I was fortunate enough, in my own adventure, to find Ashland Leather.
Recently I was also fortunate enough to literally find Ashland Leather, the business itself, as it is located on an obscured offshoot of Elston Avenue in Chicago about a half mile north of the Horween Leather tannery. I was fortunate, too, to be able to buy my own Fat Herbie wallet about a year ago. And the other day, I was most fortunate to visit with founder Phil Kalas at his office and factory.
The first words from his brother, Matt, were an apology for the mess and a declaration of intent to better organize the place. I wish I had a better way to tell him that his apology was unnecessary. This is a dream business in every sense of the word. I have not had the opportunity to visit Horween, Truman, or Viberg, but I am guessing that Ashland Leather is a beautiful addition to that way of life.
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The Ashland Leather Facility
Calling Ashland Leather a factory makes it sound like a large, mechanical, and impersonal environment. Ashland Leather is mostly none of those.
Obviously the place is mechanical, insofar as there are sewing machines, dies, die cutters, and a new higher tech contraption that, if I understand it correctly, measures things in three dimensions for die making. (Note that dies aren’t dyes — dies are tools for cutting or shaping material, usually using a press.) At this factory, leather is brought in from down the street, cut into shapes, sewn into the various products, polished off with great care and pride, marketed and shipped.
The operation is maybe 3,000 square feet. There are no conveyor belts and there is no mass production, which Phil explicitly told me he doesn’t want at Ashland. There are also some facilities for Phil to take pictures and make videos and to add his personal touches. He said he wants to treat his customers the way he wants to be treated, providing an incredible value and an incredible experience with a personalized thank you. And the man delivers.
He lamented the fact that he has people who do better leather work than he can do. I lamented that I did not have sufficient words to tell Phil that his operation is a true, genuine pleasure to behold.
There is no actual plan, he says. At Horween, and at Ashland, they simply get an idea and they work it. For example, there is a 1970s to 1980s technique for finishing guitars wherein some paint is thrown into vat and the guitar is dipped into the vat. Somehow, this was explored at Horween for a particular leather finish to mimic the splash effect on guitars.
[Related: An interview with Horween Leather Factory]
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And then too, at Ashland Leather, there is Horween leather everywhere, from fresh hides carted in from Horween, to a room full of scrap that awaits a new vision. After the parts are cut the scraps remain. I asked Phil for some small scraps and he was kind enough to give them to me. Ashland uses primarily Shell Cordovan and Chromexcel, but I was shown an incredibly cool piece made from football leather. In this video he shows some Ashland Leather products and some materials used.
I found Ashland leather because of my boot habit. I was looking at everything I could find on Horween Leather, and I read an interview with Nick Horween. When asked what the best product made from Horween Leather and without hesitation, it seems, he said “The Fat Herbie, of course.” That’s the signature product from Ashland.
After seeing Nick Horween’s glowing endorsement, I Googled.
I did not need a wallet at the time, but I am hard on my wallets. I previously bought my wallets from Macy’s, and wore them out in maybe a year if I was lucky. At the time I had a wallet I picked up in a kiosk at the Cancún airport, which fell apart in half the time. That’s when I signed up to Ashland Leather’s newsletter and from there I received a monthly email from Phil and Matt with their monthly deal. I got a deal on two wallets:
- a Chromexcel Color 8 Fat Herbie with a black exterior and teal interior, and
- a Johnny the Fox, also made of Chromexcel. I have no Color 8 boots and with this deep red being the quintessential Chromexcel colorm I figured that I needed it.
That was about a year ago and in that time I also bought a Chromexcel belt from Ashland Leather. Here is my Fat Herbie today, but my cellphone pictures do not do it justice.
A Man and His Wallet
It is still perfect and it has many years left, even though I overstuffed it with cards. Chromexcel being Chromexcel, it pretty much snapped back, but Phil and Matt seemed appalled when I showed how many cards I kept in it — a maximum of four in each of the four card holders, it turns out. I suppose I need to condition the leather a little, and I will do it when I get to my boots.
Having a Chromexcel wallet is a deeper relationship than having Chromexcel boots.
Having a Chromexcel wallet is a deeper relationship than having Chromexcel boots. Watching the patina develop is, of course, part of the adventure and the way one uses a wallet is more up close and personal than using boots or shoes. Looking at Matt’s and Phil’s Fat Herbies, both made of Shell Cordovan, they appreciate the experience of their wallets.
To provide the same value in terms of longevity as my Mexican and Macy’s bought wallets, my Fat Herbie will have to last a couple more years. This is a problem because my Chromexcel Fat Herbie will last far longer than that and I have an itch to use my Shell Cordovan Fat Herbie! Alas, one can really only use one wallet at a time. Anyway, if you are a reader of Stridewise, I probably do not have to explain why one’s relationship with one’s leather can be so meaningful, and why it’s a big part of what makes Ashland Leather products special.
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Why Do Ashland Wallets Wear So Well?
I asked Phil why his wallets wear so well.
