Transforming Raw Hide into Premium Leather

BY Taylor Rebhan

It’s 8 a.m. on a Tuesday in Detroit, and 2,500 feet of our signature bourbon leather has just arrived at our facility. Incoming Quality Specialist Damond Love and his counterpart Chris Maxwell inspect the hides personally under a lightbox custom-made for Shinola. They match each hide against the master color swatch, measure it, then check for scars, scratches and other blemishes one typically doesn’t think about when shopping for a new leather bag.

“You have to take your time and really pay attention. Because you’re dealing with a natural material, there’s so much to look for,” Damond says. The process takes hours, but it is a significant step towards ensuring each item we manufacture meets our stringent standards. Damond was one of the first hires when our leather factory opened in 2014. Before Shinola, he worked in a fast-paced automotive plant in Detroit. What he lacked in leather experience, he made up for in curiosity and a discriminating eye.

Vice President of Manufacturing Jen Guarino, on the other hand, has worked in leather goods her entire career. “No two pieces of leather are the same, which means that leather production training takes longer, but it provides a higher degree of satisfaction while mastering it. I think people who have not had experience with leather before appreciate that.”

Manufacturing high-quality leather goods begins with sourcing high-quality materials from those who excel at their craft. Turning raw hide into fine leather is part art, part science. The process, known as tanning, requires the utmost care and expertise — so it’s not only a matter of where our leather comes from, but who it comes from. The who is ultimately what drives every decision Shinola makes.  

“We work with the best and most historic tanneries in the country,” Jen says. “For us, relationships are paramount. We strive to build long-lasting partnerships so that our tanneries have the support, capability and good reason to grow with us. If we can serve even a small role in reviving a supply chain, it is better for the whole industry.”

There are five distinct stages in the tanning process: Pre-Tanning, Tanning, Selecting, Dressing and Finishing. The practice is both rigorous and delicate, and steeped in tradition. Our tanneries employ time-tested techniques that were perfected generations ago. Still, continuous collaboration is necessary to create new leathers and bring our design team’s ideas to life.

“We work extremely close with tanneries in the development stages so we can achieve just the right look, feel, color, durability and consistency,” Jen says.

Our leather team makes frequent visits to each tannery because advances in technology haven’t replaced the need to work ideas out together, in person. There are certain things you cannot communicate over an email. Connection to the process is not only part of our fabric, it’s part of the fun.

“I remember the first time I visited our tannery in Chicago,” Damond says. “I couldn’t imagine from the outside of the building what was happening on the inside. Watching the hides transform before my eyes continues to amaze me no matter how many times I’ve seen it.”

Expertise, quality, capacity and ability to collaborate on new leather development are some of the factors Jen considers when choosing which tanneries to source from. The other factor — location, location, location. “If we can source in the U.S., we want to, even all the way down to the livestock. American hides are among the best in the world. In fact, they are often exported for tanning in other countries.” Jen speaks from over three decades of experience. “Europe is renowned for offering an immense variety of tanning options — from very natural to highly finished. American tanneries often specialize in more rugged tannages, although we have been able to work with them to expand into more finishes.” Because availability of top-grade leather is limited, the team has to forecast ahead to secure the best selection.

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