Important Facts About Leather

The most important feature we should look for in a leather riding jacket is strength. The leather needs to be strong to resist abrasion and impact force damage. Even though most salesmen will insist that their jackets are "strong" and "tough", we need to go far beyond that nebulous statement. What we are looking for is a solid, thick leather surface that can easily resist tensile (i.e.. pull-apart) forces. The best way to ascertain that is simply to take a section of the leather surface and pull, twist, and bend it in our hands. The leather should be mostly stiff to the touch and should not allow itself to be stretched or twisted. Because of its strength it should also feel heavy.   Some of the best motorcycle jackets weight five to ten pounds as a result of the heavy and strong leather.

The second most important feature to look for is thickness. In general, the thicker the leather the better. Thicker leather means it will resist abrasion longer, and also provide more padding during blunt force impacts. Most quality riding jackets advertise 1.0-1.5 mm of leather thickness, which is often sufficient to resist abrasion from even a 75 mph crash. Cheaper riding jackets and most/all fashion leather jackets, on the other hand, incorporate much thinner leather, which is nowhere near as resistant. As a rule of thumb, the abrasion resistance of a leather jacket is directly proportional to the thickness of its leather. Thus, a jacket with 1 .mm thick leather will have double the resistance of 0.5 mm leather and will last twice as long in a crash. A quality motorcycle jacket has more than twice the leather thickness of cheap "fashion” garments —— something to think about when relying on a dress jacket to provide protection in a high-speed crash.

The third most important feature to look for is leather texture. In order to resist abrasion and impact, the surface of the leather needs to be uniform and smooth. Most failures of garments occur at seams and stitching. It is very important to select a jacket that uses large, uniform sections of leather and minimizes the number of seams.   A jacket made up of numerous stitched sections, in irregular patterns, will likely fail in a crash from the stresses from abrasion and impact,  thereby exposing the rider’s skin.

In conclusion, the selection of an appropriate leather jacket for motorcycle riding is a serious matter. A buyer should pay particular attention to the quality and features of the leather. Settling for a cheap thin, or “fashion" garment could result in serious injury in a crash.

Top 10 Tips

To retain its beauty and other desirable qualities, leather requires frequent conditioning to replace the natural lubricants lost during normal use.  With proper care, leather can be protected from excessive dryness that can cause it to crack, and from moisture that may cause it to swell or mildew. 

Leather Dyes:  Whenever cleaning your leather apparel by hand, you may notice a small amount of dye may come off. This is normal and part of the wearing process.  For this reason you should avoid using household cleaners on you garment, since they may take off more dye than usual.

1.  Because unprotected leather is susceptible to spotting from water and other liquids, a newly purchased leather item should be treated immediately to prevent permanent stains.  The use of too much oil and wax, however, can clog pores, causing leather to lose its ability to allow air in and moisture out.

2.  Always hang leather coats on wide padded hangers.  Use shoe trees in shoes and boots.  Stuff empty handbags with tissues to retain their shape.

3.  Do not store leather goods in plastic bags or other nonporous covers once received.  If clothing must be stored in a garment bag, keep it open for ventilation.

4.  Allow wet or damp leather to air-dry naturally away from any source of heat.  Apply a little leather conditioner when the leather is nearly dry to restore flexibility.  Follow this with a full conditioning treatment after the leather has completely air-dried.

5.  In winter, promptly remove any salt deposits from shoes and boots by sponging with clean water, then follow with the treatment recommended above for wet or damp leather.  To prevent mildew try to protect leather from excessive humidity.

6.  In a dry environment, regularly condition the leather in order to prevent it from drying out and cracking.

7.  Do not use waxes,  or silicone formulas or other leather preparations that impair the ability of the leather to "breathe".

8.  Never use caustic household chemicals to clean leather.  Also,  avoid leather preparations that contain alcohol.

9.  Avoid turpentine and mineral spirits as they can pull color.

10. Caution, use of mink oil or other animal fats will darken leather.

Common Leather Definitions:

Cowhide is the most common leather used in the making of leather garments, furniture and leather goods.  Cowhide as a category covers a wide spectrum of textures and quality, but generally, it is quite durable, easy to care for and resistant to water and dirt.  Cowhide leather will maintain its integrity, taking on the shape of the wearer, making it more comfortable with everyday use.  This affordable, functional leather offers fashion, value and endless colors and style.

A dyeing process in which leather is immersed in dye and tumbled in a rotating drum, allowing maximum dye penetration.

