Visited Horween Leather Co. (2016)

It was mid-December in 2014, I was really fortunate to get to know Nick at Horween Leather Co.   We have exchanged correspondences to arrange a factory tour but I always ended up rescheduling due to the schedule conflict.  In June 2016, I finally succeeded to adjust my business trip to stop by Horween Leather Company taking the opportunity of several hours stay at Chicago during the transit to Japan.  (by Leica M3 + Sumillux 50mm/f1.4 + Kodak Tri-X)

(after the lunch at Damen)

After twenty minutes walk from Damen, traditional brick building suddenly appeared on the street.  Even far from the factory, nice smell of the leather is coming from somewhere…

(Smell of the leather is coming even from the far distance like this.)

I was really surprised to see Vice President, Nick Horween is a young guy just like us!  After greeting and giving small Japanese souvenir to him, we immediately went down to the factory.  

(material-hide piled up under the plastic sheet)

Factory tour started from incoming material area where a lot of raw material-hide with hair is piled up under the plastic sheet.  According to Nick, bison and steer hide is from North America (US and Canada) and horsehide comes primarily from France, Belgium and Quebec.

(blue hide is raw material turned into Chromexcel leather)

As the first process, material-hide will be put into rotating barrel and mixed with acid liquid for 24 hours to remove hair from the hide. 

(automated vegetable tanning process)

Hairless hide will be put and soaked into the pool filled with oak bark based liquid for a several months as vegetable tanning process. 

(right-hand side from brown color brink will be turned into cordovan)

After tanning process, backside surface of the hide will be shaved off so that very fine layer appears from inside and this is going to be cordovan.   On the above picture, you can see the brown brink which separates lighter color area on the left and darker area on the right.  This right-hand side darker area is going to be cordovan.

(“shell” cordovan put on the glass for drying process)

In the next process, cordovan will be cut out at brown color brink and put on the glass for drying. 

(dyed shells piled up)

Next process is dying. On this day, #8 color was added manually by craftsmen on the raw material shell. 

(Unfortunately, dying process of cordovan cannot be posted.  Here is another dying process of chrome excel leather.)

After the shell is dyed, the surface of the shell will be polished by machine to make its surface smooth and shiny.

(automated polishing process)

(a lot of shells!)

Among a lot of complete shell cordovan piled up there, we found quite rare exotic shells such as dark cognac and color 4.  Nick explained, “We are still making exotic shells such as whiskey but they need flawless clear hide because such lighter color cordovan will easily become scrap when dark spots or uneven color appears on the surface.   And then, we need to re-dye into black or just scrap them”.  

(color #4 cordovan, and Nick’s dark cognac shell Indy boots at the bottom of the photo)

(scrap whiskey and natural cordovan)

If uneven color or dark spots found during inspection that is the final process of the production, they need to be scraped or returned to the previous process to be re-dyed into black. 

(signed on the leather with my friend)

I hesitantly asked Nick, “Would you kindly give us some scrapped shell for our souvenir?”  “Sure!”, he said.  He kindly cut off beautiful portion from the scrapped shell.

At the end of the tour, huge leather is hanged on the wall and Nick kindly requested us to sign on it.  It seems I was extremely excited and miss-spelled…

(Nick’s dog!)

It was just 30 minutes tour but really curious to learn how shell cordovan is produced.  Also, I was really glad to know exotic shells are still and surely produced but just limited supply compared to the demand, which means it's not zero chance to get them in the future…

Alden of Tuck


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