From bags to belts, footwear to footballs, the Horween Leather Company is famous across the globe not only for its high-quality leathers, but for the iconic products these leathers are transformed into. Here at Colville Leather, we’re intrigued by the history of this renowned leather producer, and greatly admire the passion that’s devoted to every hide. We’ve enjoyed bringing a touch of Chicago history to our workshop in Devon and crafting a range of Horween leather accessories from their famous Derby Leather. But what’s the story behind this iconic leather company, and what makes their Derby Leather so special?
112 years, 5 generations
Over a century since it was founded, Horween Leather still strives to make the world’s best leather. And they certainly don’t take this task lightly. One of the oldest continually running tanneries in the United States, it has seen five generations of the Horween family lovingly cultivate the production process to blend traditional tannages and techniques with more innovative applications. The result? A top-quality range of dynamic leathers, where no detail is overlooked.
It’s safe to say that the words of Isidore Horween, Master Tanner and Founder, are still as instrumental today within Horween Leather as they were over 100 years ago: “We should take the best of everything; the best hides, the best oils, the best dyes and finishes – then we do whatever it takes to make that leather the best”.
Famous Horween leathers
Horween Leather offers a wide range of tannages, all hand-made at a factory in Chicago. Each leather has its own special story of craftsmanship that’s been honoured throughout the years. Here are some of the tales behind Horween’s most famous leathers:
Genuine Shell Cordovan
This particular type of Horween leather is produced from horsehide. Two oval cuts, known as shells, are taken from the posterior of the horse and tanned using the very traditional method of vegetable tanning. During this process, each shell is soaked in gentle vegetable liquors derived from tree barks. Following tanning, the shells are conditioned with natural oils and greases and then left to dry on glass frames. Once dry, each shell is shaved and hand-rubbed with dye for a vivid, natural finish. Finally, the shells are polished with a glass rod to achieve a rich, glossy look.
Shell Cordovan is usually sold for use in luxury footwear and leather goods.
Horween Chromexcel, known as the ‘original pull-up leather’, is produced using no less than 89 separate processes across a period of 28 working days. Once the hides are delivered to the Horween factory, they are cut in half and dehaired. Dehairing takes place in large drums, where a solution is used to ‘burn’ hair off all the way to the follicle. The hides are then bated and pickled to prepare them for the base tannage. A week-long, around-the-clock process sees the hides tanned with a chrome base, achieved using chrome salts. This process produces blue coloured hides, characteristic of all chrome tannages. After the hides are sorted according to their initial quality, the process of retanning begins. A very specific, secret mix of bark extracts and natural agents are used to give Chromexcel its heavy vegetable retannage. The hides are then impregnated with a secret blend of unrefined oils, waxes and greases. This creates a rich pull-up effect, where the leather lightens in colour when folded. Next, the hides are hand-rubbed in aniline, which are dyes and finishes that contain no pigment. They provide a clear stain that allows the natural character of the leather to shine through. Finally, the Chromexcel is conditioned with Neatsfoot Oil.
There are many variations of this combination tanned leather, all of which have been developed with specific uses in mind. Chromexcel, which is associated with superior comfort and durability, is most commonly used to make footwear and leather accessories such as bags, wallets and purses.
Football is one of the oldest leathers made by Horween, having been produced continuously for more than 70 years. Football leather is nestled right in the heart of the Horween history books, with Arnold Horween Sr. first producing it after playing football professionally and becoming head coach of the Harvard team. Horween Leather since went on to become the exclusive supplier of leather for the National Football League and Arena Football League footballs, as well as for National Basketball Association basketballs.
This is a specialised leather, made from bovine hides that are treated with Horween Leather’s own unique tannage and extracts in a process known as ‘Tanned in Tack’. The hides are then embossed with a pebble pattern. Football leather provides excellent grip in all conditions and is made with extreme diligence to ensure that it meets the needs of the highest calibre of athletes.
This ball glove leather is a straight chrome tannage, specifically designed to be strong, durable and to withstand repetitive use. In order to meet the high expectations of professional athletes, Horween only select the very finest full grain hides to produce this leather.
Why do we love Horween Derby Leather in particular?
The famous Horween Derby Leather, part of the Essex family of leather, is a waxed, vegetable-tanned side leather. During the production process, the full grain hides are nourished and conditioned with emulsified oils, which means that the finished leather ages beautifully over time, with growth marks and scars showing through. This makes it perfect for creating unique, striking products with a rugged, worn look, such as our Horween leather wallet and Horween notebook cover. It’s also a very versatile leather, which lends itself to use in a variety of products.
Nearly three years of dedication and diligence were invested into the development and perfection of the Derby Leather, echoing the famous Horween commitment to quality. We love working with this type of Horween leather, not only because it looks and feels beautiful, but because its story resonates with our passion for producing high quality leather accessories that can last a lifetime.