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Horween Leather – Why It’s Among the Best in the World

Before I was even aware of leather crafting as a hobby, I knew of Horween’s leathers. I often saw expensive boots made from them, wondering what made them special. After jumping into the craft, I had the opportunity to work with the leather. I learned to appreciate the high quality and unique characteristics. 

Horween leather is a popular leather brand produced by the Horween Leather Company in Chicago, Illinois. They are famous for a high-quality combination tanned leather and shell cordovan. Horween leathers are more expensive than most due to high demand, around $12–$135 per square foot.

With all the buzz surrounding this leather, let’s look closer at why Horween stands out from the crowd. 

What Is Horween Leather?

“Horween leather” is a term used to bundle together all the various types of leather produced at the Horween tannery. The Horween Leather Company is a tannery located in Chicago, Illinois, known for producing high-quality leather.

The company produces some of the best combination tanned leather and shell cordovan. Horween’s popularity comes from its long-standing legacy of American-made leather, partnering with Wilson to help provide footballs used in the NFL.

What We’ll Explore

  • Clearing up Myths & Misconceptions
  • History of Horween Leather
  • Horween Leather Overview Table
  • Types of Horween Leather
  • Is Horween Leather Better Than Other Leathers
  • Characteristics of Horween Leather
  • How is Horween Leather Made?
  • Popular Horween Leather Goods
  • What is The Tannery Row?
  • Pros of Horween Leather
  • Cons of Horween Leather
  • How To Maintain Horween Leather
  • My Personal Research Into Horween Leather
  • Helpful Horween Leather Insights
  • Key Takeaways
Finished Leather Shoes - Liberty Leather Goods
Fine Leather Shoes

Clearing Up Myths & Misconceptions

While Horween’s leather can be great material for various projects, it is not always the best. Horween’s leathers fill a role of a slightly softer combination tanned leather, which is a good choice for those who want some benefits from both tanning methods. However, this often places the leather in an awkward position where a different leather may suit the project better. 

Projects such as belts, saddles, and sheaths, would often benefit more from a firmer leather that would not stretch over time. Similarly, bags and garments work better with more soft, supple leather. Horween is a high-quality leather for a general audience but can often be outclassed by other tanneries focusing on a singular leather type. 

History of Horween Leather

Horween leather comes from the Horween Leather Company in Chicago, Illinois. One of the oldest tanneries in America, the company was founded in 1905 by Isadore Horween. By 1911, he had developed aniline chromexcel leather, one of their most popular leathers to this day. The leather was used during World War II for boot making, as the leather proved to be highly water resistant. 

Horween’s growth continued as Isadore’s son, Arnold Horween, took over the company in 1949. With a long history of football between him, and his brother Ralph Horween, he would later develop a leather to be used in the National Football League. 

Today, Horween Leather Company is one of the few remaining American tanneries, standing forefront due to its rich history and high-quality leather. Horween has become a household name for crafters and those who enjoy leather goods. 

Horween Leather Overview Table

CharacteristicDetails
Chromexcel A hybrid tanned cow leather that produces a durable finish with vegetable tanned qualities. Heavy pull up with a semi-firm feel. 
Shell CordovanA vegetable tanned leather made of horse rump. Processed for over six months and hand dyed with an aniline finish. Often sold in pieces less than 2 square feet.
EssexA vegetable tanned cow leather using the same tannage as their shell cordovan. Soft and supple due to fats, oils, and greases added during tanning. 
LatigoA hybrid tanned cow leather with a full vegetable re-tan. A firmer leather with a hot waxed stuffed surface. 
DublinA vegetable tanned leather that is similar to their essex, using shell cordovan tannage. When finished the leather has hot waxes added to it. 
Horween Leather Types

Types of Horween Leather

Chromexcel

Possibly the most popular leather Horween makes is their chromexcel, which is a combination tanned leather. This tanning method uses chromium and vegetable tanning methods to create a hybrid, offering benefits from both types of leather. It is stuffed with waxes and oils to provide a heavy pull up. Chromexcel leather will also patina over time and is burnishable due to the combination tanning. 

Cordovan

Shell cordovan is made from fibrous horse rump, as it is highly durable and does not wrinkle easily. Horween’s shell is famous for its smooth finish and deep coloring. Their manufacturing process takes at least six months. Tanning, dyeing, and finishing the leather. Horween’s shell is hand dyed, which helps create a beautiful aniline finish. 

Essex

Essex leather is one of Horween’s vegetable tanned products. Its shell cordovan uses the same tanning liquids for half of the processes. The leather continues to be tanned while incorporating oils, fats, and grease.

This second part of the process provides the leather with durability while also softening it. When finished Horween’s essex leather becomes much softer, and more supple than most vegetable tanned leathers on the market. 

Latigo

Horween’s latigo leather is a combination leather, with a full vegetable re-tan. With the re-tan, their latigo leather can achieve added durability and vegetable tanned characteristics such as firmness, patina, and ability to be burnished. Horween’s latigo leather is also hot stuffed with waxes to provide a protective coating, which is ideal for straps, belts, and stiff leather bags. 

