In the words of Frank Zappa, "Lets talk about leather"..
Leather for motorcycle clothing. - Stitching and construction -Kangaroo Leather- Body armor - Should I buy second hand? - Gloves - Boots - Waterproof leather? - Wet leather - Textile suits - Zips - Badges - Leather for fashion garments -I have an RAF flying jacket... - Leather care - What is nappa leather ? - Glue and temporary repairs - Buying vintage jackets
Everyone who works in a particular field has opinions on their work and the materials they use. This page comprises OUR opinions. They derive from years of wearing, using and working with leather and bike clothes generally. They are not gospel and if you disagree you are welcome to let us know. You can never tell, if we think you have a valid point we may well change the page.
We may even give you credit : -)
Leather is one of the oldest raw materials known to man. The world as we know is built on a foundation of wood and leather. You want a sustainable material? There is no need for dinosaur juice in leather manufacture.
Leather is defined as the tanned skins or hides of animals. Almost any kind of skin can be used as leather, from cattle, through birds (ostrich for example) to fish. Some of these have very specialized uses, many now obsolete (shagreen, a tanned shark skin, was used for sword hilts due to it's high grip whilst traditionally carriage driving gloves were made from dog skin, though deer skin is used now). For the most part our interest is in cattle leather for use in clothing.
You are buying protective clothing so don't sacrifice safety and function to form and fashion. It could be a blood sacrifice.
Leather is used for motorcycle clothing because of it's abrasion resistance,
comfort and appearance. "Moto" grade leather for bike use wants to be
at least 1.5 - 2mm thick to give a reasonable degree of protection.
Thinner than this and it will not protect your valuable hide if you
slide down the road (the exception here is kangaroo hide which because
of its structure can provide equivalent levels of protection at 1½ mm
thickness). Leather up to 3mm thick is flexible enough to use for leathers
but over and about this thickness you start noticing the sheer weight
of the stuff. A compromise is often used where especially vulnerable
areas - hips, arse, shoulders elbows and knees - are "double leathered"
to provide extra protection without incurring the weight penalty of
a thicker suit / jacket. Additional protection in these areas is also
provided by body armor and Kevlar backing. Thinned down leather is
also used for lettering and artwork but this is not thick enough to
provide significant protection. Full grain leather is the best quality,
but is not colour fast and is expensive. The best "moto" grade
leather is "top grain" and "corrected grain" which
are refinished leathers. These are lower quality than full grain leather
but more practical.
Is it worth using Kangaroo leather ?
A good question. Kangaroo is an interesting material. It will stretch
in both directions (and cow leather only stretches in one) and is reckoned
to be twice as strong as cow, thickness for thickness. But this comes
at a cost.
So it is very much your call. The resulting kit is VERY much lighter
and nicer to walk about in in summer. But pretty expensive. There is
no problem altering or repairing kangaroo kit but it is hard to match
most colour other than black so patches or inserts may have to be black
We believe that leathers should be at least double stitched before
top stitching. If a seam is simply top stitched it will fail long before
the leather is compromised and you will make personal and painful contact
with the tarmac. It is often quite hard (OK, impossible) to tell if
the seam is made in this way from the outside (just because you can
see two rows of stitching down the outside of a seam does not PROVE
that the seam is in fact double stitched) so access to the inside of
the suit is important. Whilst we are checking things, we would also
recommend that you check that double leathering really IS double, and
that the leather of the suit has not been cut away under the overlays.
Honest, we have seen it done.
Many race suits use fabric inserts to save weight and bulk. Inside arms, elbows and especially behind the knees are often made in this way. Top class suits will use an aramid textile for this purpose such as Keprotec It is low bulk, elastic and stops the loss of blood flow to the feet that can occur with very high foot pegs and a bulky material behind the knees. Look carefully at the kind of material used on a suit that you are thinking of buying. In this application ordinary stretch materials are neither a right nor a privilege but a potential liability.
Whatever the stitching, repairs should if possible use the existing
stitch holes to avoid weakening the leather. We, and other reputable
outfits, do this as a matter of course. On the evidence of our own eyes
this practice is not, however, universal.
