A Bikers Guide to Leather

We at Biker Leather Ltd believe that an informed consumer will eventually become a happy customer. To that end, we would like to attempt to clarify some of the terms and nomenclature related to the biker leather clothing industry that one might typically find strewn across the vast wilderness of the Internet.

While not manufacturers of leather motorcycle apparel ourselves, after more than eight years of selling top quality biker leather around the globe, we have done the research for you. Now we’re going to lay it all out in detail!

For a more succinct list of some of the terms we in particular use on our site, check out our Glossary of Terms page.

What We Mean by “Riding Grade” Biker Leather

The history of using an animal’s skin for clothing dates back to the pre Neanderthal ages, and was more than likely the one material first used by our ancestors to cover up and protect.  Ok, maybe Adam and Eve preferred plant leaves as a fashion statement, but even Tarzan understood the value in making his own leather. That loincloth wasn’t made of plastic!

Every animal has a skin, and is therefore a great candidate for leather. There’s snakeskin, coonskin, beaver pelts, sharkskin, lambskin, cowhide, horsehide, and kangaroo, just to name a few, all of them when properly tanned earning the right to be called “Genuine Leather”.

For the serious motorcycle enthusiast, leather is much more  than a fashion statement. It’s a matter of protection. Whereas a good  motorcycle helmet or lack thereof may be the difference between life or death, the  quality of your leather motorcycle jacket, chaps or pants, can determine how long and painful your recovery will be should you survive.

Grading the Animals by Skin

A nice pair of Python boots might be a great compliment to  your snazzy riding attire, but would you really want a snakeskin motorcycle jacket or chap? There are many terms you might run across that tend to classify certain animals into broad groups of leather: soft, lightweight, premium, exotic, ultra, etc.

Here we attempt to identify these more common terms and their animals, and to editorialize a bit as to what they might be useful for from a bikers point of view.

Exotic Leather

This one should be obvious. Like I said before, all animals have a skin, and not just mammals! Fishskin? Yes, shark, manta ray, stingray, dolphin (mahi-mahi very pretty!) all are capable of becoming genuine leather. Reptiles such as alligators, crocs, iguana, any kind of lizard skin all are pretty exotic if you ask me. Dinosaurs (chicken?) well, maybe not.

So what are they good for? Nothing wrong with a good pair of properly reinforced crocodile boots, or any other exotic skin for that matter. Just make sure the leather is used as nature intended: to cover a sturdy skeleton.

Bikers like their leather and have created a whole niche out of what used to be called a waistcoat. An Anaconda Biker Vest would be an interesting topic of conversation in any biker bar (yea, I caught it myself). A great way to meet chicks!

Light Weight Leather: a.k.a “Soft Leather”

It has often been said that any leather is better than no leather. I can’t argue with that, but if you’re really into protection you might want to consider some Ballistic Nylon as a lightweight alternative.

I put the terms lightweight and soft leather together because they can pretty much mean the same thing, but not necessarily (more on  that later). You may run across these terms used independently of each other.

Light weight leather is thinner and therefore of lighter weight than your typical “riding grade” motorcycle jacket. It also tends to be very soft (depending on the tanning process used) because of the type of animal it comes from.

Sheepskin, Lambskin, Deerskin and Goat are typical skins that are common in the fashion leather industry. They are in fact the leather of choice for just about every leather garment not intended to suffer the trauma of sliding across an asphalt surface.

Bikers can be found inhabiting just about every corner of the globe. A biker living somewhere near the equator might not necessarily want to be lugging around a 6 to 8 pound leather motorcycle jacket, but still may  desire some sort of protection in case of a nasty spill on the road.

Just like in some states the law allows you to decide if you want to wear a helmet or not, the choice of thick or thin is yours to make.  Just realize these lightweight soft leathers will not afford the protection of a first class “riding grade” motorcycle jacket, chaps, or leather pants.

There is one more animal skin I should mention here that I  have seen classified as “soft leather”. Pigskin, or Pig Napa is indeed a very soft leather, although not necessarily light weight. In its best form it is thick, soft to the touch, pliable, and the tightly textured grain most closely resembles the finest of riding grade biker leather. Problem is, if you snag it,  it will tear. Worse still, if you drag it across the road it will disintegrate along with the rest of your skin. What am I trying to say here? Leave the  pigskin for the footballs!

Riding Grade Animal Hides

For lack of a more all inclusive term for our purposes, the following group of animal skins I have classified as simply riding grade.

In the late 1920’s, with the Industrial revolution in full swing and when manufacturing was actually done in the U.S., a company named Schott NYC came out with the first jacket specifically designed for the comfort, convenience, and protection of the motorcycle enthusiast. The Perfecto had all the characteristics of what we know today as the traditional or classic  style motorcycle jacket. The material of choice, and thus the first true “riding grade” leather, was horsehide.

Today, most commercial leather tanning and garment manufacturing is done in Pakistan, India, and more recently, China. While they are indeed experts in the manufacturing of all kinds of leather, Buffalo and Cowhide have emerged as the predominant leathers that have been determined to be strong enough and thick enough to protect a biker’s skin from a bad case of road rash.