Dublin

Horween’s dublin leather is a more rustic version of their essex leather. Using the same vegetable tanning recipe as their shell cordovan and added fats, oils, and grease. Where dublin differs from essex is the finishing. Dublin has additional natural waxes added to the finished leather, which is then ironed down to create a smooth surface. 

Is Horween Leather Better Than Other Leathers

Horween makes high-quality leather that is loved by many, and used by plenty of fashion brands. While its reputation stands out from the crowd, it is not better than other leathers, only different. Horween fills the unique role of being a soft hybrid leather that can be used for a large variety of projects. 

Their leathers look nice, are durable, and are easy to maintain, making it an easy popular choice for the general market. Leather enthusiasts, however, may find they prefer other brands of leather as they can single out the important qualities to them. 

According to Bailey’s Industrial Oil and Fat Products, Sixth Edition, written by Paul Kronick and Y.K. Kamath, the fats and oils added to the leather throughout the tanning process play a big role in softening the leather. Their research shows they help break down the fibers allowing the leather to move more freely. 

Characteristics of Horween Leather

Material

Most hides that come into the Horween tannery are from cows, with only about 10% being horse hides. All of Horween’s hides are from animals that have been harvested for their meat and never their hide. In addition, the company carefully inspects its hides before selection, ensuring the highest-quality product possible by starting with high-quality materials. 

Cost

Horween leather is high quality, with a large following that has pushed the price of their leather higher than average, starting at around $12 per square foot. With their combination tanning giving their leather benefits from chromium and vegetable tannins, their leathers are well worth the bump in price. 

Their shell cordovan is at an entirely different price point when compared to their cowhide leathers. Shell cordovan is made from horse rump, a more scarce material. The leather supply is often low because of this, combined with Horween’s six-month tanning methods. As a result, the leather cost around $135 per square foot — a hefty investment.

Appearance

While the appearance of Horween’s leathers will vary by type, a few characteristics are common throughout the leathers. Typically Horween’s leathers will be full grain, so their leathers will have surfaces with beauty marks such as range marks, or bug bites.

Another common trait of the leather is a waxy or oily surface. This often creates a pull-up effect which adds a large range of depth to the colors of the leather. 

Flexibility

When compared to other leathers of the same tannage type, Horween leathers are fairly flexible. The leather can be best described as semi-rigid, which often has enough firmness for wallets and soft sheaths. Horween’s leathers are also used in boot making, a great example of the flexibility of the leather. Being able to be used as shoe leather while remaining a combination tanned rather than chromium. 

Durability

Many of Horween’s leathers have steps that involve adding waxes and oil to the leather in addition to the already durable combination tan. This makes many of Horween’s leathers highly durable and able to be used for decades, if not a lifetime. With the leathers often having a pull up effect and potential to patina, wear only adds character, as it darkens and exposes the rich colors unearthing the oils and waxes. 

Water resistance

While no leather is completely waterproof, Horween’s leather are highly water resistant. The combination of tanning helps protect the leather from saturation, causing water to bead off. In addition, many of Horween’s leathers have waxes and oils stuffed into the surface. 

This also helps the surface repel liquids and prevents water from penetrating deep into the leather. However, water may still damage the leather if it becomes completely saturated, so any spills on the leather should be quickly wiped away when possible. 

How Is Horween Leather Made?

Horween leathers start by selecting high-quality hides harvested as a byproduct of the meat industry. The hides will have been salted for preservation before arriving at the tannery, where the salt, dust, and other debris will be removed. Once the leather has been cleaned, it is ready to be processed.

The leathers are pickled for 24 hours to help the chrome tannage adhere to the leather and are then sorted by tanning type. Their leathers are placed into drums containing their proprietary tanning chemicals.

Once the leather has dried from this process, color, oils, and waxes can be added. The oils and waxes are applied to the leather through hot stuffing, which helps deeply penetrate the leather. Once the leather has dried, a hand finish is applied before it is ready for shipment.

In this helpful video by The Kavalier, we get an in-depth tour of Horween’s leather tannery and are guided through an insightful look at how a couple of their leathers are made.

Popular Horween Leather Goods

Throughout the history of Horween Leather Company, their leathers have been selected for use in well-known products, largely due to the high-quality, water-resistant leathers that the company is known for. Some examples of popular Horween leather goods are:

  1. NFL Footballs
  2. NBA Basketballs
  3. Boots
  4. Wallets
  5. Belts

What Is The Tannery Row?

The Tannery Row is a leather distributor located in Chicago. Since its conception in 2011, owner John Culliton made it his goal to make high-quality leathers available to smaller workshops and hobbyists. 

Since then, the company has expanded its leather collection from American-made leathers, including Horween, to popular international types. The Tannery Row is also the exclusive retail partner of Horween leather and can offer sides of their product that come directly from the tannery itself. 

Pros of Horween Leather

Many of Horween’s leathers are extremely popular and found in various products. The appeal of their leathers exceeds hobbyists and leather enthusiasts, finding a place in many fashion and sports brands alike. 