As mentioned above, body armor is commonly used to increase protection.
It comes in two basic flavours, hard and soft. Which you choose is entirely
up to you. We hold a stock of CE marked soft armor which we personally
like, but it is heavy and quite expensive, however it can be trimmed
to fit armor pockets without compromising its integrity. Soft armor
made from polynorborane (Norsorex and Noene) both absorbs energy under
impact & probably more significantly, spreads the energy transfer
over time, whereas hard armor tends to spread the force over a larger
area. There is a lot of research out there and this is probably not
the place for a technical thesis. Hard armor usually fits into made
to measure pockets and has to be replaced like-for like and would require
holding a large stock.
Some suits are fitted with sewn or bonded in armor. Bear in mind that this can make repair or alteration very expensive or in some cases effectively impossible. Again, your call.
Hint. If you do a lot of track days and your friends call you,
for instance, "Flymo", "Thud", "Crasher" or "Kamikaze" think hard before
buying anything that is going to be hard or plain expensive to repair
WELL, as Byson will sell you a used suit it would be hypocritical to say no. But take care of the things mentioned above - there are some really good deals to be had but bear in mind that getting the suit up to scratch may cost a little if it is not perfect. If you buy second hand, it is cheaper and easier to make a large suit smaller to fit than to make a small suit bigger, so err on the side of generosity. Having said that, don't go for a suit or jacket that you could get two of you in because BIG alterations start to look like re-manufacture from a price point of view. If you buy second hand from a reputable source there should be NO visible faults in the garment because it will have been checked over very thoroughly. Altering a second hand jacket, jeans or suit to fit can be quite expensive, but the result, to all intents and purposes, should be pretty much a made to measure bit of kit for a very reasonable price. Especially if we have done the work. :-)
When buying second hand, always check that existing repairs (replacement zips especially) have been done to a high standard. Check that re-stitching has used the existing stitch holes (see above under Stitching and Construction) and that the zip does not "ripple". Check the condition of the zips closely.
Also, take the time to find a really good make. As above, go for something
just a bit on the big side. You could, with a bit of luck and patience
(and with the help of, for instance, E-Bay plus ourselves, or someone
like us), find yourself the owner of what is in effect a tailored Hideout
or Crowtree garment.
The skin on your hands is very thin and very sensitive and the human
hand is a complicated bit of kit. For this reason your hands deserve
the best protection you can afford. Leather will give you protection
from abrasion and hard armor can help protect joints.
Like hands, feet are mechanically complex and also like arms are prone
to flailing about on the end of limbs during a crash. Boots should fit
well and protect the ankle which is a very vulnerable area. Comfort
is essential in a boot, so if you are buying footwear to both ride and
walk in, make absolutely certain you will be able to do both. It is
no good riding comfortably through France and then finding you can't
walk round Mont Saint-Michel. That kind of thing can ruin your day.
Sorry. There really is no such animal. Leather is a breathable material
and will tend to let in the rain. Even well treated leather will only
be shower proof and even then the seams will leak.
If you get really wet, be careful how you dry your leathers. Take
out the lining (You DID buy a suit with a take-out lining, didn't you
?), take out the body armor and hang your kit up on hangers (not on
a hook using the hanging loop) and put somewhere cool, dry and well
ventilated to dry. Ah. You got THAT wet. Well, put an old newspaper
under it to catch the drips. Meanwhile you can put the lining in a net
bag and put it in the washing machine.
We (I) like textile over suits. Textile kit is fine and it is usually
waterproof. Until it gets damaged. Textile kit is not as easy to repair
as leather and it is hard (by which I mean it is going to cost a bit
more) to repair and keep waterproof. We can and do repair and alter
textile clothing but getting an exact or even a good colour match is
difficult with some colours. We have no personal experience of body
surfing tarmac in textile kit so we can't offer any advice as to it's
suitability for this activity. Some of our mates swear by it.
