What Kind of Leather Does Form Function Form Use? And Where Is It All Made?

The ‘Where’ and the ‘How’:

All of our products are made in the USA in our 1,000 square foot shop in Orlando, Florida, using leather from the Horween tannery in Chicago. When possible–as in, when they exist–we source components (such as clips, button studs, buckles, etc.) from domestic sources as well.

Everything we make is hand stitched; which means a maker using a needle and thread in their hands to stitch together the final product. This results in a stitch that is more durable long-term than a sewing machine can produce, though it is more time consuming.

Sometimes I wish we used a sewing machine–we have one in the shop but it serves the same purpose as that treadmill in your bedroom; an expensive catch-all to hold things that haven’t made it to their proper homes yet. A few things would be easier to make, and certainly faster, but they wouldn’t be AS durable, and I’d have to alter how I design things if we start using one…so, no thanks.

Wanna Really Geek Out About Our Leather? Sure!!

All of our leather goods are made using Horween leather. Horween is a tannery in Chicago, Illinois that has been in business since 1905. There are excellent tanneries around the world, and others based in the US, but we’ve chosen to use only Horween as we just love their product and their history of commitment to excellence.

You can find more information about the leathers themselves all over the web, and particularly straight from the source at Horween, but here are some notes focusing mainly how we use their various tannages in our products (obviously color is a key factor for us when choosing a leather to make a product, but perhaps more important is how the leather ‘works’, as some work excellently in one product but not in another…and not every color is available in every tannage, so a part of the FFF design process is choosing which leathers will be used to make a product and accounting for its particular characteristics while designing).

If you’ve seen terms like ‘full grain,’ ‘top grain,’ ‘corrected grain,’ and ‘genuine leather,’ and are confused, here’s a great primer from Horween’s retail arm, Tannery Row: See the “Understanding Leather Grains” article on their “Leather 101” page. In short: ALMOST all of their leather is top grain; the more inferior ‘split’ is mostly sent elsewhere, and becomes cheaper leather goods; the split doesn’t have the grain and structure and longevity of the top grain portion of the hide, but it is where suedes come from, so by definition the limited amount of suedes that we offer are from Horween’s selection of splits that they turn into suedes. Depending on whether the top grain leather has been smoothed out some (almost like sanding wood) by Horween for a more polished finish (corrected grain, as in their Chromexcel lines) or is left as full grain (where you can see the hair follicles and it’s therefore less smooth), the majority of what we use is either top grain or corrected grain. Again, by definition the limited amount of suedes we use are from the split.

Is top grain, full grain, or corrected grain best?

These labels do not mean one is better than the other, but rather it is question about which aesthetic you prefer. When a leather is designed, the grain is one of the tools used to achieve a final look.

You’ll see a lot of people say “full grain is the best leather.” That’s not ENTIRELY true…or it’s true enough as a general rule, but there are premium corrected grains and even suedes that are excellent also. Chromexcel, a corrected grain, is widely considered one of the top leathers produced for a variety of uses, while other corrected grains from a different tannery might just be mediocre.  What matters more is the quality of the production, rather than the technical label of the type of leather from the tannery.  Which is EXACTLY why we only use Horween for our leathers–I know whatever I get from them is going to be excellent leather that I and my customers can rely on.

A note on tannages in general – “Tannage” is just the process that is applied to a hide to get the eventual hide that is used in making products. So if you start with two sides from the same animal (a full hide is split in half along the spine to get two sides), and apply different tannages to each, you will get a two sides with distinctly different properties; one might be a glossier waxy product that changes color as it’s bent (Chromexcel), while the other could be a more matte finish that is lower stretch, more resistant to scuffs, and does not exhibit color variations (Latigo).

Chromexcel leather (CXL) – Chromexcel is sort of Horween’s bread-and-butter. Alongside Cordovan (below), it’s what Horween is known for, and it’s definitely Shawn’s overall favorite–particularly Natural Chromexcel. When this tannage is applied to a cow hide, you get beautiful pull-up (“Pull-up is the temporary displacement of these oil and wax blends that cause a lightening of the leather.” -Horween). Other tanneries produce pull-up leathers…we just think Horween does a particularly great job at it.
For our products, a regular CXL leather is used when we can use a thicker leather that doesn’t need to be size-critical; CXL will stretch a bit with use to conform to whatever it’s used for…so, we can’t use a regular cowhide CXL leather for a custom length watchband but it works great for an adjustable watchband or a clutch. It will scuff easily, but a little friction with your thumb will remove all but the deepest gouges easily.

