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Leathers – the good, the bad and the bloody disgraceful

Introduction

We all love riding fast bikes and particularly riding fast bikes round tracks as fast as we possibly can, which is why we do it. However, this is not without considerable inherent risk as accidents can, and inevitably do, happen. To protect ourselves in the event that we find ourselves sliding down the tarmac at over 100mph, we all spend chunks of our hard-earned cash on gear – leathers, helmets, gloves, and boots – which we trust to do the job they’re designed for when we need them most. At all other times, they’re just a hot, cumbersome and fairly uncomfortable inconvenience that we wear just in case we come off, so, when we do crash, they had better be worth it.

Let’s just get something out of the way nice and early:

Until you’ve been down the road on your arse at high speed, you haven’t a clue how good your leathers are.

Fact.

Series of shots showing the impacts leathers need to be able to withstand

It doesn’t matter if they’re really comfortable and look cool and you got them for a great price if they’re likely to burst open like a packet of cheese and onion crisps as soon as you hit the deck.

So, just how protective are leather suits? How can you be sure you’re getting one which will hold up during an 80mph highside at Craner Curves and not just burst apart at the first impact? How much time and effort goes into making them, and are the materials used strong enough to prevent you requiring skin grafts should you crash in them? Superbike Freaks sets out to answer these important questions.

Aims of this feature

There is a disturbing amount of misleading information around leathers and how protective they are so we at Superbike Freaks have spent a good few months doing a lot of research and contacting various manufacturers to find out more about how their products are put together. This article is the culmination of numerous conversations with a range of manufacturers, emails back and forth, questionnaires completed, discussions with people who fix gear that’s been crashed in, and a day spent visiting the brilliant Hideout workshop in Hertfordshire to see first-hand how they make their suits and fire questions at the team. Because of the amount of information we’ve collected, this article will be split into a few installments.

The whole point of this feature is to help people to understand what they’re looking for when buying leathers and what goes into putting together a quality suit. If just one person learns something new and is able to make a more informed decision leading to them owning a safer suit as a result of this, we’ll be absolutely delighted. Especially if we don’t get sued for writing it.


Is it all doom and gloom?

No, far from it. The good news is, there are a number of fantastic manufacturers out there who genuinely care about making the strongest suits possible, using the toughest leather available, and taking plenty of time to put the suit together to the best of their abilities. However, rough with the smooth and all that, it seems there are others who choose to use legal loopholes to claim their suits are CE approved when they aren’t, use cheap leather which you can tear apart with your bare hands, and use cheap armour which isn’t designed to withstand the impacts experienced in a crash.

So how do we choose leathers?

Many factors play a part in our decisions on which leathers to buy, including:

What our friends wear

Arguably, it is absolutely pointless buying leathers on the recommendation of your mate who hasn’t crashed in them, because all they can accurately report on is whether they’re comfortable and if they like the styling, both of which are subjective… hardly a valid recommendation.

What racers wear

Which is absolutely ludicrous because, let’s face it, there is absolutely no way any member of the public can buy a set of leathers from Dainese that are anything like the set Rossi wears. One argument I regularly see online is “oh well if this budget suit is good enough for so-and-so who races in one at the TT, then it’s good enough for me,” which is completely delusional. The suit that a champion TT racer wears will be completely custom-made and will be vastly different to the one you can buy for £400.  Chances are he is being paid a nice sum to be the face of the brand so they can sell loads of other suits based on the affiliation but the ones he wears will be on a completely different level to what is sold to the public. (That’s marketing for you…) Certain manufacturers have different ranges – a range for the public and then a different, stronger range for racers so it may be that a less-high profile racer can get the same (or a very similar) suit to a champion racer, but you or I certainly couldn’t walk into a motorcycle clothing store and get the same one.

Trackday crash – sliding through the grave;

Reviews in magazines

Which, again, needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. How often do you see a review of a new jacket or something and then, a few pages over, a massive full-page advert from the same manufacturer? Unfortunately, money makes the world go round – it’s just the way it is and it’s not going to change any time soon. A magazine, which makes a significant proportion of its money from advertising revenue, is unlikely to slate an item of clothing from a manufacturer which provides them with freebies and pays a chunk of their wage bill. Neither are they likely to rip the suit apart and check the seam burst strength or its abrasion-resistant properties – it’s too costly. One mag did used to perform abrasion and seam burst tests years ago but they had to stop destroying thousands of pounds worth of gear because they had to buy all the gear themselves so it wasn’t sustainable.

Superbike Freaks spoke to an industry insider who relayed the story of the Moto2 rider who had a massive crash a few years ago and his leathers (from the same leading manufacturer as his boots) split open in places they really shouldn’t have and were completely trashed. Not a single website or bike mag ran a story on how shocking that was because they’d allegedly been warned not to by the manufacturer, threatening to pull all advertising revenue and freebies from anyone who did.

Online recommendations in groups or forums

This one isn’t too bad but again, many of the people offering opinions won’t have crashed in the gear, so their recommendation will be based on wanting to justify their purchase. No-one likes to think they’ve made a bad purchase so people will naturally say that whatever they’ve bought is great – it’s human nature. However, this doesn’t necessarily make it a good suit.