Nylon helical. No ifs & buts, go for nylon helical. For a fashion jacket
or if you are into the retro look (or for a classic jacket like a flying
jacket, but genuine - original manufacturer and model - zips are rather
expensive and hard to find) then by all means go for a metal zip, but
for bike gear the helical is stronger, tolerates curves and bends better
and won't give track day scrutineers a headache. Any of the big fastener
manufacturers is fine, we have our preferences, but we wouldn't NOT
buy a jacket just because we don't like the zip manufacturer. As a rule,
bigger is better. Zips are sized by the span across the teeth when done
up. We tend to use 8 and 10 mm on bike clothing, finer (3mm) on zip-in
Full length round the body
Obviously nylon helical zips are not ideal for all uses. Vintage clothing requires vintage zips. We can source zips for some US flight jackets back to the late 30's. Irvin (RAF) jackets however are very hard to re-zip as original. The Lightning & DOT zippers used in these are like hen's teeth and when they come up on e-bay they are expensive. If you can find one we will fit it for you but if we devoted the time & effort needed to track them down for you the zip would cost it's weight in gold. This doesn't mean we don't try to pick them up when we can and you MAY be lucky, but it's not a good bet. German kit is in the same situation here. Hardware is not easy to come by. We CAN (and do) find modern sliders to fit vintage zips in some cases. And we have managed to refit vintage pullers on modern sliders. If you wear the jacket this could be a possible solution for you if you still have the puller on a broken slider.
And we can in the final analysis fit a modern zip. Ironically we would use the same manufacturer at the Luftwaffe used. Simply because they are very well made, are a reasonable colour match for the tape and a good size match. And not because they are cheap. Sadly :-)
Waterproof zips are sometimes requested. There are two ways of waterproofing
a zip. The first is to put polymer "flaps" over a more or
less conventional zip. This tends to wear after a while, and the engineering
compromises needed to use a conventional zip in this way tend to make
these zips prone to failure in time.
Obviously we can do any colour the manufacturer's will make but there will be a price impact with the above mentioned minimum order problem.
If you are buying, especially second hand, or having club or other
badges sewn on to your leathers, PLEASE don't have them sewn on through
the lining. It makes any subsequent repair or other work much more expensive.
Just about anything that can be called leather can and has been used
for fashion garments. In this field the look is all important, and if
it floats your boat, go for it. One thing to bear in mind here is that
for some garments the leather will be thinned down lots to get the look
the designer wants, and this will leave the leather VERY weak. The leather
finish is usually "printed" on to the surface and the polymer material
used is not designed for strength. As the leather is thinned you end
up with a material more like the finish than like leather and it will
tear and mark VERY easily. The garments will also stretch and distort
easily so CAVEAT EMPTOR.
Lucky you. They are great garments. I would not recommend them for bike use but on a really cold day they are toasty warm. An original (wartime) Irvin in nice wearable condition will set you back in excess of £500 and a good repro possibly more. They do get damaged and if and when yours needs attention, get it looked at sooner rather than later, as the damage won't get better and can get worse quite fast. We have three (or two) ways of doing this. We can apply a leather patch and overband it. This looks pretty good, is a good strong repair and is not too expensive. My father's jacket had an original field repair done this way.
Alternatively we can replace either the whole panel or part of it. We can do this with new sheepskin, but getting a colour match will be pretty hard. If you have an original Irvin jacket, we can repair it with wartime hide. This is the expensive option, but on an original jacket it is probably the best. We almost certainly can't match the colour of your jacket exactly, but the finish and general patina will be a better match than using modern hides with modern finishes. Whatever we do, a 70 year old jacket is probably going to be more fragile than a repro. We can stabilize the garment but we can't perform miracles.
We can also re-zip and repair other vintage military garments - American A and B jackets for instance. At the time of writing this, we had a B3, 2 A2s (one by Spiewak & Sons,1942 -1945, one Cooper Sportswear that looks just post war), and a 1940 dated Luftwaffe flying jacket made by Loutre AG. The problem with all these is hardware. Some of it is virtually unobtainable (Rapid zips for instance). Original zips for Irvin jackets come up now and then (but front zips rather rarely. Arm zips come, I suspect, from broken-up trousers). And when they do they are expensive. There is still some new old stock hardware for American jackets even as far back as the late 1930s, but again it is expensive (£40 -£60 for a zip). We can get some of this stuff for you but we can't spend the time needed to source most of it. That would push the price up out of all reason. So if you need hardware be prepared to look out for it and send it with the jacket or whatever. It is always worth asking if we have some particular item. Also be aware that we are repairers. We specialize in putting garments back into use. We are NOT professional, specialist restorers. We think we do a very good job, but if you need a museum quality restoration job done, I would start asking at Duxford. If you have any hardware in the attic, we would probably be willing to buy it from you. For a reasonable sum. We are not made of money and neither are our customers.