Veg Tan leathers – This is SOMEWHAT of a fake name when you’re dealing with Horween. Other tanneries produce a “real” veg tan product, which ages beautifully and develops an incredible patina over time. However, a true veg tan is rather stiff and unwieldy at first, while Horween’s is much softer right from the beginning. Horween’s ‘veg tan’ (or what we call ‘veg tan’) is their Essex/Dublin/Derby (dublin and derby are the base tannage and then re-tanned with a waxier tannage; derby is then tumbled to give it a somewhat aged look). Essex/Dublin/Derby are also relatively high stretch leathers, like Chromexcel, so they’re used for products where a bit of stretch is fine. We love the feel and patina of the veg tan hides.

Latigo leathers – Latigo tannage produces a hide without any pull-up characteristics (where the leather temporarily lightens with stretch/crease/pressure). It is a uniform color hide that will resist scuffs more than CXL or Veg Tan hides, and is used primarily when we want a product with relatively strict sizing such as a custom length watchband or a strap.

Predator leathers – Predator was originally developed for boots, is incredibly durable, and somewhat similar to chromexcel, except that it is a ‘drier’ waxy finish as opposed to the more glossy/eggshell wax appearance of CXL, and is lower stretch than CXL.

HF leathers – the ‘front’ part of the horse hide is HF: HorseFront. It comes from the tannery as relatively light weight (thin) leather that is remarkably low stretch; comparing a hide in horse and cow in the same weight would show that the cow is almost unusably stretchy in the same light weight as horse. We use horse primarily for items that need to hold their shape but do so without a lot of bulk; primarily wallets to keep their shape without a lot of bulk that would be there with a similarly durable piece of cowhide that would be way thicker leading to a bulky wallet.
Horsefront can be tanned in several different ways, and each way produces pluses and minuses:

HF Chromexcel- The same blend of oils and waxes as applied to regular cowhide, HF CXL gets some pull-up (less than in cowhide), is the thicker of the HF varieties (though still lighter than cowhide). We use it for many products that need the lighter weight leather. The downside is that there aren’t many vibrant colors available in CXL tannages.

HF Mustang- Slightly lighter weight than HF CXL, it works excellently in products that need to be very minimalist or have very tight folds without adding bulk. Some examples are interior card slots of wallets (where the exterior could be a heavier weight leather), or a wallet designed to be as small as possible (such as the Sidestep.) Mustang’s tannage allows for some more vibrant colors than are available in regular HF CXL.

HF Waxed- Somewhat of a hybrid between the pull-up characteristics of CXL and the colors of Mustang, it is thicker like CXL but allows for some beautiful colors that aren’t possible in standard CXL.

HF Predator- Almost as light weight as a mustang HF but more durable in a dry waxy finish. Only available in deeper browns/blacks, but is very durable as a result of the predator tannage applied (predator was originally developed for boot leathers, so it is by nature very durable).

Russet leathers – Admittedly we’re sort of fibbing here; russet is a particular tannage of the ‘strip’ (sort of the waistline) part of the hide of a horse. We would be more correct in just calling it a strip, but that feels like it’s just confusing so we call them russet leathers. A true russet strip is more of a raw veg tan leather that is quite stiff and develops an excellent patina over time. Horween produces these leathers, but we opt for the strips that have then been retanned with Chromexcel oils/waxes to get a softer product with some great colors and available tannery-stamped patterns that are also very low stretch. Our main use for these is our Apple Watchbands, or custom length watchbands in general. The limiting factor with these is that the pieces are relatively small. That’s fine for use in a watchband, but larger products become more difficult to produce with russet/strips.

Suede – suede leathers are produced when the top/outer layer of the hide is shaved off, resulting in a slightly ‘fuzzy’ leather. Suede can be made in some really excellent colors (a wider variation than is available in more full grain leathers, from our experience with horween leathers), but with the tradeoff that it is by nature more prone to stains and is not as resistant to stretch as a full grain hide would be. Horween produces some ‘straight’ suedes, and also some suedes that have a waxed finish, some that are waterproof, and even more variations. We use a limited number of suede leathers, particularly in watchbands and some clutch products. We usually say “you have to embrace the fact that suede is going to darken up with time as it inevitably gets dirty.” You can use suede protectant (we like 3M’s suede/nubuck spray) and a suede brush/eraser but it’s more work than a full grain hide.

Cordovan leathers – While chromexcel is our PERSONAL favorite product that Horween produces, their premium leather is Cordovan. Cordovan is unique in that it’s the only type of leather that has grain in both directions, and only comes from horse and zebra hides in small quantities. Due to the rarity of appropriate hides (horween only uses domestic horse hides) and the extremely labor intensive production process, cordovan is a very expensive product. It is very low stretch in both directions (while even the lowest stretch cow hide is stretchier in one direction than the other due to the single grain in the hide), and is a very firm, high-gloss material. We use it for a very limited amount of products like custom watchbands and some wallets. It doesn’t like to be creased tightly and is a heavier weight than regular horsefront leather, so we tend not to use it for a majority of our products because Shawn tends to design things using folds to minimize stitching for a cleaner look.