How cordovan is made, at Horween tannery, Chicago

Friday, December 6th 2019
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Why should you care about a factory visit? 

Why care what the place is like where something is made - compared to say, the quality of it or how to wear it? 

Does it matter whether the place is clean or dirty, old or new? What the atmosphere is like, or the smell? 

Personally, the reason I like visiting factories is it gives me a deeper connection to the product. It’s an emotional, personal thing. 

And it’s nice to write articles about them to try and communicate that feeling to readers. So they can sense that greater appreciation as well. 

There’s usually a moment in a factory tour when this feeling hits home. 

More often than not, it’s when the thing you’ve been watching all the way through its manufacture starts to resemble the product you love. 

At the Horween tannery in Chicago, that point was on the top floor, when a metal cylinder was rolled with surprising speed and force over the leather, by a mechanical arm (below). 

Most of the processes around the rest of the factory are slower.

Skins hanging in dark-black pits, being gently agitated; their top layers being smoothly shaved off.

But this glazing arm moves with real aggression. The kind of power that makes you wonder about the brutal impact of being hit with it.

The result, though, is lovely.

The cylinder gives the cordovan shell (not of course the skin of a horse, but a membrane sitting underneath it) its distinctive, rich glow - the lustre that many men love recreating as they rub cream into their cordovan shoes. 

And the batch I was watching was colour number 8, that dark red that has particular depth, and is the most popular (around 65% of sales). 

It was that process, and the transformation it wrought on the leather, that made me think of my full-strap penny loafers at home. 

And now at home, it lends an emotional depth to the shoes when I wear them. 

The Horween tannery as a whole is old, wooden and full of character. 

There are four floors, with the process moving from skin to finished product as you travel upwards. In the basement are the cement-mixer sized drums, which were so big they had to knock down part of the wall to get them in. 

And next door, stacks of salted skins - flesh with hair attached, not for the faint hearted. 

(Though animal lovers, note that all the cordovan is a bi-product of the horse meat industry in Quebec, France and Belgium. Not what you’d expect, perhaps, if you don’t eat horse; and not ideal for the tannery either, as supplies can be erratic.)

Around the corner are the tanning pits. This is the image you will expect if you’ve ever read about or seen images of tanneries. 

The skins are attached to wooden slats, packed closely together, and hung into a tanning mixture of various barks.

Every now and again an automated mechanism lifts the whole lot and drops them again - rotating the liquid. 

The smell down there, by the way, is horrible. Acrid. I thought the association of tanneries with bad smell came from the times excrement was used - but actually even just fermenting bark will do it.

I love places like this for the patina on everything. 

The wooden barrels where the grain has been worn smooth by human hands. The floor in the basement where years of run-off has actually carved an estuary-like pattern in the concrete (shown top). 

And of course the piles of cordovan themselves make lovely colours and textures everywhere. 

Cordovan is actually a minority of Horween’s business - it makes up roughly 15% - but it is what they’re most famous for. 

In the US, they’re also known for producing the leather of all official American footballs, and basketballs too. The leather is printed with a pattern to help grip on the ball, as well as the occasional ‘W’ for Wilson, to show its authenticity. 

The factory has been on this site for almost a century, having been established in 1905 and moved to the site in 1920. 

Tanneries are nearly always on the edge of town (see point earlier re smell), and in fact the road Horween is on is called ‘Ashland Avenue’, after the stacks of ash that were pushed to the edge of town after the great fire in 1871. 

But Chicago has expanded a lot since then, and now Horween is oddly close to the centre. It’s only a 10-minute drive from Leffot or Optimo downtown. 

This has led to discussions over the years of the tannery moving. But if it ever did, the City would have to pay for it and the cost would be extraordinary. In all likelihood it would be cheaper to build an entirely new tannery. 

On the top floor of the building are the offices of Horween management: Arnold ‘Skip’ Horween and his son Nick. 

Nick is the fifth generation. He has racks of boots in his office, and shows me a new collaboration for a motorcycle boot in full cordovan. It will be a pretty tough piece. 

On the wall outside are leather skins tacked to the wall, where visitors can write their names and well wishes.

Like many things at Horween, time has taken over and the skins now cover two walls and part of the ceiling. 

I have an emotional response, seeing my name scribbled there and remembering that shine coming up on a cordovan butt. 

I hope I’ve communicated just a little bit of that emotion to you.