the plank of bark, the more successful the strip. 

The video below, courtesy of our friend Pedro, shows this process being performed.

Then, Cork Trees are Numbered for the Next Harvest 

After its first harvest, a cork tree will naturally regenerate its outer layer of bark in 9 year cycles. In fact, stripping the cork bark is important for the stable growth of the tree, and allows for more carbon dioxide absorption.

To keep track of the cycles of the trees, they are often numbered using chalk or paint. The number denotes the last digit of the most recent year of harvest. For example, a cork tree harvested in 2021 would be marked with a “1” and would therefore be ready to harvest again in 2030, after which it would be marked with a “0,” and so on.

The cork trees can repeat this cycle of stripping and regeneration for up to 15 times, allowing for a lifespan of 200 years on average.

numbered cork tree
A Cork Oak harvested in 2019. As you can tell from it’s smooth surface and reddish hue, this tree was recently harvested at the time of this photo being taken.

 

From There, The Raw Cork is Transformed into a Yoga Mat

cork planks

The planks of unprocessed cork travel from Alentejo to our manufacturer, located in northern-central Portugal. We work with a family-run production house who are experts in cork, having worked in the industry for generations.

To make the cork layer for the yoga mats, thin sheets of cork are sliced out from the bark. Unlike many other cork yoga mats, we make ours from full-grain cork, as opposed to ground and processed (“agglomerated”) cork. 

Then, a rubber backing is added to the top layer of cork.

Nicky inspecting rubber backing cork yoga mats Our founder Nicky inspecting the rubber backings during production

 

Our yoga mats use an environmentally friendly form of rubber called EPDM. This rubber is produced locally in the north of Portugal, and is a light-weight, fair-trade, and hypoallergenic alternative to rubber sourced from trees.

Since the majority of the world’s rubber production takes place in South America or South East Asia, opting for EPDM allows us to keep the full supply chain within Portugal, significantly reducing the environmental impact of manufacturing.

 gecko cork yoga mat factory

Nicky with Monica (left) as she rolls and boxes the yoga mats one-by-one. 

 

Once the mats are ready, they’re given the final Gecko touch with our logo, and they’re shipped to you! 

How are Cork Yoga Blocks Made? 

Since cork is such a valuable and cherished resource, none of the bark goes to waste. Cork blocks are made from the leftover cork of wine stoppers. 

Cork wine stoppers (or high quality ones, at least) are extracted directly from whole bark, as shown in the image below.

nicky showing cork wine stopper hole punches

Nicky showing us the hole punches from cork wine stoppers 

 

The remaining bark is then ground up, where it can be compressed and transformed into any number of products, from cork yoga blocks, to kitchenware, office supplies, and even building materials. This ground up and compressed cork is called “agglomerated cork.” 

ground cork pieces

A jar of ground up cork bits, which can be further processed or left as is with its coarse grain

 

A coarse grain of cork means less processing, and therefore, more quality intact. However, agglomerated cork is truly no-waste; even once cork has been ground up into a sand-like consistency, it can still be glued together and transformed into a useful final product.

In the case of our blocks, we use a thick grain agglomerated cork that is compressed and solidified using a non-toxic, food-grade adhesive. 

cork yoga blocks being branded

Our Cork Blocks being (literally) branded with the Gecko logo

 

From there, our logo is fire-burnt onto the blocks. Then, they get packaged up to send to you!

cork yoga blocks being packed

Fatima and Teresa boxing up Cork Yoga Blocks 

 

Gecko Cork Yoga Mats & Blocks are 100% Made in Portugal

At Gecko, we follow the mantra of “think global, act local”. Every single step in the supply chain of making our yoga mats takes place in Portugal, using only Portuguese sourced materials. 

In fact, the entire distance it takes to produce our cork yoga mats -from the original cork tree to the final product- can be covered in just a 5 hour drive. 

gecko road to making cork yoga mat

Want to know more about our production philosophy? Learn about our Conscious Supply Chain here.

Shop Cork Yoga Mats

 

To shop our cork yoga mats & blocks, click here