A luster that develops with time and use.

ANILINE ... A colorless, oily, benzene derivative,  Aniline leather is tumbled in vats so the dye is completely absorbed by the skin.  There is no other coloring agents or process, thus the finished leather tends to look and feel more "natural" - the unique markings and character of each skin are apparent.  By way of analogy, this treatment is akin to the "staining" of wood.  Usually, the best quality hides are reserved for this process, as aniline leather is valued high by consumers

NAKED LEATHER (being without addition, concealment, disguise, or embellishment)
A leather with no surface, impregnated treatment of finish (other than dye) which might mask or alter the natural state of the leather.
Naked leathers are valued highest by consumers.  Soft from day one, does not require a break-in period!  Hides up to/usually 2.0mm thick, dyed but not finished, so some tiny imperfections (like barbed-wire marks) are still present.  This is desirable to most people.  Comfortable when brand new!  They are more expensive because the hides must be hand selected for uniformity.

Full Grain or Premium Cowhide
A term describing hides with a minimal amount of scars or blemishes, usually less than 5% of all hides. Hides are between 1.3mm to 2.0mm
During the tanning process, the hides go through an extra step to soften and condition them WITHOUT losing any strength. Does not require a break-in period.  Also more expensive because of the longer tanning process.  Rarely used by "discount leather" manufacturers.

TOP GRAIN LEATHER:  The most confusing term used in the leather industry is the term "top grain".  It can be a contradiction because it often implies what it is not, the side of a hide or piece of leather from which the hair or fur has been removed. "Top grain", is the definition that is generally used when the grain is not genuine: when the real grain is sanded away and an imitation grain is stamped into the leather.
When the genuine grain remains, the leather is called, "full grain", or "full top grain", or Premium  grain not simply "top grain." Top grain is a generally regarded an economy leather.  For sake of clarity, we will use the term in this article denoting from the top of the hide to the bottom of the hide.

Special Cowhide Leather
Hides between 1.3mm and 1.5mm thick, also referred to as a "tough hide" Originally used in traditional motorcycle apparel because of it's strength, stiff initially, but has a break-in period, usually a riding season will do it.  A term seldom used of late.

Finished Split Leather
The middle or lower section of a hide with a polymer coating applied and embossed to mimic a grain leather.  Finished splits should only be used in low stress applications because they are weaker than grain leather.  If the polymer coating is left out it is often used to make suede

Suede is the underneath portion of a hide after the splitting process. Compared to the durable top grain, this layer of the hide is much thinner and most commonly used for garments and small leather goods

Types of Animals

Skins are used from virtually all animals that are of a fairly large size.  International law prohibits using skins from those considered threatened or endangered, including Elephant and Rhino, and most exotic breeds of cats.  Motorcycle apparel is generally made from Cow, Buffalo, Pig, Deer or Goat.
Cowhide is the preferred but also most expensive leather to produce.  It is made from the same type of cow we think of here in the United States.  It is preferred because of the combination of strength and pliability, or 'softness'.
Buffalo hides do not come from American Bison. They come from Water Buffalo, but the term 'Water' is dropped so that there aren't any negative associations with it.  It is one of the most common types of leather.
Pigskins are also very plentiful and are cheaper yet.  Pigskin feels only slightly stiffer than Cowhide but there is two inherent problems: 1) It's difficult to eliminate the animal's odor completely, and 2) it has a much-more "pebbly" grain to it. UPDATE, SINCE THIS WRITING THERE HAVE BEEN NEW BREAKTHROUGHS in the processing of pigskin and done correctly, can be as soft as cowhide although some say they can still detect an odor.
If a company does not advertise what kind of skin their leather is,  do not be intimidated...ASK!
Lamb, Deer and Goat are used in lighter-weight garments like Halter Tops, Shorts, Skirts and many Vests. It is used so often because it is a thin skin requiring very little work during tanning and because it is so soft.  It is adequate for use only in those items because thinner/softer skins will tear or come apart more easily.

