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The Attraction to Horween Chromexcel

Posted by Wyatt Gilmore on

The Attraction to Horween Chromexcel

A collection of tanneries around the world specialize in footwear leather suitable for a better-grade Goodyear-welt shoe or boot. When sourcing leather for a product, you must consider several facets. First, you identify the pattern you’re going to make and give thought to how that shoe or boot will be used. Accessibility also plays a role – whether you have a relationship with the tannery, their availability, and logistics.

The last couple of decades have seen a movement towards casual attire throughout the world. Even a salesperson who “dresses up” today by wearing a sport coat may have been required to wear a full suit twenty years ago. 

This transition inevitably makes an impact on footwear as well. Think fewer oxfords, more boots and casual patterns. In most workplaces, a boot or loafer is acceptable attire. You may be the only one among your colleagues not wearing sneakers.

Crimson Chromexcel Traveler Penny.

Further down the line, this dress-down movement plays a quiet yet significant role in leather selection. Calf leather is generally preferred on dress footwear for its clean, tight grain structure. Since it is a smaller, younger animal, the article typically has fewer imperfections. This allows for a better cutting yield, so the material tends to cost more. That is not to say calf leather is always superior, as many other factors go into your choice, including the tannage and the use for the material. For example, depending on the product, you could be better off using cow leather simply due to the thickness.

Chromexcel

Chromexcel leather tanned by Horween in Chicago is one of the most common choices for better-grade leather goods for a few reasons.

The hide itself derives from a large North American bovine. This sets the tone for the hide thickness and grain structure. Many of these sides (half of the animal hide) are 20ft2.

Now for the fun part, Horween's proprietary combination of vegetable and chrome tannage creates a lively leather that ages beautifully. Chromexcel might be known best for its heavy “pull-up” effect. During the tanning process, the leather is impregnated (hot-stuffed) with wax, oils, and greases. This creates an incredibly rich attribute where the wax and oils move throughout the article. It not only looks fantastic, but it's also the polar opposite of a dry, boardy leather that feels dead.

Dune (Natural) Chromexcel Blucher.

Once a Chromexcel shoe or boot is worn, it develops highs and lows from the creasing and the individual wear. This characteristic is a dynamic trait that is addicting and shared among industries beyond footwear. People treasure the idea that the article changes and adapts over the lifetime of the item, becoming genuinely unique to its wearer. 

Very thick 3.4-3.8mm hides are used to make these unlined Chromexcel Belts

The vegetable retannage (from mixing bark extracts with other natural agents) plays an essential role in this attribute, allowing the leather to develop a patina over time. 

Aside from aesthetic reasons, CXL leather's thickness combined with the waxes, oils, and grease allows it to stay hydrated over the years to avoid cracking while faring well in moisture.

Crimson Diesel Boot showing a pull-up effect on the vamp break.

One trait that shouldn't be overlooked is the hand (or feel) of Chromexcel. The heavier weight combined with this tannage makes a very forgiving, elastic leather. The difference is so noticeable that it can change the way the footwear fits altogether. For example, some customers will buy a boot in Chromexcel, then try the same size in a different leather only to find out the pattern doesn't fit properly or is the wrong size altogether. Chromexcel can stretch to accommodate pressure more than most leathers. 

Whether on the tongue of a new boot or the instep of a loafer, the leather adapts quickly, avoiding a drawn-out break-in period.

The “Break”

The most common concern with Chromexcel is the break. If perusing the forums, you might see someone refer to the "Chromexcel lottery." The heavier break that can be found with this leather is a common topic among customers because it's the first thing you can see, and it varies from one shoe to the next.

When a vamp is flexed, the top grain folds toward itself, creating what we call the break. Bending the top-grain inward is the opposite direction of what's natural (think of straightening your elbow). This causes the top-grain to push up, pulling away from the grain below. 

The vamp being flexed to show the break.

The heavier grain break that is found on Chromexcel is natural, stemming from the raw material. The large, thick hides have longer fibers. Longer fibers are ideal for the forgiving, soft feel, but the grain structure will inherently be less dense than calf’s. 

Factors like the tannage, where the leather is cut from the hide, the direction it's cut/lasted, and thickness all play a role, but the leather's foundation is the primary constant. The raw material is so important that each hide is sorted based on grain structure, thickness, and imperfections before the tanning process begins.

A heavier break does not affect the leather's longevity or performance and should be expected with this type of article. It becomes part of the individuality of the piece. If a customer wants a tight grain structure and minimal break, we suggest a different leather. 

A common occurrence, the right vamp showing a looser grain structure.

Maintenance

Given the properties of Chromexcel's tannage, the day-to-day care is relatively straightforward. With time, you can begin deciphering whether the article looks dry as it won't have the rich, deeper color it once had. Generally speaking, applying a conditioner such as Venetian Balm every few months will keep the leather hydrated, deepening the color.  

Routine care and the use of shoe trees can also reduce heavier grain breaks. We frequently use Venetian cream and a deer bone on worn photo samples to help smooth the grain and richen the leather. 

As with most leather, when the article is wet, we suggest avoiding heat and letting it dry naturally. This will help the leather retain its pertinent oils and waxes, keeping it moisturized. All things considered, it's one of the easiest leathers to maintain and will continue to perform year after year.


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6 comments


  • I enjoyed learning about Chrome Excel.
    I wasn’t aware of the “Break”.
    Leather is imperfect, part of the charm.

    Stephen on

  • Just when I thought I knew everything about Chromexcel, Wyatt reaches deep into his knowledge toolkit and pulls out even more fascinating and revelatory information into this subject!! Amazing insights!

    Dale on

  • @Mike – Many of our photo samples are personal shoes or boots that have some wear. In most cases, shoes that are broken-in tend to look more relatable versus a brand new, unworn pair. Before taking photos, it is common for us to use the deer bone tool from Abbeyhorn (found in the accessory collection) to help smooth out the vamp and create a sheen. There is a journal that discusses the deer bone and how to use it!

    Wyatt on

  • Please explain the “deer bone on worn photo samples” part…I’m at a total loss. Thanks!

    Mike on

  • @scottweaver – Thanks for the positive feedback Scott!

    Wyatt on


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