When pondering the purchase of motorcycle leathers, there are several issues that one must consider. While one would think that style would be first and foremost, in actuality, it is the protection that a good set of motorcycle leathers affords the skin that is of the utmost priority for any serious biker. Leather has over the years been proven to be the best material for motorcycle clothing, due to its resistance to tear, its natural warmth, and its acting as a first layer of defense by coming between the biker and the rough asphalt road. Leather has often literally saved the skin of many bikers.
However, all leather is not the same. In this article, I will attempt to address the choices that a biker faces when purchasing motorcycle leathers. We will explore the different types of hides available, the different tanning processes, and how to tell the differences.
There are basically three hides that you will run across when looking for motorcycle leathers: pigskin, buffalo, and cowhide. You may at times find such hides as lamb skin, sheepskin etc. Just make a note that these hides are inferior and should not be considered riding grade leather.
Sometimes called soft Leather, pigskin is very thick and soft to the touch. It will keep you warm in the winter and looks very nice. There is nothing wrong with soft leather (pigskin or lambs skin) except that it has a tendency to tear, is not very durable, and is not considered riding grade leather. If you are looking for the biker look but do not ride, pigskin is the way to go! Also, for garments that are not necessarily worn for protection, (such as leather vests) pigskin and lambs skin are excellent choices due to their suppleness and pliability. There are many fine styles available in soft leather and it is the least expensive leather out there. If you ride, stay away from pigskin for protection; spend the extra money to protect yourself with some true riding grade motorcycle leathers.
Another high quality leather, buffalo hide is not from the North American buffalo, but the water buffalo, a native of 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. Buffalo hide is also very thick (ca 1.2mm) and can be tanned in both top grain and naked leather processes. Durable and not easily torn, buffalo hide, though not as common as cowhide, is considered to be riding grade leather.
The most common material used for motorcycle leathers is cowhide, chosen for its strength and durability. It is anywhere from 1-1.3mm thick, depending on the tanning process, is naturally warm, and will afford the utmost protection against road rash. The ultimate in riding grade leather, cowhide is the choice of bikers everywhere.
Whichever type of hide you choose, you need to also understand the tanning process, and how it adds or detracts from the quality of the leather. Leather was 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.
To fully understand choices available, one must first understand the term grain. The grain is the epidermis, or outer layer of the animals 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
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 probably the most common material found in motorcycle leathers. It is not the best leather available, but with a medium price range, and thicknesses of 1 to 1.2mm, top grain leather is considered to be a strong and durable riding grade material.
Also known as full-grain leather, this tanning process uses only the finest of hand picked hides. Full grain leather has only the hair removed and is not sanded to remove imperfections, thus the epidermis remains in tact. Naked (without embellishment) leather has nothing other than the dye added. Full grain naked leather requires no breaking in period and is soft to the touch from the very beginning. Hides are typically 1.3+mm 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.
How to Tell the Difference
Finished split will be thin. Most riding grade leather is at least 1mm thick. Top grain leather is the top of the skin and has small bumps all over where the hair follicles used to be. Top grain garments are somewhat stiff when new, and require a breaking in period. On the other hand, naked leather, or full grain leather is very smooth and does not exhibit the small bumps that are present in top grain. Nor is the garment stiff when new. Naked leather is soft to the touch from the beginning and requires no breaking in period.
Pigskin or pig napa mostly resembles naked leather, in that it is a soft and supple hide, and can also be very thick. Not to say that it happens often, but beware of unscrupulous retailers that try to pass pigskin for full grain cowhide. If its cheap, its probably pigskin. Lamb skin is also very soft and pliable, though not as thick as pigskin. Lambskin also has a smooth surface.
Things to keep in mind are that most leather garments are manufactured overseas in India, Pakistan, and China. The made in America garments are going to be the most expensive on the market, and the quality of the hide and the workmanship is not going to be that much better. Many motorcycle leathers are designed in America and made in Pakistan. As mentioned previously, Pakistan is world renown for its leather expertise, and you should be able to trust their labeling. Pakistan exports both buffalo hide and cowhide garments. Leather garments manufactured in China are usually made from pigskin. This is not to say that its always the case, but you should be able to tell by price.
Remember, if you ride, dont skimp on the motorcycle leathers, they could someday save your hide!