That customer COULD BE YOU.
Hanging these jackets is a minefield. An original Irvin is quite
a heavy garment and by now the sheepskin is probably getting a little
fragile. A lot of the damage we see is round the shoulder area and we
suspect that this is caused by hangers. The jackets came fitted with
hanging chains. Don't use these either. They will pull out and taker
the collar seam with them. Again, the jacket will be too heavy and the
skin and stitching too fragile by this time. I would recommend storing
them in moth proof bags, stored flat. Cedar balls in the bag will help
deter moth too.
Can garments like flying jackets be cleaned? Well yes. But with a GREAT deal of care. An Irvin jacket issued in 1940 will have a 70 year accumulation of grime, oil, dead wildlife and assorted leather dressings on it. Some of which may be holding it together. It will obviously benefit from having some of this removed, but it should not come up looking like new. If it looks over-restored then some damage may well have been done in the process. Don't even think about dry cleaning. To clean and re-dress an Irvin jacket is a good way of loosing a couple of days, so I would suggest that our price of about 40 - 50 of your Earth pounds is a pretty good deal. Because we know how to clean them, what to clean them with and what to re-dress with. Which is not the same compound that we use for routine dressing of vintage leather.
IF you are thinking about sending or bringing us an Irvin jacket (and actually this applies to all vintage clothing, but to Irvins especially), once we start working on these it can open up something of a "can of worms". For example, shoulder seam banding may appear to be coming away due to the stitching rotting. But when we lift the banding the seam under it has long vanished. We CAN'T just do the banding, the seam has to be exposed to determine the extent of the damage, then repaired before the banding is re-stitched. Often on these garments we end up asking ourselves where to stop. Just bear in mind that repairing vintage clothing can get a bit more expensive than you thought - it is the nature of the beast. We do our best to keep the costs down whilst doing a good job. Pretty much all our other work is done on a time-to-do basis. Irvins (and similar garments where the "repair" is closer to "restoration") are an exception here because frankly they take too long & the true cost of repair to a really badly damaged jacket would (probably) be unaffordable. So we quote on a "per item" basis and we fit the tasks in around our mainstream work. It means the project can take quite a long time, so this is another factor to consider before you sent this kind of work to us.
An example of the problems with these jackets is shown here:
This pile was extracted from ONE Irvin Coastal Command jacket. There is probably still this much stuff in there again but one has to be careful with these garments. Quite a lot of this clag ends up in our machines which then have to be stripped and cleaned. Cleaning these garments is not just a case of sprucing up the outside.
OK, so we have gone over your Irvin jacket and it has come back to you all patched up and brown. (You did know it was originally brown, didn't you )? And we hear you ask, "Is that the cleanest it will come ?"
Well, no. We could probably get it cleaner. But it is as clean as we feel we can go without damaging the jacket. You will still be able to see deep oil satins and the like - but I don't think you want to remove them anyway. They are a part of the jacket's story. And the jacket is also as clean as you probably want to afford. If we charged a sensible labour rate on this job you would wonder if owning an old Irvin jacket was such a good idea after all. Its a bit of a labour of love :-)
The pictures above show a half-cleaned Irvin jacket - there are still deep oil stains on the sleeve, but trying to remove them would also remove the surface of the hide. It is still slightly damp. The trousers at right have NOT been cleaned. Simply gone over with a soft brush and a vacuum cleaner & then half re-dressed.
This kind of garment can be brought privately, or on the Internet from a well-known auction site, or from a specialist dealer. One such that we have some personal experience of is oldnautibits.com, an aviation and naval collectibles specialist north west of Yeovil. There is something to be said for buying from a specialist (and an enthusiast).
