The 5 Best Leather Tanneries on Earth

Everyone knows that a great boot starts with great leather.

But where does that leather come from? It starts with the expertise of the tannery, where raw hides are transformed into the highest quality leather through the alchemy of the tanning process. There are countless of tanneries out there — really, we’ve reviewed everything from Italian to Indonesian — but if you’re looking for the best possible product, these are some names you can put your confidence in.

 

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Horween Leather Company

Horween boasts that they are among a small group of tanneries that process their leather all the way from a raw, cured state to a finished product, as well as using only the best oils and dyes. Founded in 1905, the Chicago-based, family-owned operation has long stood as one of the most respected leather manufacturers in the U.S., and still employ craftsmen to produce their leathers by hand.

Horween’s signature is Chromexcel leather, which they call “the original pull-up leather.” It’s made from a nearly century-old formula, using a bark retannage, and then hot-stuffed with a blend of natural oils and greases that includes beef tallow and beeswax. They’re also one of the few tanneries in the world that still produce genuine Shell Cordovan leather.

 

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Uniquely, Horween produces an assortment of sporting goods, including basketballs, baseball gloves and a specialized football leather originally designed by Arnold Horween Sr., who once coached Harvard’s football team. Wilson exclusively uses Horween leather in the construction of their Superbowl footballs.

[Related: Our interview with Horween Leather Company]

[See Horween at their best on these Viberg Service Boots]

 

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Charles F. Stead Leather

Tanneries used to be a dime a dozen in England, but few have stood the test of time. Family-owned and based in Leeds since the 1890s, Charles F. Stead — also known as “CF Stead” — has done just that. Today, they’re perhaps the most celebrated maker of suede in the world.

Through partnerships with many prominent retailers, Stead maintains a towering presence in the industry, and has manufactured signature lines for popular companies like Adidas and Doc Martens. They also offer a wide variety of unique colors, roughout textures, and kudu suede, sourced from a kind of antelope hide.

 

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Famously, they collaborated on the Desert Boot with footwear luminaries C&J Clark some 65 years ago. Today, the iconic footwear comes in more styles and colors than ever.

[Check out CF Stead’s suede on the Taft Dragon boot]

 

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Lefarc

Lefarc was founded in Mexico 25 years ago by fourth-generation tanner Luis Ernesto Collazo. Though they may lack the long, storied history of a Horween or Stead, they’ve quickly risen to the top of the industry as a maker of fine leather, supplying brands such as Wolverine and Timberland.

 

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Producing in excess of 5,000 hides per week, Lefarc has dominated a very competitive Mexican market while still maintaining a particular emphasis on environmental consciousness, recycling two thirds of their waste and using solar energy to power their facility, a stance which has earned them a Leather Working Group gold medal. Moreover, Lefarc exercises strict quality control, guaranteeing that their leather is 100% free of restricted substances (like formaldehyde, yikes!).

[See some primo leather from LeFarc on the Thursday Captain Boot!]

 

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SB Foot Tanning Co

Much like Horween, Minnesota’s SB Foot has occupied the upper echelon of American tanneries for more than a century. Most famously, SB Foot is associated with the Red Wing Shoe Company, for whom they are the main supplier of leather. In 1986, after being operated by the Foot family for more than a century, SB Foot became a fully owned subsidiary of Red Wing.

 

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Beyond their partnership with Red Wing, they’ve partnered with the US military for generations, supplying leather for soldiers’ boots since World War I. They also manufacture full grain leather for high end upholstery, and camouflage-patterned leather popular among sportsmen.

[See how SB Foot leather ages in my old pair of Red Wing Moc Toes!]

 

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Guidi

With Italy being virtually synonymous with leather, to be thought of as the country’s finest tannery stands as a tremendous accomplishment. This is precisely where Guidi sits today, particularly with its celebrated footwear.

Founded by Guido Guidi in 1896, the tannery expanded from leather production into artisanal shoemaking in 2004. The family-owned company eschews mass production techniques in order to craft a more personal, high quality product in which no one pair of shoes or boots are completely identical to the next.

 

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Located in Tuscany, where tanning dates back to the Middle Ages, Guidi products are renowned for their stitching, lending to a high degree of durability. In fact, their footwear was originally designed for farmers and other outdoor workers, so sustainability has always been a hallmark of their brand.

This combination of uniqueness and durability make Guidi footwear a coveted commodity, available in high end boutiques like Gucci the world over.

The Bottom Line

At the end of the day, what your boot is made of matters as much as how it’s made. And if you’re looking for the best possible product, the highest quality boot you can find, you can’t go wrong with one made with leather from any of these tanneries.

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Mel Compo

Mel Compo is a writer, editor, and general word-geek from Brooklyn, New York. When they’re not writing about the finer side of men’s footwear they can be found lurking around the streets, trains, and museums of NYC, ostensibly doing something urgent but actually just looking around for menswear style inspiration.

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