The Horween Leather Company is proud of the fact that it hasn't updated its techniques in over a hundred years. Most recent developments in leather tanning are all about cost and efficiency; Horween have other priorities. They've been making high quality, naturally tanned leather since 1905 and they’re quite happy with the way it’s working out for them. When Isadore Horween founded the company back then he had a simple philosophy about quality:
“The price goes on last, and if we cannot sell it for what it is worth, we should not make that leather.”
He knew what he was talking about, too. Isadore started out in the industry because, shown samples of leather at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, he decided he could do better. After twelve years working for a local tannery he set up his own firm and lived up to his word. Since then five generations of Horweens have been producing leather in Chicago, and that guiding philosophy hasn't changed at all. While competitors have cut corners and gone for higher volume at lower prices, Horween have kept right on producing a high quality product the way it’s meant to be done. All their leather is still made in the factory where Horween have been located since 1920, by a unique, skilled team who bring a lot of talent into what they do. It’s a labor of love, and the results speak for themselves. If you need leather you can always rely on nothing else matches up. The NFL agrees; Horween is the exclusive supplier of leather for NFL footballs.
Modern leather is usually tanned with synthetic chemical solutions, most often a solution of chrome salts – up to 80% of all leather uses this process. Chrome tanning can be done in a day and the leather it produces is easily dyed. Higher quality leather is often tanned with aldehydes; automobile upholstery and many expensive shoes are usually made with this type of leather. Unfortunately real vegetable-tanned leather has become scarce and hard to find – but not at Horween Leather Company.
All Horween leather is still traditionally vegetable-tanned the old-fashioned way. It’s one of the few tanneries in the USA that still does the whole process in-house, starting with raw, cured hides and handling every stage between there and the end product. From selecting flawless, unblemished native hides to delivering a piece of perfectly tanned leather can take two months or more, depending on the exact process used. Horween produce several styles of leather for different types of products but the quality is always the same.
One of Horween’s best sellers over the past few years is Chromexcel. They've been making this since 1911 and it’s been put to all sorts of uses – many Second World War tanks had engine gaskets made from Chromexcel - but it’s more popular than ever, for some very good reasons. More and more leather goods artisans are taking advantage of its unique look and feel to create some amazing products.
Chromexcel is made from either cowhide – this starts out as half hides – or horse front hide. Horween start the process by using chemical baths to dissolve away the hair and clean the back of the hide, followed by adding the first preservatives. After that comes tanning in a chrome solution. Up to this point it’s not all that different from what every other tannery does, although Horween does use its own special formulations at each stage. For everyday leather the next step is dyeing – chrome salts give the leather a bluish tint - and applying the protective finish, but for Chromexcel this is just the beginning. Each batch will go through an incredible 89 separate stages, and it will be nearly five weeks before it’s ready.
Once the basic chrome tanning has been done the hides are hand-inspected, a step that includes sorting them by weight and weeding out any blemishes. Then the real magic starts. Chrome-tanned leather is durable and supple, but it doesn't have a lot of character. Chromexcel has bags of character, because there’s a lot more to come after the initial tanning is finished.
The key to Chromexcel unique feel is vegetable retanning, which enhances the benefits of chrome tanning while overcoming its drawbacks. It’s possible to make leather using vegetable tanning alone, and the result feels amazing, but using both – “combination tanning” – makes for a more durable end product. Horween use a carefully guarded blend of bark extracts for the retanning stage and the result is a soft but tough leather that’s returned to its natural color.
The process of giving Chromexcel its appearance and feel doesn't stop there though. Once it’s been retanned and dried it’s hot-stuffed to make sure it stays supple and waterproof, by impregnating the leather with natural oils and waxes. The exact mix is another of Horween's secrets but it includes tallow and beeswax. Of course it has changed slightly over the decades - Isadore Horween's original formula included whale oil, but that’s been replaced with an equivalent sustainable oil. The ingredients are solid at room temperature so they’re melted using steam coils, then the tanned hides are loaded into wooden drums and spun while the mixture is poured in.
Once the leather has been hot-stuffed it’s hung up to cool and air dry, which takes up to a week. Then it’s ready to be dyed. Chromexcel is colored by hand-rubbing with multiple coats of pigment. As well as giving it a deep, even color this contributes to its rich patina. Finally it’s dried again; now, at last, it’s ready to be used.
So why go through this long and complicated process, when almost all leather on the market is faster, easier – and, yes, cheaper – to make? To answer that question you need to touch, handle and appreciate Chromexcel. Even its looks stand out; it’s a “pull-up” leather, so creases and flexes add character as the stuffing oils redistribute themselves within the hide. Hard use doesn’t leave it looking tired and shabby – it just makes it even more distinctive. Chromexcel can be shined to a high gloss or left with a more subtle luster, as you prefer, and the oil and wax imparted by hot-stuffing mean any scuffs can be easily buffed out.
As good as it looks, though, it’s when you get your hands on it that the quality really shines through. Chromexcel is amazingly supple, and molds itself easily to anything you keep in it. It’s never stiff or uncomfortable. A case made of Chromexcel will accommodate what it’s meant to hold without binding or sticking, and it feels great under your hands too. Soft yet resilient, it’s pleasant to hold in any temperature and won’t turn slippery in the rain – the hot-stuffing process gives it excellent water shedding properties. If you want leather you’ll be happy to use every day it’s hard to beat Chromexcel.