We have recently done some work on a 1942 pattern USAAF B3 jacket and pictures are on this page.
Keep it clean. Mud and the odd dead fly can be sponged off with a little
warm water. If your kit is dirtier than that, a proprietary leather
cleaner used according to the instructions will remove light surface
dirt. Try to get one of the foaming type, do small areas at a time and
leave to dry in a cool well ventilated spot overnight.
A special word about neat's foot oil. Be ever so careful with this
stuff. If you are using it, do so VERY sparingly. Use a cloth applicator
of some kind and be careful not to saturate the applicator, let alone
the leather. If the finish looks uneven or blotchy, don't lather more
on, just leave it overnight. The finish will almost certainly even up
with time. It is so easy to saturate leather with oil, which will migrate
through to the lining of a garment, or the contents of a case. If you
are going to use neat's foot, try to get pure neat's foot as it is generally
more stable & predictable. On light leathers or nappa, I would avoid
it like liver.(1)
Saddle soap. People keep asking us about saddle soap. Honest, we are just standing at the bar with a pint and a Merlot minding our own bizz and people ask about saddle soap. Well. Not quite, but you know what we mean. Many people think it is the bee's knees for cleaning leather. They have not tried it, but they think that anyway. It's called SADDLE soap. It IS OK for cleaning saddles and tack, but the "soap" constituents are mainly in there to emulsify the conditioning ingredients and not for cleaning. Additionally it was developed in an era when people either had, or were, grooms, so saddle soap is really a professional product and as such we would advise caution. To the point of abstinence.
Cleaning and conditioning fashion leathers is very much as the above but with added emphasis on the "use water / cleaner / conditioner VERY sparingly". Grubby fashion leathers are also a candidate for professional dry cleaning, but try to find a leather specialist cleaner rather than a general dry cleaner.
(1) About the only thing the author won't eat.
I am trying to avoid getting technical in here, but most fashion garments (until you start getting to the VERY expensive or heavy items) are made from nappa leather which is a finished sheep hide. It is soft and comfortable. But like other soft and comfortable products it is not as strong as cow leather. There is a lot of information on the Internet about leather and leather processing if you are interested. Our favourite site appears to have gone pear-shaped at the moment. I will include links when I find a site or sites as good.
No. Please don't. If you can possibly avoid it. Whatever the lady on The Shopping Channel said, it is NOT a good idea. It is quite possible to glue leather and make a good job but the chances of your having the right adhesive in the kitchen cupboard are vanishingly small. Torn fashion garments need attention as soon as possible to avoid distorting or stretching the leather any more than has occurred at the time of damage. The more the leather is distorted the less likely we are to be able to effect a low-visibility (invisible is very hard ) repair. DO NOT put super glue anywhere near leather garments. I've probably said this before somewhere on this web site but I will say it again. It is the work of Stan. It is very hard, if not impossible to remove and breaks machine needles. We end up having to cut the contaminated leather away and this makes for more expensive repairs.
Racers & track day folks often carry out "temporary repairs" with gaffa or carpet tape. If you have done this, get it off as soon as you can & have a permanent repair made. There is something in the adhesive of some tapes that has a catastrophic effect on some types of leather. Don't risk having this combination. I'd love to be more specific but knowing exactly what tape has done the damage is pretty hard especially after it has been on there for 12 months. I suspect it is a type of carpet tape but won't swear to it..
You are on your own here as any such purchase is very much an individual thing. I can however give a few tips on buying when you can only see pictures based on the experience (sometimes bitter) of some of our customers. And the first and most important is if it looks too good to be true then 85% of the time it probably isn't true. Look very carefully at any pictures on on-line web auction sites. There are several ways we have seen used to make jackets look "at their best" and these include over-application of leather dressing, the application of hair lacquer, the use of automotive colour restorative polish, boot polish and plain old poor (or rather selective) photography. Or a combination of more than one of the above. So take care out there and if it all goes slightly pear shaped we may well be able to help, either by repairing, cleaning or restoring the garment or by giving an expert opinion.
Last revised March 2014
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