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A morning at Horween Leather Company.

JSO1

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Today I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to check out the Horween tannery here in Chicago.

It’s a hot and humid day today in Chicago, so after I arrived and parked nearby, I was greeted by the unmistakeable, powerful aroma of the tannery wafting out through the ground-level windows - certainly something to experience for yourself.

The Horween building is quite large, but only has a small, wooden door in the front. Up a small staircase, you enter a waiting room with two pews, for lack of a better term, on opposite walls. A knock on the window and a signature on the sign-in sheet later, and I was awaiting the arrival of Nick Horween, son of the current President of Horween - Skip Horween, whom I’d met at the Allen Edmonds trunk show event in Chicago last fall. Thus, I decided to wear my Allen Edmonds Dundees in Navy Shell Cordovan - a trunk show makeup.

*(side note: pictures follow the paragraph describing them - I also didn't go to Horween with the intention of doing a thorough photo-documentary, hence I only used my iPhone to take pictures, and only took pictures of a few things I found very cool and interesting.)



Nick greeted me, and we headed downstairs to the lower level of the tannery - where the raw hides are brought in, processed, pickled, and treated before being tanned. This is definitely where the aroma is strongest. I got to see some horsehides (and butts/shells) in their very early treatment stages, along with a tremendous amount of cow/steerhides. I didn’t get to see any bison hides, but Nick informed me that they do a lot of bison leather, as well.



After this, we headed upstairs. On our way, we ran into Nick’s father, Skip, who remembered me from the trunk show event, and we chatted for a minute or two. It was cool to see Skip and Nick walking around the factory, checking in on different things at different stages of production.

Anyway, our route wasn’t in the same chronological order as the actual process, and I may have forgotten exactly which step we were talking about with each picture, so forgive me if I get some details wrong on these.

But, that said, I know that the next thing we went to see was upstairs, in the tanning room, specifically where the shells are tanned. This is where the magic happens - where the butts (which have the shells) are vegetable-tanned for their 30 days in the fantastic formula. This room definitely had a much more pleasant aroma - it reminded me a bit of mesquite BBQ, with all the wood aromas rising from the huge racks of shells being slowly sloshed around in the tanning solution.

Here, the shells are still attached in the middle and haven’t been shaved down fully. They’ve been trimmed and such, but they’re not individual shells yet.



Next, we went to look at some butts that were almost ready to go into the tanning solution we had just seen. Here, the butts have already been treated for a short while to help reveal where the shells are, but there’s still a lot of excess horsehide around the shells, which are still beneath the outer layers of skin.

Nick showed me how at this stage the shells are somewhat visible through the skin layers, as you can see in this photo below - the sections that appear darker are where the shells are, and at this stage they’ll be cleaned up a bit and trimmed down closer to the edges of the shells.



We then headed to the next floor to take a look at some other processes. Horween uses both vegetable tanning and chrome tanning, and here you can see a few piles of chrome-tanned leather that were just shaved down to equal thicknesses - the left pile is the perfectly even pile, and the right pile is for the excess thickness, which gets used for making suede and other rougher leathers. As I learned, essentially nothing is wasted at Horween.

In the back of this photo, you can see large drums where the leather is treated (I can’t recall exactly what stage this is, though). I also love their signage that is all around, throughout the tannery. Very cool, old school stuff.



Next, we headed up to the spraying and dying area, where the shells that have already been tanned are brought up (still in joined, butt form), stacked up, and allowed to rest for quite some time (I think it was 30+ days) before being shaved down and cleaned up.

You can see the pile of butts in front, closer to the camera, which have been tanned but have not yet been shaved down. You can see some of the natural shell color peeking through underneath the top layer in the front pile. The back piles have already been shaved down and cleaned up but are awaiting cutting into individual shells, awaiting dying and finishing. Each pile has 1000 butts.



The hanging shells in the back have already been dyed, whereas the piles in the middle have not yet been. In the front, covered with plastic wrap, are dyed shells that have already been dyed and cut into individual shells, and are awaiting the final treatment processes.



Here are some hanging butts. They’re not yet dyed, but have been shaved down and all that good stuff, so there’s mostly shell and not a lot of other stuff left. They hang for quite some time before they are ready to be dyed, as well.



Here, the butts/shells have already been cut into individual shells, and have been dyed. At this point, the shells are being slicked with a very fine but sharp blade, to remove the excess dye and to ensure a consistent finish in the color. You can see all the excess dye in two mounds in front of where each shell is handled.

As a side note, Nick told me an interesting fact that I was curious about. I was wondering why the inside part of the shell is sometimes green, and sometimes more tan/natural colored. My Alden boots, which are black shell, have the Horween stamp on the inside of the tongue, and that section is rather green looking. Nick explained that the shells are slicked with water at this stage. The water is reused for most of the day and thus gets darker and greener as more black dye is run off into it. So, if the insides of your black shells are green, then your shell was likely slicked later in the day, and if the insides of your black shells are more tan, then your shell was likely slicked early in the day.




An almost-finished shell. This is what Horween calls Dark Cognac, which is used by Crockett & Jones and Allen Edmonds (and others like Enzo Bonafe, etc.). Even at this stage, it’s absolutely beautiful. I wanted to buy this shell on the spot.

Nick explained that at this point the shell is almost done, it just needs a little bit more treatment before it gets sent down to the final cutting and quality control.



Next, we walked past a bunch of football leather drying. Had to check it out, since it’s one of Horween’s most well-known products. These will someday become Wilson footballs and perhaps one of these will turn into a gameday used NFL ball. Very cool.



Next, we walked past the shell drying racks. There were no shells in here drying today, but you can see where the residue of the shells is on the glass.



