Since the dawn of the age of motorcycling, it was apparent that something was needed to protect the exposed human body from the elements. The natural solution was leather. The leather motorcycle jacket, a style made popular by such movie icons as James Dean and “the Fonz”, not only serves as a fashion statement, but is an essential piece of equipment to any serious biker for keeping warm, dry, and in one piece. A good “riding grade” leather jacket combined with motorcycle chaps or leather pants, will act as a second skin between you and the road, and can quite literally “save your hide”. With all this in mind, let’s explore the things to consider when purchasing motorcycle leathers.
The most common material for motorcycle leather is cowhide, chosen for its strength and durability. Buffalo hide, another high quality leather, is made not from the U.S. buffalo, but the water buffalo most commonly found in India and Pakistan. Many leather products come from this part of the world, and the Pakistanis are world renown for their expertise in the manufacturing of leather garments. Whichever type of hide you choose, you must understand the tanning process, and how it adds or detracts from the quality of the leather.
Leather was of course once the skin of an animal, and therefore must go through a tanning process to strengthen it, and to keep it from decomposing. Tanning makes the skin stable and rot proof without sacrificing its structure and strength. The tanning process involves several stages, including the removal of the hair and the outer layer of skin, as well as the fatty part of the flesh. The hide is then stabilized by one of several methods using animal oils, alum, chrome salts or vegetable tanning. How it is actually finished determines the quality, or riding grade, for our purposes.
Types of Leather
To fully understand the types of leather available, one must first know the term “grain“. The grain is simply the epidermis, or outer layer of the animal’s skin. While imperfections such as cuts, scars, and scratches will exist, the grain in its natural state has the best fiber strength, and therefore the best durability. The grain also has natural breathability, resulting in greater comfort to the wearer.
Finished Split Leather
The middle or lower section of a hide that has been split into two or more thicknesses. A polymer coating is applied and embossed to mimic grain leather. Finished splits should only be used in low stress applications because they basically have no grain. If the polymer coating is left out it is often used to make suede. Not considered to be riding grade, but can look good nevertheless.
Top grain leather has been sanded to remove scars and imperfections, then sprayed or pasted for a uniform look. The smooth side is where the hair and the natural grain used to be. Top grain is not the same quality as full grain or naked leather, but thicknesses of 1.2-3mm make this type of leather a very strong and durable riding grade material.
Full-Grain and Naked Leather
Full-Grain leather is made from the finest hides, and has not been sanded to remove imperfections. Only the hair has been removed. In the case of Naked Leather, where nothing other than the dye is added; this very soft leather requires no breaking in period. Hides are typically 2mm thick, and must be hand picked for uniformity. The natural full-grain naked leather will wear better than other leather, and will actually improve over the years. This type of leather is the ultimate riding grade; the most sought after, and consequently, the most expensive.
Now that we know what type of leather we want, we must understand the fact that leather is hot, and understand the options that we have for the climate we live in. For winter biking, a jacket with side laces and a belt will allow you to adjust the jacket to fit snugly against the upper body. Of course, being able to fully zip up only adds to your protection from the wind. You can also wear a leather vest underneath your motorcycle jacket for extra warmth. For hot summer days, a leather jacket with air vents allows the air to circulate underneath the jacket and around your body. For an all year round jacket, consider one with a zip or snap out insulated lining.
Leather is not meant to get wet, as that tends to deplete the natural oils, and it is advisable to wear a rain suit over your leathers in inclement weather. However if they do get wet, allow them to dry naturally away from extreme heat. If the leather seems to be losing its luster, it can be oiled to improve its appearance. This supplements the natural oils in the leather itself, which can be washed out through repeated exposure to water. Frequent oiling of leather with mink oil or other commercially available products will keep your leathers supple and improve their lifespan dramatically.
Now that you have found the perfect biker jacket, take care of it, and it will reward you with years of wear. The typical lifetime of a heavy textile jacket will be from 3 to 6 years at the most. A well maintained top quality leather motorcycle jacket will easily give you 10 years and more of riding pleasure!