Horween tannery stamp inside a wallet

What is Horween leather? What makes it so special?

“For more than 100 years and five generations our goal has been to make the world's best leather.”

This bold mission statement is on the front page of Horween Leather’s website. It says a lot about their company. Horween Leather Co. isn’t content to create good leather; they insist on making the best leather. 


But what makes this leather so incredible? 


It comes down to Horween Leather’s long-standing tradition of valuing quality. For over 120 years, they’ve used demanding hand-tanning processes for one reason: they work. 


These slower processes rely on human skill and expertise. Artisans look at each hide and tan it based on its needs. The result is better than machine-tanned leather based on average speeds.


Horween Leather never cuts corners. They air-dry their leathers and make each piece to order. And like the leather they produce, they’ve only gotten better with age.

A roll of Horween Natural Chromexcel Leather
A roll of Horween Natural Chromexcel Leather​​
Measuring the thickness of English Tan Horween Leather
Measuring the thickness of English Tan Horween Leather​​

What is Horween Leather?

Horween Leather is any leather produced by Horween Leather Co. It’s considered the premier American leather. Primer Magazine writes: 

“If you’re looking for something more rugged, leather that’s thick and scuffs in a way that adds character, you want American leather. And that means you want leather from Horween.”

Horween Leather Co. produces such quality leather that it’s the leather used by the NFL and the NBA. 


But their sports leathers aren’t even their claim to fame. Horween Leather CO. is known for its Chromexcel and shell cordovan leathers.

Is Horween Leather full grain?

All Horween leather is full-grain leather. 


In fact, they are one of the few tanneries left that process from a raw state in the USA. They hand-select clean, unblemished native hides for their manufacturing process. 


They do their best to make as much usable leather as they can from each hide, selecting the part of the hide that makes the most sense for the crafter.

Does Horween Leather patina?

The inside of a wallet with a Horween Stamp
Horween tannery stamp on the inside of this wallet​​
Holding up a side of English Tan Derby Leather
Holding up a side of English Tan Derby Leather​​

Patina is what happens when sunlight, bodily oils, dirt, and natural wear-and-tear come into contact with your leather product. It refers to the changing color of the leather as it oxidizes, as well as the color changes and scratches that inevitably occur over time.


Patina sets full-grain leather apart from its cheaper, “genuine leather” counterparts. While “genuine leather” aims to stay the same as time goes on, leather with a patina embraces its history. 


So it’s no surprise that Horween Leather products always develop a beautiful patina. 


Take a look at our leather patina gallery. You’ll see how the leather patina shows off the beauty of this leather’s long lifespan.

What’s the history behind Horween Leather Co.?

Horween has been producing beautifully-tanned leather since 1905.


Isadore Horween came from the Ukraine, where he spent years learning to tan hides. He immigrated to Chicago to further develop his art.


He founded Horween Leather Co. in 1905. Back then, the company specialized in creating durable leather strops to sharpen knives.

Growth and expansion

Isadore Horween had two sons: Arnold and Ralph Horween. 


Both men played for the Chicago Cardinals in the National Football League. This inspired them, and they helped expand Horween Leather Co. to create quality sporting balls. 


To this day, the NFL uses their pebbled leather for their footballs. The NBA also works with Horween Leather to produce official Wilson basketballs.

Endurance

When Horween Leather Co. was founded, it was one of the dozens of Chicago-based tanneries.  Back then, tanneries could be really smelly. Some used urine or feces to tan leather.  As a result tanneries were restricted to a “tannery row” on the outskirts of towns and cities.


As tannery rows became less necessary, other tanneries moved out of the densely-populated city. Many moved overseas to capitalize on the low costs of labor in other countries. By doing this, they often sacrificed quality in exchange for low costs. 


Horween stayed put. They refused to reduce the quality of their product for the sake of saving money. Instead, they put tradition at the cornerstone of their success.


As a result, they’ve been in the same building in Chicago since 1920. 

Today at Horween Leather Co.

Nick Horween is the current Vice President of Horween Leather Co.  He joined the company in 2008. 


Nick Horween has been careful not to change the tanning process. This traditional tanning process combines five generations of expertise, techniques, and proprietary recipes.


Horween still tans their leather by hand. Many of its 160 employees have been honing their skills for decades.  Although Horween Leather Co. uses modern techniques when it makes sense, they respect their history. 


What Nick Horween has done is inject the company with new energy. He’s worked to make their leather tanning process more environmentally friendly. In fact, Horween Leather Co. currently exceeds safety standards for leather production. 


He has also increased the company’s visibility and transparency. Social media posts, press releases, and blog content are all tools Horween Leather Co. now uses to keep their customers in the know. 


For example, a recent Instagram post showed customers what happens to extra leather produced by their company:

Horween Leather Instagram

The result of Nick Horween’s influence on the company is a Horween Leather Co. that is a perfect blend of old and new. Heritage-quality techniques are tempered by a modern vision. The company continues to grow while staying true to its roots.


Horween Leather offers several different varieties of leather. Two of their best-known leathers are Chromexcel leather and Shell Cordovan leather.  

What is Horween Chromexcel Leather?