  1. Wear and water resistant 
  2. Can develop patina
  3. More flexible than other vegetable tanned leathers
  4. Made from high-quality hides
  5. Versatile project use 

Cons of Horween Leather

Although Horween’s leathers have been proven to be some of the best available, there are a few points to consider. 

  1. Higher cost per hide
  2. Scratches and marks easily
  3. Often out of stock due to high demand 
  4. Can stretch a lot over time

Horween leathers are more expensive than most due to high demand, around $12 to $135 per square foot.

How To Maintain Horween Leather

Maintaining many of Horween’s leather is surprisingly simple. The waxes, oils, and fats, used during their tanning processes help keep the leather healthy. However, over time the leather will need some routine maintenance as follows.

  1. Use a horsehair brush to remove as much dirt and debris from the item as possible. 
  2. If needed, apply a tested leather soap with a clean rag, completely covering the area. Leave the leather to dry thoroughly before continuing.
  3. While a leather conditioner can be applied without a leather soap, anytime a leather soap is used, a conditioner should follow to prevent dryness. To apply, use a clean cloth with a tested leather conditioner in circular motions on the leather. Wipe away any excess, and leave to completely dry.
  4. While not necessary, once the leather has dried from a conditioner, it may be polished to a shine. A piece of soft fabric is best to rub on the surface of the leather, helping buff, and polish it. 

My Personal Research Into Horween Leather

One of the most popular leathers that Horween offers is their chromexcel — combination tanned hide with an excellent pull up. To better understand why this leather is a fan favorite, I decided to do some basic crafting with the material and share my opinions. 

First Impressions

I chose their burgundy chromexcel to get a good example of its pull up effect. While the overall cover of the leather was darker than I expected, the pull up was intense. Any bent area quickly showed the red underneath, making for a good-looking leather. 

Running my hand across the surface, it felt smooth and slightly oily. Not enough to be greasy nor stain anything, but it still left an oily feeling on my fingertips. 

What really surprised me was how flexible the leather was. I purposely ordered a thicker piece to see how different chromexcel felt. Holding the piece from one end would be enough to have it flop around from its own weight. In addition, the leather felt spongy rather than dense like many other leathers.

Cutting 

Cutting the chromexcel was easy, but I had concerns when doing so. My ruler has a grip backing to prevent it from sliding, but when practicing with an acrylic one, it did not sit still well. In addition, the pressure from my knife and the grip backing left visible marks on the leather that needed to be rubbed out. 

As for the actual cutting, it feels great. The blade sinks into the leather preventing it from jumping around, but not enough to begin stretching it. This creates an easy-to-follow groove that makes each cut simple and accurate. 

Punching

Marking the stitching line to begin punching my sewing holes was great. The leather marked easily, leaving an obvious line to follow. After making a mistake, I was also able to rub the leather to remove the scratch, completely hiding my error. 

Punching holes in Horween’s chromexcel was also easy. The leather was not difficult to punch through, and pulling the chisels out was a breeze since the holes slightly stretched when doing so. Once again, I could pre-plan my punching spots by lightly pressing the chisels into the leather, a beneficial trait when the holes don’t align perfectly and need adjusting. 

Sewing

Sewing the leather was also a crafter’s dream. The leather easily opened up as the needles passed through and did not accumulate debris while stitching. There were no issues with tension, although if the thread is pulled excessively hard, it may cause the leather to sink a little. Hammering the thread when finished really helped close the holes, and I used a cotton cloth to wipe away any visible marks created when stitching. 

Conclusion 

Overall Horween’s chromexcel leather was really enjoyable to work with. All the basics came together smoothly, and the leather created a beautiful rustic look;  however, I worry about the shape of the leather over time. It did not have much structure, to begin with, and although it did not stretch while working with it, the spongy feeling suggests it may. 

High-Quality Leather Watch Straps - Horween Leather - Liberty Leather Goods
High-Quality Leather Watch Straps

Helpful Horween Leather Insights

Is Horween full grain?

While many of the leathers offered by Horween are full grain, some will be corrected grain. However, since most of their full grain leathers are an aniline finish, they will be easy to spot. The full grain leather may have range marks, bug bites, or other beauty marks visible on the surface. 

What is Horween leather used for?

Leathers made by Horween are quite versatile and can be found in various projects. The durability of the leathers makes them a great choice for hard-wearing items such as boots or belts. Horween leather also supplies Wilson with leather for their use in NFL footballs and NBA basketballs. 

Is Horween leather water resistant?

Yes, many of Horween’s leathers are quite water-resistant. During their tanning process, leathers will have waxes, oils, and fats added to them to help to protect the leather. Many of the leathers are also combination tanned, which provides similar characteristics to chromium tanned leather, a water-resistant leather. 

Key Takeaways

  1. Horween leathers are known for being a high-quality combination tan. 
  2. Their leathers are often more expensive than others due to quality and demand.
  3. Many of Horween’s leathers are wear and water-resistant. 

In Closing

Horween Leather Company is a historic American tannery with a longstanding quality legacy. Their leathers live true to their reputation, offering characteristics due to their combination tanning. Although more expensive, Horween’s leathers are easy to work with and help create a beautiful rustic finish. 

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