This is an example of a conversation I’ve seen and had too many times on Facebook groups:

Original question: “Are XYZ leathers any good?”
Random: “Yes, they’re great!”
Superbike Freaks: “What makes you say that?”
Random: “Oh because I have some and they’re great leathers.”
SBF: “So how many crashes have you had in them?”
Random: “Well I’ve never crashed in them but I’ve had them for 4 years and worn them lots and they cost me a grand and I think they’re fantastic.”
SBF: “So basically, you’re recommending a protective set of leathers to someone when you have no idea if they’ll actually do the job they’re designed to do?”
Random: “Ummm, yes.”

On the other hand, there are many racers and trackday regulars who will have crashed (numerous times!) and will be able to offer a more objective opinion based on personal experience, but no two crashes are the same. A decent set of leathers should be able to withstand multiple high speed crashes and still be usable; just because someone has low-sided a few times in a particular suit and come away scuffed but uninjured, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a great suit.

Cost

In an ideal world, money wouldn’t be an issue and we could all afford whichever top-of-the-range custom-made suit we wanted. However, the reality is that for nearly everyone, cost is a factor and we’re all working to a budget of some sorts. When it comes to leathers, though, the old adage of “buy cheap, buy twice” has never been more relevant. Yes, you can buy a suit for £300 which might save your skin during a 40mph lowside. But is it going to be reusable or will it be disposed of having “done its job”? Would you have been better off buying a suit for £1,500 which will last you more than 10 years and multiple crashes?

CE approval rating

This one should be very straight-forward, but unfortunately it isn’t. CE approved = good, strong suit… right? Not necessarily.

There is a lot of misleading labelling going on when it comes to CE rating and we are being taken advantage of and misled by some manufacturers.

For example, there is a self-certification loophole which allows brands to label their products as “CE approved” if they believe that they would pass if submitted. While this is understandable for some small manufacturers for whom the £10k cost of going through CE approval is unfeasible, it does leave the door wide open for abuse.

Many suits have a “CE Approved” label on them which would lead you to expect the suit itself is certified but the label is only referring to the fact that there is CE armour inserted; the suit could be made of tissue paper. Sometimes you need to really read all the labels carefully to find out that it’s the armour only which is CE approved.

There is also a different level of CE rating available for clothing which is not designed to be protective, such as gloves intended for use while gardening and we’ve heard of at least one reputable company which used to quote “CE approved” for its bike gloves whereas, in fact, they had been submitted for CE approval in a completely irrelevant category. So, although they were definitely strong enough for you to pick flowers with, falling off a bike in them would not be recommended at all.

There are no doubt other factors and of course, the actual reason we buy something is more likely to be a combination of a few of the above, plus things like availability in local shops to be able to try something on, fit, looks, etc.


So what goes into making a set of leathers?

Putting together a quality leather suit is a lengthy process. First of all, you have to source the right materials, making sure you have quality leather that’s been processed correctly and is free from any major defects (scarring etc.). Then the leather is cut into panels using patterns before the assembly begins.  Ideally, there should be double layers of leather in all the major impact areas so that if a slide does wear through the leather, there’s another one underneath it. High quality suits will be lined in the crash zones with something like kevlar which provides a final abrasion-resistent barrier.

Then comes stitching and the way a suit is stitched and the thread used varies massively from manufacturer to manufacturer. Decent suits will have triple stitched seams to make them as strong as possible.

Finally, fit. If a great suit is poorly fitted, it can rotate around you in the event of a crash and cause friction burns, leading to even more injuries. A set of leathers should fit a like a second skin and shouldn’t be able to spin around very much at all.

Unfortunately, it’s not easy to spot the stitching when you look at a suit as it’s all turned inside and the visible outer row of stitching doesn’t really contribute to the strength of the seams. To see how well a suit is stitched, you have to peel back the lining at the ankles or cuffs and count how many lines of stitching there are concealed on the inside. It’s these rows which are going to provide the seam strength.

The leather

Leather, when it comes off the cow (or kangaroo) is around 8mm thick. This is then split into different layers and sold off for different industries. The strongest, toughest layer goes into things like bike leathers and the softer, weaker layers go to the fashion and furniture industries. Naturally, the tougher layer is more expensive but the difference in strength is phenomenal.

Leather strength – a demonstration

The toughness of the leather is a major factor in suit strength. When Superbike Freaks visited Hideout, we had a demonstration of just how strong some leather is and how weak other leather is. We were given a piece of cheap hide, the sort not intented for use in protective gear but that is often used by companies offering cheap made-to-measure suits. Kate, the owner of Hideout, put a small cut in the hide with scissors and then invited us to continue to tear it where the cut had been made. It tore apart like a piece of paper, with next to no effort.

Then, Kate repeated the exercise with a piece of kangaroo leather. With this hide, even with the cut into it to start it off, we were completely unable to make the leather rip apart any more. The difference in strength was incredible and very worrying to realise that some suits are made of the cheaper hide which would not hold up in any 40mph+ slide.