Ah, the shaving room. This is one of the most difficult and high-skilled jobs at the tannery - these guys shave down the layers of horsehide to reveal the shells. This happens after the butts have been tanned, but before they are dyed and such. You can see all the tiny shavings on the floor. This is one of the coolest things to see at Horween.



Here’s a freshly shaved shell, literally right off the shaving machine and into our hands. You can see quite clearly where the shells are, and where the rougher, suede-like layers that surround the shells are.



These are the vats where the leathers, shell cordovan and chromexcel and others, are “hot-stuffed” and filled with the waxes, essential oils, and good stuff that gives them their incredible properties. Each tank is used for different things, and has different formulas for the stuffing. Tank #2, which is at the right edge of this photo, is the shell cordovan tank.



Finally, this room has a whole bunch of different hides awaiting further treatment. These are mostly chromexcel, essex, dublin, or cavalier leathers. You can see the bright blue, black, brown, teal, grey, etc. - all here.



Nick and I then headed back towards the front office, where we chatted about shell cordovan, shoemakers, leather care, and the tanning business in general. It was enlightening, fun, and really enjoyable to spend my morning this way.

It’s also really great to see that Horween continues to follow their traditions and make the same great products that make their leathers the ones that gents like us desire and appreciate. I definitely left the building with a much deeper understanding and appreciation for all the work that goes into making these leathers, especially shell cordovan.

In short, Horween is awesome.
 

jrd617

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Awesome :slayer:

In before @NAMOR, the SF king of shell...
 

dieworkwear

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Nice post, @JSO1.

When you guys were discussing shell, did Nick say anything about what's causing the shortage in non-dark colors? And whether he thinks things will change soon?
 

JLibourel

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Great post! Very informative. I have been told by someone "in the know" that shell is getting harder and harder to get in the States because most of it is now going to East Asia.
 

NWTeal

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Awesome stuff.

I have a friend who grew up in Chicago and I was telling her about shell cordovan shoes (we were discussing exotic leathers) and how the tannery is in Chicago. Her response was, "Is that what that smell is? I know exactly where that is!". The shell aroma must cover the entire neighborhood, not surprisingly, I suppose.
 

dieworkwear

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jrd617

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Nice post, @JSO1.

When you guys were discussing shell, did Nick say anything about what's causing the shortage in non-dark colors? And whether he thinks things will change soon?

I would guess demand for darker colors? There are a relatively small amount of horse shells, and perhaps the majority of them are allocated to the darker colors? Easier to sell a dark brown shoe than a tan colored one
 

dieworkwear

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I would guess demand for darker colors? There are a relatively small amount of horse shells, and perhaps the majority of them are allocated to the darker colors? Easier to sell a dark brown shoe than a tan colored one

It's also easier to make darker colored shell cordovan, as imperfections are easier to hide. With demand going up, and supply going down, I think it's natural to see fewer lighter colors, as they weren't produced in big numbers before anyway.

I just don't fully understand why supply has been going down. Would also like to know if that will change, as I've been on a waiting list for cigar shell boots for about a year.
 

BootSpell

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@JSO1 , great post. Thanks for taking the time to share.
 

rydenfan

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Amazing post. Looks like an incredible day
 

JSO1

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Awesome


In before @NAMOR , the SF king of shell...
Thanks!

Nice post, @JSO1 .

When you guys were discussing shell, did Nick say anything about what's causing the shortage in non-dark colors? And whether he thinks things will change soon?
We didn't get into specifics of supply/demand, but we did talk a bit about the color spectrum of shell, and our personal favorites. Nick and I both are big fans of Color #4!

Great post! Very informative. I have been told by someone "in the know" that shell is getting harder and harder to get in the States because most of it is now going to East Asia.
Thanks!

Nice! Good post
Thanks!

Awesome stuff.

I have a friend who grew up in Chicago and I was telling her about shell cordovan shoes (we were discussing exotic leathers) and how the tannery is in Chicago. Her response was, "Is that what that smell is? I know exactly where that is!". The shell aroma must cover the entire neighborhood, not surprisingly, I suppose.
Chicago is funny in that way. Depending on what neighborhood you live in, there are aromas that waft in from the various industrial things along the river. The people who live near Horween probably get ample tannery aromas, while the people who live near Blommer Chocolate are treated to the constant aroma of cocoa...

Some of those speculations were touched on in this WSJ article. Nick cited cyclical interruptions, although he didn't elaborate.

http://www.wsj.com/articles/cordovan-shoes-for-men-play-even-harder-to-get-1400881239
Interesting article - I had read that before, but we didn't really discuss any of that stuff.

I would guess demand for darker colors? There are a relatively small amount of horse shells, and perhaps the majority of them are allocated to the darker colors? Easier to sell a dark brown shoe than a tan colored one
Generally, perhaps, although if the SF crowd is any indication, tan colored shells sell like hotcakes!

Nice post. Looks like you had a great time!
Thanks - it was really cool!

Outstanding stuff! How did you manage a tour?!
Thanks! Would rather not get into those details, but it was a really cool opportunity.

It's also easier to make darker colored shell cordovan, as imperfections are easier to hide. With demand going up, and supply going down, I think it's natural to see fewer lighter colors, as they weren't produced in big numbers before anyway.

I just don't fully understand why supply has been going down. Would also like to know if that will change, as I've been on a waiting list for cigar shell boots for about a year.
Yes, it is definitely easier to make the darker shells than the lighter shells for that reason - not a lot of shells are clear and perfect enough for lighter dyes (or no dyes).

@JSO1 , great post. Thanks for taking the time to share.
Thanks!

Amazing post. Looks like an incredible day
Thanks, it was awesome. Check your PMs!


Ha!

Great article, thanks for posting. Nice pics too!
Thanks! I regret not bringing my DSLR...
 

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