One reason, he told me, was that wallet manufacturers want their wallets to be flat so they thin the leather, a process called skiving. They especially thin the leather on the edges so that they can fold the end over, glue it, and then stitch it. They also skive where the leather overlaps.
While Phil said that there are many reasons why Ashland Leather wallets last longer, he emphasized that “thinning the leather is kind of like taking the foundation away.” So he doesn’t do it.
“There are textbooks about leather where they describe cross sections of the leather where there are unique cross sections,” he said. “The more you thin down the more fibers you lose.”
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Ashland Leather also puts no seams down the spine, and the stitching is carefully done so that the leather doesn’t cut the stitching over time. Phil showed me the stitching, and you will have to take my word because I cannot describe it in writing, but since then I have looked at higher end wallets from the likes of Hermès, and find similar construction at premium, high end prices.
Phil agreed with me that the longevity of his products might also be attributable to the quality of Chromexcel and the Shell Cordovan, though he surprised me by telling me that Shell Cordovan is abrasive — the inside of a Shell Cordovan wallet will rub together and wear. But based on my own personal experience, my Fat Herbie is durable. It comes in many colors and they have new offerings as they get different colors from Horween, so Ashland Leather has monthly deals. When I was there I had received an email for a rare Magenta run of Shell Cordovan. My visit was within hours of receipt of the email and they were sold out. So if your goal is to acquire a monthly deal on an unusual offering, make sure you move quickly.
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The Founding of Ashland Leather
Having covered how I found Ashland Leather and how I acquired my Fat Herbie, I want to relate something about Phil, himself. In his one word, he is fascinated by leather. Having my own appreciation for the leather, I get that. In Phil’s words:
I had worked at the Horween Leather tannery and I started working in 2006 and I just fell in love with the leather. We’re kind of surrounded by leather right now. And each of them are like… it’s one of those sensory things where it feels good to look at, and smell and touch, it’s all the senses — and that’s something I wasn’t expecting when I first started working there. I, and I say this a lot, I just thought leather was leather and I think that’s how most people think unless you have been to a tannery or you get into boots or wallets or something like that. So it was really eye opening for me to walk around and observe different textures and observe different colors and even the leather smelled a little differently. I had this experience of just seeing these rolls and sheets of leather and I never got the opportunity to sort of experience it outside of just this… this is a piece of Color 8 marble Shell which looks super, it’s just an awesome material and I have come to really appreciate it.
I guess I had been working for 3 or 4 years and I wanted to experience it a little farther, so what I used to do was to cut a little piece off and I would put it in my pocket because I liked to see how it would patina and change… It changes color and it becomes part of you after a while. I love that idea of something becoming a part of you, of how it becomes a part of you and changes. That was 2010, so I started making stuff out of leather that I would find at the tannery.
So I bought, The Art of Hand Sewing Leather by Al Stohlman. It was old time saddlery type of stitching method and they sold it as a kit, so you got some fundamental tools and then you could start to learn to do stuff yourself. I started making card holders. The first one I did I never really sold, it just looked like an envelope. I really liked the simplicity of an envelope, and some people would like that so I would give them away. I started making bags, I copied things I saw… but the goal then was not to make a business of it, I just wanted to make stuff out of leather that I thought was really cool
I was making stuff and one day at the Horween tannery I was telling my colleague Dan — now my business partner — about all the stuff that I was making and learning to hand stitch. It turned out he was making stuff too, he was making a bag for his wife. And at that point it clicked that we should try to make stuff together.
I love that idea of something becoming a part of you, of how it becomes a part of you and changes.
I think I may have experienced something of his fascination as I sat with him surrounded by Horween hides. Phil is fascinated by the look. Phil is fascinated by the texture. Phil is fascinated by the smell. But most of all, Phil is fascinated by the time represented in all of the processes that created the hides. He is fascinated by the time involved in designing the wallet. He showed me the dies used to create the various products, which include watch bands and key holders, and we chatted about the time involved in creating them. He showed me the process, which you can see in one of his many videos. Phil showed me the die cutter and he even was fascinated by the time involved in the cutting board.
I appreciated My Fat Herbie from day one because of the leather and the quality. I came to appreciate the simplicity of the design: inside, it’s just four pockets for cards, each of which can hold four cards.
Ashland Leather uses only Horween Leather. “Because we can,” Phil said. The amount of material Horween puts into the leather is at least twice as much as anyone else. “Horween hasn’t compromised what it’s done for one hundred years.” The material and processes haven’t changed, “and it is because of that they have created a product that is classic.” No one else has figured out how to do it. People try to rip off the Chromexcel, “but it’s not as nice.”
This fascination with time, as Phil calls it, is a key to appreciating this unique wallet. The Fat Herbie is part of Phil, part of his adventure, and even though you pay a few bucks for it, it is a priceless gift that Phil will give to you if you too are fortunate enough find Ashland Leather.
Featured image via @ashlandleather on Instagram.
Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of Stridewise, LLC. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.