BYSON LEATHER

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 - 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.

Leather for motorcycle 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 1 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.
Just a quick aside here. Leather does not stretch. At least, leather suitable for motorcycle clothing does not stretch appreciably in any sensible time frame. So if a sales person sells you a suit / jacket / jeans which are a bit on the tight side, they are going to stay on the tight side and they will not be comfortable. Ever.

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Kangaroo leather

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.
And the first cost is financial. Demand for kangaroo is high & China vacuums up huge amounts to make football boots. Personally I doubt whether the slight advantage offered makes a blind bit of difference to the performance of any player outside the elite rankings but if they like the fancy labels then who am I to say them nay. So Kangaroo costs in excess of £13 a square foot at the time of writing. As a very approximate estimate, say a suit needs about 35 sq ft of leather. That will need something like 7 x 6 sq ft skins. So something like £550 before the maker cuts a hide. Compare this to about £150 for cow, and then factor in the extra cutting & stitching, the fact that the design will be more complicated to keep seams away from impact points.....
The second cost is seams. A kangaroo hide is quite small and has a large hole where the tail used to be. This means that where one can cut large panels out of a single cow hide, the same panel in a kangaroo suit will have been made up from two or more hides. This means seams and SEAMS ARE WEAK POINTS. They can also be uncomfortable.
The third cost is related to the two above. Not only are kangaroo hides small and expensive, they are also triangular. Vaguely. There is a lot of unusable edge bits on a hide which will have to be trimmed away but which YOU WILL HAVE TO PAY FOR.
There is a fourth, minor point. Ideally you want to use the biggest, heaviest hides you can find. This means hides from older animals. But kangaroos are argumentative creatures with the social skills of fast bowlers. This means that big skins are usually quite heavily scarred. I don't believe this has a material effect on the strength of the suit, but some people find it unsightly.

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 or cow.

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Stitching and construction

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.
We have only ever seen one example of apparent double leathering being in fact single, but one is enough if it happens to be yours.
We recommend that suits should have detachable linings for this reason. In addition a detachable lining is washable and from our point of view they make repairs and alterations much easier, quicker and therefore cheaper. Where ever possible we will re-stitch a garment using double stitching when it comes in for repair regardless of how it was originally made. It helps to protect YOUR skin and OUR reputation.
We also come across failed seams that have torn because the stitches are too close together. This is another factor to watch out for when buying. Take a look at the seams and make an estimate-you are looking for about 8 to 10 stitches to the inch. What do you mean, you don't carry a tape measure with you ? OK, the end joint of your thumb is going to be about an inch and a half long. If there are much more than 12 stitches along this length we would start to be concerned. Seams are an inherent weak point in leathers. Look for kit with the fewest. Make sure that there are as few seams as possible at critical points. Here are some examples of the kind of seams to look (and look out) for. No doubt there are others that we have missed out - or simply not seen yet. Top stitching (the bit that shows on the outside) shown in "aqua"

Wrong open seam pic
Open seam. This is NOT the way to do it.

Correct open seam pic
On leathers an open seam should be backed like this.

Double or single open seam
A properly sewn open seam may be double (left) or single (right) top stitched.

Single stitch top
Single stitched, top stitched folded back seam. Not on MY leathers thank you.

Double stitch top
Double stitched top stitched folded back seam. Much better.

French seam
French seam. Slightly bulky but fine for thinner leather.

TS french seam
French seam can also be laid over and single or double top stitched.

Lapped seam
Lapped seam simply top stitched. Another no-no.

Orrible seam
I don't know if this seam has a proper name, but there is a special place reserved for people who use it on leathers.
Notice how close the stitching is to the edge of the leather. As soon as the top stitch fails the seam will tear away.

Like this.....

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.

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Body armor

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.
We can hold hard armor for regular race / track day customers but as a general rule we will have to buy in hard armor on a case by case basis if a suit comes in with broken elements. We will not refit broken or damaged armor, though of course we will return it to the customer. Your call.

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

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Should I buy second hand?

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.

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Gloves

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.
Leather gloves can be repaired but hard armor makes this more difficult and sometimes impossible. The fit of gloves is also very important. If the fingers are too short this can cause cramping in the hand, too long and precise control becomes hard. Gloves that are too loose can come off in a crash and gloves that are too tight can stop blood circulating. Shop around and find what suits you.
A radical solution is to have gloves made to measure. These will usually be a leather and Kevlar™ construction without hard armor (because handmade gloves are made inside out and then turned, which becomes hard or impossible when armor is incorporated - this is why it is often impossible to repair armored gloves) and will cost a fair amount to buy.
Custom made gloves are probably only going to be necessary if you are an unusual size or if you have an existing injury. We can also alter un-armored gloves to accommodate missing fingers for instance. In the right circumstances armored gloves could also be similarly changed.

