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Horween Leather Company | Chicago, IL

Horween Leather Company

Horween Leather Company was founded in 1905 and is located In Chicago, IL (about three miles from the McMurray and Blonde studio).  They continue to be owned by the Horween family and specialize in high-quality leathers used in a variety of industries. You may know Horween from many different popular men's wear items including jackets, boots, bags, and even NFL footballs.

Horween is the maker of several renowned types of leather, including Chromexcel, Essex/Dublin/Derby, and Shell Cordovan, among many, many others.  

Many people's first exposure to Horween is via Chromexcel which is used in several brands of men's boots including Wolverine 1000 Miles and Oak Street Bootmakers boots. Another common introduction to Horween is via the highly coveted Shell Cordovan leather.

You can find out more about how McMurray and Blonde uses Chromexcel in this article.  

 

The following is an excerpt from a great article/interview conducted by the Chicago based podcast The Distance.  Please check them out for other great podcasts and articles about famous American businesses.  I chose this discussion because it explains a trait that I think McMurray and Blonde and Horween share - use the best methods and products to produce superior goods.

The processes for making Horween’s signature leathers like shell cordovan and Chromexcel, a rich and versatile cowhide, can’t be rushed. Shell cordovan comes from the inner membrane of the horse posterior. The horse butts are draped over rods and submerged in “pits,” or low pools filled with Horween’s proprietary vegetable tanning solution made from tree barks, for 30 days. After tanning, the hides are carefully shaved, a process that exposes the outline of the inner membrane, and steeped in a second pit of stronger solution for another 30 days. When they come out, they’re hand-oiled. Then, after a three-month rest, they have to be re-wet and shaved again on a machine whose blade is controlled with a foot pedal.
Only three workers at Horween can do this job, which Nick described as one of the most skilled positions at the tannery. Trimming too little results in a rough-feeling hide; trimming too much cuts into the membrane and results in downgraded leather. The cordovan then goes through a machine with a large roller that applies several light coats of non-pigmented dye and is left to dry. The finished product is shiny, smooth, and durable.

Today, the company’s primary constraint on shell cordovan production is one of supply. It gets hides from French-speaking Canada and parts of Europe where people still eat horsemeat, a practice that is dwindling. Because there aren’t enough shells to keep up with customer demand, the tannery has to turn down new requests for its cordovan.
 Only 10 percent of the hides Horween processes come from horses. The other 90 percent is cowhide, primarily steer, that the tannery buys from large meat producers like Tyson. The cow hides for Chromexcel are tanned with a chrome-based solution in large drums. When the hides emerge from their bath, they are a pale baby blue color and the story of the animal is still clearly written on the skin: bug bites, barbed wire scratches, brands. The hides are re-tanned with vegetable-based solutions and then “hot stuffed,” or conditioned with unrefined oils and greases, per customer specifications for texture and color. The hot stuffing process creates a coveted effect called “pull-up,” where creasing or folding the leather causes a temporary lightening in color as the oils and waxes are displaced.
“It needs to be the best it can be because that’s really our competitive advantage,” Skip said. “We’re not cheap. If you came to me and said, ‘Wow, I need a million of something in a really big hurry,’ you’re probably in the wrong place.”

 

Pictures in this article were also used with permission from The Distance.  Credit to Shaun Hildner,