Shell cordovan is perhaps the most highly prized — and priced — material you can make a pair of shoes from. World renowned for its durability, luxurious appearance, unstoppable shine, and resistance to wrinkling, it’s hard to make. Extremely hard.
There are many reasons for this. It can only be made from horse, and horsehides are hard to come by. It can only be made from a small piece of the hide at the horse’s tail, so you can only get enough for a couple of pairs of shoes from one entire animal. And making it takes six to nine months, sometimes even more.
When people are looking at lists of cordovan boots, and perhaps reeling a little from the price — expect at least $700 and sometimes over $1,500 — it’s normal to wonder just what goes into the process of making the stuff.
So we visited the world’s best known shell cordovan tannery: Horween Leather Company in Chicago.
“It takes six to nine months to make Cordovan leather from start to finish,” says Skip Horween, the President of Horween Leather Company and grandson of its founder. “We get it to certain stages and it sits for a while. That’s always been part of the process and I’m not changing that, because it’s worked well for over a hundred years. The temptation to try and do it faster is one that’s been easy to resist.”
Here’s what those 9 months look like.
Hair Removed in Cement Mixers
After trimming the hides, the production of Shell Cordovan begins with the removal of hair from the horsehide. To efficiently and thoroughly remove the hair, the hides are placed in machinery that functions a lot like a cement mixer, where what Skip calls “basically an industrial strength version of (hair removal cream) Nair” is used.
The constant agitation within the mixers helps break down the hair and facilitates its removal.
Lime Process in Paddle Wheels
“Before we begin the tanning, like all leathers, we pickle,” Skip explains. “Pickling is an acid pre-tan which prepares the fibers to accept the tannins.”
This process is also called liming, where the hides are soaked in paddle wheels containing a lime solution. This step helps to further loosen any remaining hair, as well as remove the epidermis and other impurities from the hide. The duration of this process may vary but typically lasts about a day.
“This tannage is intended to make the leather as dense as possible, as opposed to sole leather where we want to make it as thick as possible.”
This is perhaps the best known step of the journey: vegetable tanning.
Tanning deputrefy hides, making sure they don’t rot. It permanently alters the protein structure of the skin, making it less susceptible to color change and decomposition while enhancing the durability. While most leather is chrome tanned, a process developed in the 19th century, cordovan is vegetable tanned, which is the way all leather was made for thousands of years before. The tannins bind to the collagen proteins in the hide and coat them, which makes them less water soluble and better able to resist bacteria.
“We’re trying to basically infuse the leather with this tanning solution that we’ve brewed here ourselves,” says Skip. “You can think of tanning as the reverse of making tea. Tea you put a bag in and the tea comes out into the water. Here we put the hides in a solution, and the leather going to absorb it over the course of its time here: sixty days.”
The hides are submerged in large vats filled with vegetable tanning agents, such as tree bark extracts. While chrome tanning typically takes about a day, Horween vegetable tans their cordovan for about 60 days.
[Further reading: The Best Shell Cordovan Boots You Can Buy]
“Stuffing is basically the impregnation of the skins with a blend of oils, greases, and waxes,” says Skip. “It’s literally beaten into the leather.”
The precise recipe of the liquids that get stuffed into the leather is a trade secret, but Skip confirmed it includes beef tallow, fish oil, paraffin, and beeswax. The hides are put in drums that have been steamed to increase the temperature, the skins are added, then the oils and waxes are bucketed into the drum. For about forty-five minutes, everything is tumbled around in the drum and the hides get “hot stuffed” with the ingredients. This stuffing process helps enrich the leather, enhancing its suppleness, and providing a beautiful sheen.
But this is just one of the steps that sees oils and waxes added into the leather. In fact, another one of them is up next.
“After the stuffing we’re going to actually hand oil it, which is what we call ‘smearing’ or ‘currying,’” says Skip.
Skilled craftsmen apply oils onto the leather’s surface using a currying process. This technique helps to further enrich the leather, improving its texture, and enhancing its ability to develop a rich patina over time.
The oils are brushed on by hand and then the hides are stacked in a pile, where they sit for ninety days to allow the oil to penetrate all the way through.
[Further reading: Why Horween Is America’s Best Tannery]
Once the sixty days is up process is complete, the leather undergoes shell shaving. Craftsmen carefully thin the leather, using just their own foot pressure to control the shaving machine, to achieve a uniform thickness of around 1.2 to 1.4 millimeters.
Inspection and Trim
The leather gets another inspection and the excess around the edges is trimmed before the hide then gets moved on to be colored and stained.
Dyeing the Leather
“We put the finish on through this machine, which is a seasoning machine,” says Skip. “It brushes the stain coats, the dye coats, onto the leather.”
After the shell shaving, the leather is hand-finished with color. So dyes, stains, or pigments are added first by machine, then by workers’ hands, to achieve the desired color and tone. Following the coloring process, excess dye is removed from the shell through a technique known as slicking.
“You’re accentuating what’s naturally there,” says Skip. “This begins the ‘what you see is what you get’ moment.”
Rolling the Cordovan
If you’re wondering why the cordovan doesn’t yet look all shiny yet, this is where that process starts — and it’s surprisingly ‘natural.’ Not because it’s done without machines — there is a big ol’ rolling machine here — but because all the machinery does is briskly rub the leather, which makes it become shiny by virtue of all the oils and waxes it’s been imbued with.
“It’s just this glass rod that’s repeatedly going back and forth,” says Skip. “It’s just polishing that fiber structure. (The shine) is a big part of it that we are given too much credit for. Nature puts it into this part of the animal. Then we have a particular tannage that prepares it to accept the steps that we take with it. The idea that we put so much stuff into is why it polishes and stays polished and lasts so long.”
Applying Venetian Cream and Glaze
Here, another coat of wax is applied and this time it’s Venetian Shoe Cream, a high-quality leather conditioner. This is available to consumers and is an extremely popular product for conditioning leather boots. This cream helps maintain the leather’s moisture and suppleness while adding a subtle luster. Additionally, a glaze may be applied to enhance the leather’s shine and provide a smooth, polished finish.
“It’s really, literally just an ironing,” says Skip. “It’s like you would do on a shirt where you just want it to be as smooth as it can be. It doesn’t mask problems, it just lays everything down to make it nice and smooth.”
Measurement, Sorting, and Grading
That’s just about the end of the production process. The next step is the last one before packaging: sorting and grading.
The cordovan is carefully inspected, measured, sorted, and graded. Measurements are taken to determine the appropriate size and shape for specific products. Lower quality cordovan gets either discounted or thrown out, while the best products are sent to the Horween’s premium clientele. These include Alden in the US, Carmina in Spain, and Viberg in Canada.
[Further reading: How Lefarc Became Mexico’s Most Sustainable Tannery]
Once the Shell Cordovan has been sorted and graded, it is ready for packaging. The leather is carefully packed and prepared for distribution to manufacturers, artisans, and craftsmen who will transform it into exquisite leather goods.
Here, we’ve gained a deeper understanding of the meticulous craftsmanship behind Horween’s Shell Cordovan. It’s rare to gain so much behind-the-scenes access for such an important product, but since some pieces of the process have been kept secret — like the precise mixtures of the tanning and hot stuffing liquids — the risk of this being too much information for competitors is minimal. We hope!
From the initial preparation of raw materials to the final grading and packaging, the process of creating Shell Cordovan demands unwavering patience and commitment.
As Skip emphasizes, the temptation to expedite the process has been steadfastly resisted. The process has remained the same for over a hundred years and that commitment to tradition is why Horween’s Shell Cordovan consistently ranks as the most desirable product one can make a shoe from.