This is not to say that’s your only choice. I hear the Aussies are making some jackets out of kangaroo, and I’m sure somebody has taken a slide down a sand dune in a nice camel skin jacket, I just haven’t seen any testing on how they would hold up on an asphalt surface, and they aren’t really commercially produced in mass quantities anyway.

With the determining factors for riding grade leather being thickness and strength, both buffalo and cowhide in their most natural state meet the criteria. But how do they compare?

Riding grade biker leather should be at least 1 millimeter thick; indeed most quality motorcycle jackets and chaps range from 1.2mm up to 1.6mm. Cowhide is thicker than buffalo hide naturally, but thickness can and often is altered in the tanning process.

The strength of the leather (resistance to tearing) is determined by the outer skin, the epidermis if you will, which is referred to in the industry as the “grain”. Once again, after much stress testing, cowhide wins out.

The Bottom Line

Clearly, cowhide is the superior leather for both strength and durability, yet buffalo is quite adequate in terms of protection and esthetics. Once again, it’s your choice. Buffalo is (or should be) less expensive than cowhide. If you run across some “soft leather” as mentioned previously, that should be cheaper than buffalo.

But! Riding grade leather is not solely determined the type of animal skin used. How the hides are finished is also a major consideration to take into account.

Determining the Grade of Leather

When an animal’s skin becomes leather, i.e. the decay process has been stopped, there are a number of ways it can be finished that are suitable for a variety of uses. A single hide can be split into several hides of different thicknesses, which is but one factor in determining the riding grade of the material.

Leather can be buffed with abrasives to create a very soft and pliable material we call suede, or you can add some coats of urethane to make some shiny patent leather shoes. None of these methods would be considered riding grade.

The most important thing to remember at this point is that leather gets its strength, durability, pliability and breathability from the outer skin, the epidermis of the animal,  commonly referred to in the leather apparel industry as the “grain”.

In the motorcycle leather clothing industry there are typically three grades of leather (buffalo or cowhide) that are prevalent throughout.

Split Leather

Starting at the bottom, split leather, or splits, are made from the bottom part of the hide. Remember one hide can be split at least twice to produce the desired thickness. Split leather has a smooth surface quite suitable for stamping or embossing. Alternatively, splits are also used to produce suede.

Keep in mind that being from the bottom part of the hide, split leather has no grain. Split leather motorcycle jackets, chaps, pants and vests will typically have a pattern embossed on them to mimic the natural grain of the animal.

Splits are thin and lightweight, probably making them more appealing in warmer climates, but don’t count on them for any kind of protection in a road slide. They are the cheapest grade offered to bikers, so just be sure you know what you’re getting into. Split leather, for our purposes, is not considered to be riding grade, and therefore should not be purchased as motorcycle safety gear.

Tried & True Riding Grade Leather

Top Grain Leather

Contrary to the way it sounds, top grain is the second best quality leather found on the market. Sometimes called corrected leather, it is taken from the top of the hide, thus preserving the grain to a certain extent.

However, because the life of a cow or buffalo can sometimes be environmentally harsh, the top few millimeters are sanded down to hide any blemishes that might be there like scars from barbed wire, brandings, insect bites, coyote bites, well, you get the picture.

A finish coat is then sprayed or plastered onto the hide giving it a stiff, sort of plastic look. In the case of corrected leather, as with splits, a pattern is stamped on the finish to mimic the natural grain.

Top grain leather motorcycle gear is the most common leather found, and is perfectly suitable for riding grade leather. Because of the way it is finished it is resistant to stains (as long as the finish remains intact) but it does requires a breaking in period before it becomes pliable and soft to the touch. This breaking in period can be expedited at the tannery by a process called soft milling.

Naked Leather

Without embellishment, naked leather has nothing added to the hide other than the dye.  The hides are hand-picked for uniformity and lack of blemishes, accounting for less than 10% of the world’s leather supply. Only the best hides are used to produce true naked leather motorcycle apparel.

The terms naked and full grain leather are sometimes used interchangeably, however full grain implies that the entire hide is used, a practice common in the furniture industry. A cow can be thick skinned, up to 5 or 6 mm thick! That would be a very heavy jacket, so both top grain and naked leather often have the bottom split off to achieve the desired thickness.

Because it is the least processed, naked leather is soft, supple, and pliable from the beginning and does not require a breaking in period. Over time it will develop a patina giving it a warm comfortable worn in look. Needless to say, naked leather is the most expensive grade, and can reach well into the $500 range for a jacket at a well branded retail store.

Riding Grade Leather – the Thicker the Better

True riding grade biker leather apparel is most commonly made from top grain or naked buffalo or cowhide (or Kangaroo if you can get it). The next question is how thick should it be? From a protection standpoint, the thicker the better, however, the choice is yours. Top grain buffalo and cowhide leather typically start around 1.2 millimeters thick, with the real heavy naked leather jackets reaching up to 1.6 mm.

The climate you live in may be the determining factor for you, but if you stay within the 1.2-6 mm range, you will have found a perfectly good riding grade set of leathers.

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