John Spinks documents one of Chicago's friendliest family businesses Horween Leather Company 

First featured in Issue 06
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Originally commissioned by Detroit brand Shinola in 2012 to visit and shoot the Horween Leather Company, John Spinks has since forged a strong relationship with this family business.
‘They’re the friendliest, sweetest people,’ says Spinks. ‘There’s a long family history of doing this – they’re into the fifth generation of Horweens – but there’s no sense of taking themselves too seriously.’

Once a mainstay industry of Chicago – which was known as ‘the slaughterhouse of America’ since it was where cattle from across the country were driven – the tannery business in general has been in slow decline, with the dwindling supply of hides affecting quality. But American sport is still pretty reliant on what they do here. Horween’s biggest customer is Wilson, the makers of American footballs – indeed, the corridors of the office are lined with a ball from every Superbowl.

It is still very much a family enterprise (Skip Horween is president/CEO, with son Nick as vice president), and the emphasis is placed on detail – or as they say, ‘Making the best means doing a lot of little things right.’ They specialise in Chromexcel, an original ‘pull-up’ leather, and Shell Cordovan – made from a particular part of horsehide that is tanned, stuffed, shaved and polished over a period of at least six months to achieve the desired finish. The only way to do that is by hand, with each stage carried out by craftsmen whose trained eyes and knife skills are unparalleled. ‘Everyone has their own knife,’ says Spinks, ‘and they make scabbards for them from the offcuts of the leather.’

For Spinks – a trained eye in a different way – every
inch of the tannery reveals rich textures and atmospheres: from the splashes of dried oils and waxes on the floor (a result of the stuffing process, where molten wax is poured over the hides , which are then rolled together to produce a beautifully finished waxy surface) to the clouds of steam (created in the washing process).

The one thing these images can’t convey however is the smell – which varies from rotting meat at one end of the floor to the sulphuric smell emanating from the process of stripping the hair off the hide at the other. Let’s just be thankful we can appreciate the beauty without that.