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 PERFORMANCE FABRIC, 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.