Stitching

The stitching holds the suit together and is a very important aspect of the strength.

Avoid anything that is single-stitched – this will not hold up in a slide. We spoke to a custom suit manufacturer and they told us of how they’d been asked to repair countless suits in the past from a major European manufacturer whose suits were only single stitched. This has changed in recent years but is still absolutely appalling that a company which specialises in making protective motorcycle gear didn’t used to care enough to make its products fit for purpose because it’s more expensive and time-consuming to stitch suits properly.

Stitching examples

The first image shows three pieces of stitched leather from the outside and only one of them is triple-stitched. The outer line of stitching is simply to hold the leather in place and then the hidden lines provide the key additional strength. You have to look at the underside of the leather to see how it’s been stitched…

Left

The piece on the left has one seam and a pretty poor attempt has been made at putting a second row of stitching along the same seam.

Middle

The middle piece also has one seam but the edges of the two pieces of leather have been folded back and stitched flat. This is for neatness and does not increase the strength of the seam in any way.

Right

The piece on the right has been triple-stitched. You can see how there are clearly three separate rows of stitching attaching the pieces of leather together. This is what you’re looking for when inspecting a suit.

Thread thickness is measured in fractions of an inch, denoted by a ticket number. For instance, you get ticket 20 thread (which is a twentieth of an inch thick), ticket 40 (a fortieth of an inch) and ticket 60 (a sixtieth of an inch) so ticket 20 is three times as thick as ticket 60, not the other way round.

Cheap suits will probably be stitched with cotton, which simply isn’t strong enough for leathers and will burst open really easily. Quality suits are stitched with bonded nylon, which will eventually burst open but will be backed up by other rows of stitching and other layers of leather. Some suits will be stitched with kevlar but kevlar stitching is actually too strong for leathers and won’t burst, meaning the thread will rip straight through the leather in the event of a crash rather than gradually giving way. Stitching is actually expected to give way in the event of a crash but should give way a row at a time and the seam should still be intact by the time you stop tumbling.

Shinpad-type armour as used in some cheap suits

Armour

We were also shown some of the armour used in cheaper suits – the elbow and shin armour looked just like cheap football shin-pads and had cracked and split with sharp edges after one minor impact.

Then we had a demonstration of D30, a revolutionary material which is fantastic at absorbing impacts. We were given a ball of D30, about the size of a golf ball, to throw/drop at the concrete floor. Rather than transmitting the force through it and bouncing back up, the D30 absorbs all the energy of the impact and just stays on the floor, perhaps bouncing up about 2cm max with the hardest of drops. Amazing material and definitely what you would want the armour in your suit to include.


Cheap gear

Worryingly, Ebay is absolutely full of listings for custom-made Rossi replica suits which look exactly like the real deal, complete with rip-off manufacturer logos, for £299. Including delivery from the other side of the world. Now, when you consider that a one-piece suit will require around 50-60 sq ft of leather, and quality leather costs £3-£4 per square foot, that leaves £19-£109 (assuming £40 for delivery and import charges) to go towards measuring, designing, cutting, stitching… a process which, for quality manufacturers, will require at least 25 hours’ work and even up to 100 hours in some cases. And that’s not even taking into account any profit for the company or the cost of decent armour.

You have to ask yourself, how can they be making any money? The answer is simple – by cutting corners. So, what corners can be cut?

  • Cheap leather
  • Avoiding CE approval
  • Wrong type of thread
  • Single stitching
  • Plastic armour
  • Poorly skilled labour
  • No quality control
  • No ongoing research & development to improve suits

This isn’t to say that any suit made abroad will be awful – Arc-On, for instance, has spent a long time finding a factory overseas which can produce suits to its high specifications and standards and their suits are very popular in the BSB paddock with racers who have crash-tested them and found them to hold up incredible well. Many other suits are made in Asia and the quality of work is very high; it is just more difficult to be sure of the quality when you don’t know what type of leather or stitching goes into it.

Thanks

We’re very grateful to a number of people who have taken the time to patiently answer our many questions and help with the fact-gathering for this article, in particular:

Kate from Hideout Leathers for inviting us to their workshop to see it first-hand & take us through the process;

Ian from Arc-On for numerous emails helping us to understand the CE regulations;

Jonny from Kushitani for a lengthy conversation about the manufacturing process and importance of fit; and

Brian from BKS for another long conversation which really opened our eyes to a lot of the shady goings-on.

Coming up in part 2 next month…

While researching this article, we approached a large number of manufactures with requests for their input. The responses we received varied greatly from those who were only too happy to get involved, help us with information, explain or show how their suits are made, and offer any input we required, to those who completely ignored our requests for some basic information on the quality of their suits.

In the next article, we will be publishing details of the information we received from each manufacturer in our subsequent articles as well as our personal recommendations for the minefield of brands out there based on the research we’ve conducted.

For now, we hope this has given you some interesting points to consider next time it comes to choosing a set of leathers.

About author

Aaron Mellish

Road-racer Aaron is looking forward to the most important event of his racing career so far as he is making his debut at the Isle ...