Chromexcel leather is one of Horween’s best-known leathers. 


The formula was created in 1911. It has remained largely the same ever since. 


Horween’s Chromexcel leather was originally used to make work boots. In fact, Doc Martens were made of Horween Leather’s Chromexcel. 


Today, shoes are only one of the many items Horween’s Chromexcel leather is used to create.


Characteristics of Chromexcel leather include: 


  • The pull-up leather has a rugged look that develops a rich patina, just like your grandfather’s best leather wallet
  • Available in a range of weights. This includes 2-3 oz horse front leathers and cowhide leathers from 3.5-4 oz all the way up to 9-10 oz. 
  • The oils worked into the pull-up leather give it a nice sheen
  • Very durable, but soft and supple to the touch. 
  • Has an oily feel from the tanning process.
  • Can be dyed in a variety of colors

But the most famous characteristic of Chromexcel leather is that it is the original pull-up leather.

What is pull-up leather?

Pull-up leathers are dyed using aniline dyes. 


When you pull or bend the leather, the dyes migrate and the stretched parts become lighter in color. If you massage the leather, the color will return.

How is Chromexcel leather made?

It takes 28 working days to tan Chromexcel leather. During the month-long process, 89 different techniques are used. 


It starts with choosing the hides. 90% of the hides that come through Horween Leather are cowhides. The other 10% are horse hides. Chromexcel leather can be made from either type of hide. 


The hides are tanned in a chrome tanning solution. This makes them supple and blue in color. 


Then, they use bark retannage from an exclusive recipe to re-tan the hides. Just as twice-baked potatoes bring in a new richness and full-flavor palette, leather that has been tanned twice has superior quality. 


The first round of tanning keeps the leather from decomposing and creates some durability. The retanning process softens the leather, giving it a buttery-smooth feel.  It also lightens the color of the leather, which makes it easier for the leather to take on dyes in the future. 


The twice-tanned leather is hot-stuffed using a mix of fats, oils, and waxes. Then, it’s hand-rubbed using aniline dyes. This gives the hides their rich color. 


Finally, the leather is left to air dry. 


The air-drying process is an example of Horween Leather putting quality above all else. 


When leather air dries, it shrinks. Since tanneries sell leather by the square foot, many would balk at the idea of air-drying leather. 


But air-drying leather gives the hide a tighter quality. Horween Leather Co. believes the more durable leather is worth the effort.


With so much that goes into the process of creating Chromexcel leather, it’s hard to believe that this isn’t even Horween Leather Co.’s top-tier product. But Shell Cordovan leather, Horween’s luxury equine leather, takes even more care to tan than Chromexcel leather.

What is Horween Shell Cordovan Leather?

The backside of Horween marbled black shell cordovan
The backside of Horween marbled black shell cordovan​​
Marbled Black Shell Cordovan
Marbled Black Shell Cordovan​​

Original shell cordovan leather was produced in the city of Cordoba. This is where the name “shell cordovan leather” comes from.

 

It’s produced from the hindquarters, or “shells,” of a horse. The shell is split from a membrane between two layers of skin in the horse butt. A single horse hide produces only two shells. 


Horween Leather sources their horse hides from Canada and Europe. 


Shell cordovan is characterized by: 

  • Water-resistant leather due to pores so dense that they can’t be seen with the naked eye
  • High-gloss finish when buffed and shined
  • Very tight grain
  • Leather that ripples rather than creasing
  • Each piece is unique

How is shell cordovan leather made?

Tanning shell cordovan leather takes six months. It involves more than a hundred processes. 


It starts with a vegetable tanning process. Employees dip the hides in a solution made from chestnut and quebracho tree bark. The hides sit in this solution for at least thirty days, constantly agitated so the tanning job is even.


After the initial tanning process, the hides are removed and shaved down to size. This job is so tricky that only three people in the facility are trained to do it.


Once the hides have been trimmed down to size, they are re-tanned for another thirty days. For this, Horween uses an even stronger vegetable tanning solution.


After the second round of tanning, oils and greases are pounded into the leather. Then the leather is hung to air dry for ninety days. This resting period allows the oils to soak into the leather.


Finally, the leather is stained, glazed, and pressed. 


The final product is a glossy leather that is a little stiffer than Chromexcel leather and creases rather than wrinkling over time.


Because it’s naturally water-resistant, shell cordovan leather is often used for products, like jackets or shoes, that will spend a lot of time outside.


Shell cordovan leather is also firmer than Chromexcel leather. Some people prefer the look and feel of shell cordovan leather for EDC items that they plan to use as a statement accessory.

Leather is not one size fits all

If you don’t work for a leather company, it’s easy to think that all leather is basically the same. This could not be further from the truth. 


Some leather is high quality and long-lasting. Other leather is made by cutting corners, and the result is predictably disappointing. 


Horween Leather’s emphasis on using time-honored techniques has allowed them to make a name for themselves as one of the top tanneries in the world. 


1 comment


  • Jave Hughes

    Wow!! Glad I read about you. When I saw Horween leather bands offered by Fitbit, I thought they were synthetic (because I had never heard of you.) Now I have to have one!
    Thanks for your work. To me, quality leather is sumptuous and classic.


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