Types of Hides
Instead of thinking of the hide as what type of animal it came from, think of it as what layer of skin it is.  Animals have many more layers and therefore much thicker skin than humans do.  Because of this it is impractical to use any skin whole from an animal other than Deer or Goat.
Top Grain is the outer most layer of skin.  It generally has the pattern of grain you think of when thinking about leather. It is usually weathered and has a desirable appearance, therefore making it the most expensive layer. Not all leathers with a grain design are Top Grains (see Tanning and Finishing below).
Bottom Hides (sometimes called Bottom Grains) are the layer closest to the animal's muscle and fat tissue. It is very soft and somewhat grainy but also has the most odor in it.
Split Hides are any layers in between the Top and Bottom.  Many leathers are a bonded composite of Top and Split, Bottom and Split, or just Split Hides bonded together.  This is not necessarily a problem, as stitched seams eliminate possibilities of hide separation, which is extremely rare in any case.
There are 3 primary thickness levels of leather:
1.0 mm (or less) used for fashion leathers and ladies' wear.
1.3 mm (1.3 to 1.5 average) most common for general riding protection.
2.0 mm only used in Naked Leather. Some will claim 2.0 mm but if it's not Naked, it's really just the 1.3-1.5mm grade.

Tanning and Finishing are two words describing the same process.  Originally called Tanning by early-Americans because of the way it was left in the sun to dry, this method is no longer used.  Tanning today is primarily a chemical process which uses machines and tanks to dry and finish leather.  Most hides like Buffalo, Pig, Deer and Goat have hair in the Top Grain so special chemicals containing acid are used to eliminate the hair.  These have a tendency to weaken the leather over time, making the hides cheaper.  These hides also have tell-tale hair follicles left on them. Cowhide does not have any real hair to speak of so this step is left out.  This makes the hide more desirable, and therefore more expensive.

Also part of the finishing process is the coloring.  Any leather other than "distressed brown" has been colored.  Since distressed brown is a natural finish, the colors will not match very well and the leather's defects are much more noticeable, and desirable for fans of the" broken in" look.
There are two primary types of Coloring methods:  Drum dying and Aniline dying. 
Drum dying method puts all the hides in a large tank containing colored dye (usually black.) This is the most common method of coloring.  After it comes out of the tank, the leathers are sorted.  All Top Grains and most Bottom or Split Hides have defects in them.  Those Full Grains with very few defects are set aside for open-air drying, these will eventually be called "Naked Leathers" because no further finishing will take place.  The remaining hides will be sprayed with an additional coat of dye to fill-in and cover up the defects.  Many Split Hides will also be run through a machine which "stamps" a grain pattern in the hide.  It is difficult to tell a Grained Split Hide from a true Top Grain after the full finishing process has taken place.
Aniline dying runs the hide piece by piece through a machine in a conveyor fashion that "injects" the leather as it passes. This takes longer but does a more thorough job. Needless to say, it is more expensive.  Aniline finished leathers also aren't as shiny as Drum dyed leathers, and are sometimes referred to as "Semi-Naked Leathers".

Naked Leather is a term used to describe hides that are tanned and colored (dyed) but are not finished as you would think of. Since the finishing process is used to hide natural defects in the leather, Naked Leather hides must be hand selected for thickness, uniformity of grain, and lack of defects. Because they are unfinished, they are extremely soft to the touch and have that "broken-in" appearance and feel while still brand new.  Naked Leather hides are not defect-free, they just have fewer imperfections.
One additional method is called Waxing, which is what the term "Waxy Cowhide" refers to.  The cheapest Split Hides are occasionally run through a conveyor that uses a Wax/Dye Sublimation process to basically "melt crayons" into the hide. This can be either very expensive or very cheap, depending on how many imperfections in the hide there are and the type of machinery it's run on.  There is no grain on a Waxy Cowhide and it is almost as glossy as Patent Leather, so it has very few and limited uses.  Most Waxy Cowhide in Motorcycle Apparel is of the cheaper variety.

Countries of Origin
At the time of this writing there were 3 known companies that will tailor-make CUSTOM (translated "expensive") biker apparel. Some companies have even been known to sew "Made in USA" labels on imported garments, but even Harley-Davidson imports their licensed apparel. That being said, here are the countries that export the most leather to the United States:

Pakistan:  Today they are the number 1 suppliers.  Any quality Motorcycle Apparel and even American Automobile Leather comes from here.  Mostly Buffalo, Cow and Lamb skins are imported from Pakistan.

China:  Their leather is almost entirely Pigskin which is a primary reason for their cheapest pricing.

Indonesia:  Not as cheap as Chinese leather, but mostly Buffalo and Pigskin and allegedly using both child and slave labor

Italy:  They still produce beautiful fashion-grade leather apparel which is not suitable for motorcycle use.  Almost entirely Deer, Goat or Lambskin, it is made for occasional wear and light use only.