There are very few, if not any, tanneries that carry the same reputation for creating leathers of the utmost quality as Chicago’s Horween. They are the proverbial cream of the crop of tanneries, which needless to say, is the reason I’ve been a fan of their products for quite some time now and is why I choose to work with their leathers for Truman. Family owned and operated in Chicago for over a century, they are currently the only domestic tannery and only one of two in the world to be producing Shell Cordovan. They also developed and are the exclusive producers of the infamous Chromexcel, which is world renown for it’s buttery texture and incredible pull-up.
I was rolling through Chicago on our fall tour and they were kind enough to let me stop by and take a look at the tannery to see first-hand where my leather comes from. A HUGE thanks to John Culliton who took a good chunk of time out of his day to walk me through the entire factory and explain in rich detail everything that was happening. I am the smallest of small when it comes to companies they work with but they really went out of their way to accommodate my visit and to me, that really shows they care about what they do. A big cheers to the good folks at Horween. Here’s a little bit of how my tour went:
The factory itself was built in the late 1800′s and was a tannery from the get-go. Horween was established in 1905 by Isadore Horween and had moved into their current location by 1920. So the building itself has been producing leather for well over a century. The history is rich and you can definitely feel it in the air as you walk through the multiple levels of the tannery.
We started in the basement, where raw hides are brought in, folded and stacked on pallets. This is where it all starts.
I watched as two guys unfolded a horsehide, spread it out on a table (hair, mane and all) and started dividing it up into different cuts, starting at the hind area for the rounds that in a few months will end up being the prized Shell Cordovan.
From there, the cuts all go into giant cement mixers filled with water and lime where they tumble around and have all the hair and remaining bits of flesh removed.
After this process, they get separated into different vats — a giant barrel filled with chrome liquor for the chrome-tanned stuff, and big square vats filled with a mixture of water and vegetable matter (tree bark, etc) for veg-tanned stuff. Some of the hides sit here for months.
The chrome-tanned hides come out of their initial stage in a light blue hue, therefore being dubbed “blues” at this point. The blues then get graded, sorted and split down to different weights.
Every hide is custom split to a specific weight here in the beginning stages of tanning as opposed to after the fact like a lot of tanneries do. This of course is done for a reason — to ensure maximum uniformity in weight (thickness) and a clean, uniformly tanned flesh side.
The hides that are to be Chromexcel are at that point sent into giant barrels filled with a variety of hot natural waxes and oils to be “hot-stuffed”, which means the oils and waxes penetrate deep into the hide creating the pull-up affect.
The Chromexcel is then over-dyed and spread by hand to ensure uniformity.
At their final stages, leather is then hung or spread out to dry for several weeks.
For Chromexcel, the very last step is a bath in neatsfoot oil, which accounts for it’s oily, waxy hand.
After the last active step of Shell Cordovan, it’s stacked to let it age for several months. That’s right, they finish producing the leather and then actually let it sit there for another few months because they feel that the product is best after aging a little bit. That to me is the utmost in concern for quality over quantity. It would suit them best to keep moving product out of their factory but instead, they opt to let it sit there for months, taking up precious real estate in their factory because they feel it makes for the best product. Awesome.
They are also the official tannery for NFL football leather as well as basketball leather.
Note the “W” for Wilson embossed on the leather.
On top of all this, they are still progressive — trying out new formulas and coming up with new leathers. It’s no wonder why the name Horween has become synonymous with quality and I’m proud to be using their hides for Truman.