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Boots

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.

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Waterproof leather?

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.

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Wet leather

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.
Now leave it for 24 hours. If it dries out much quicker than that the leather could be damaged. Turn it round now and then to let the leather dry evenly. When dry, you can treat using a cream-type leather dressing VERY SPARINGLY - try to find a cream that is formulated with bike kit in mind. Again, leave overnight to dry.
Leather is very resilient stuff and if your kit has dried out slowly enough it will be none the worse for the experience. We have had holidays on the bike where we have had to dry the leathers out every night for a week and a half. (At which point we cracked and brought expensive French oversuits. Which are damned good)

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Textile suits

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.

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Zips

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 linings.
Bear in mind if you plan to do track days that a two piece suit is often acceptable (but check before you go) IF the joining zip is:

Full length round the body
Sewn to the leather of the jacket in at least four places, not on an elastic piece and not sewn to the jacket lining
NOT metal. Scrutineers do not like metal zips. At all. Anywhere.

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.
Then one can engineer a zip to be inherently waterproof. And then coat it with a water-repellent finish. The first option is (relatively) cheap. The second is (relatively) more expensive. But by the time we have ordered them in on a minimum order and paid the postage (as we don't carry vast stocks of more specialist zips) the difference is so small that the cheaper option is not worth the compromises in design. So unless specifically required we tend to go for the (slightly) more expensive option. In black, so we can keep a limited stock.

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.

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Badges

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.
Oh. And it's dead naff.

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Leather for fashion garments

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.
GwenTheBoss formerly worked as the Sample Maker for John Richmond, who's use of leather has always been both adventurous and practical. The rule of thumb here was that under 1mm nappa leather was impractical. Based on this advice and our own experience (and sadly that of our customers) we would be very wary of buying clothing under 1mm thick . Again there are exceptions - kangaroo is different- and in the final analysis it is a fashion garment, not something to keep your skin off the road.
If you like it and you have to have it, there you go. Byson can probably fix it if you break it.
Second hand fashion garments can be a great buy. We have seen big name garments in nice condition in charity shops for very attractive prices. Just remember that if you buy something like this which does not quite fit (i.e., is a bit big - see above under Should I buy second hand?) just because you only paid £30 for it, if it needs a hundred pounds worth of work to make it fit, we will charge a hundred pounds. But you will have a made to measure garment at a fraction of the price that the designer would have charged. And quite possibly better finished.

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Leather care

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.
As far as leather conditioners go, we have had some quite interesting discussions with various other professionals about this, so as above, this is just our opinion and applies to bike leathers rather than (for instance) leather furniture. Use a cream type conditioner rather than an oil or "greasy" type. Use it VERY sparingly and apply with your finger tips, rubbing in so that the leather surface just feels warm. As with cleaning, just do a bit at a time - say half a panel. Leave the garment to dry overnight and buff with a clean dry (lint free) cloth next morning to remove any excess. For some reason vintage and some repro leather flying jackets (Irvin, B3 etc.) tend to be treated with a "conditioner" which resembles Marmite. This may well have served well in wartime use but PLEASE try to avoid it. One of the components can soften the surface finish on the sheepskin which then sets again. Eventually the over-bands become amalgamated with the body panels and repair becomes...difficult. The stuff also coats everything it comes into contact with. Sewing machines, people, cats, you name it.

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)

ALWAYS use a well padded coat hanger when hanging leathers as they are heavy enough to distort themselves. If you habitually use a hanging loop...don't. A proper hanging loop on a leather jacket is attached to a strong tape stitched into the shoulders and spreads the weight but only a small number of makers bother with this. Motorcycle leathers are heavy enough to break many commercial hangers, and we can supply a specialist hanger if you need one.
If leathers are very dirty - after a season racing or as the result of a bit of an off, get them cleaned professionally. You are not just paying for labour, you are also paying someone to know what kind of intensive cleaner to use and what treatment will get the kit clean and not damage it. A serious clean and "tart up" can take between three and five days and includes cleaning, refinishing and colouring as well as conditioning.

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.

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What is nappa leather ?

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.

Glue and temporary repairs

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..

Buying vintage jackets

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.

 

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There is an interesting article by Martin Fitzpatrick here... which we broadly agree with.

 

There is also a very good article here at Superbike Freaks that we agree with pretty much 100% (with thanks to Marc)

Last revised March 2019

 

 

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