Leather: A Bedtime Story

In just a few years there is a strong possibility the traditional leather motorcycle jacket may become a thing of the past as production methods, technology and man-made materials evolve.

Portland-based ICON - one of the U.S.’s top motorcycle apparel companies - has used leather in nearly all of its bike gear for years, but it can see a time in the near future when the use of high tech materials, rather than predominantly leather, becomes the norm.

Joe Gustafson, of ICON, said: “Leather may still have a role to play as we develop new products, but we think that over time we will use it less and less. We’re always looking for new man-made materials that have the same abrasion resistance as leather, that are just as comfortable and look just as good. In the future you’re going to start seeing these high tech materials introduced on all of our gear.”

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Leather has been synonymous with bike riders since the very first days of motorcycling. It’s tough, hard wearing and, providing it’s of good quality, offers a fair degree of protection. It also ages well and many people like the patina that a leather motorcycle jacket develops over time. But all of that is set to change.

Currently, ICON sources its leather for motorcycle gear from Brazil. They do this for two reasons. First, there is there is limited use of barbed wire on Brazilian ranches, where the cattle are reared so the hides do not get damaged. Second, the animals are grass-fed rather than reared on chemically enhanced feed. A grass-fed cow produces better quality leather, as its hide has not been stretched, which can be caused by man-made feed.

“The curing process for our leather starts from the moment the hides leave Brazil for Asia where the tanning process takes place,” said Gustafson. “Aside from vegetable oils we also use a proprietary treatment, which ages the leather as well as enhances it’s abrasion resistance and makes it more durable.”

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ICON spends a lot of time working with its leather supplier in Brazil to ensure there is consistency in the hides and the top quality of leather its customers have come to expect.

“When you’re looking at buying new gear there are some simple clues to look for with leather,” said Gustafson.

“Check the stitching and the way it’s been put together. Does it look straight or crooked? If it’s not aligned properly then it might not be the best quality. Double or even triple stitching on a seam is even better, as it makes for far better structural integrity.”

“Always check the fit on any item of gear and see how it looks on you. Pay particular attention to the shoulders and the impact points on all gear. How well-made does it all look and feel? Check the overall craftsmanship of the item. It may seem obvious but price will also tell you a lot about what you are considering buying.”

Leather for the moment still makes up a large part of all motorcycle gear but aside from its abrasion attributes it can be uncomfortable, hot and heavy for the wearer. The production process for leather is getting more and more expensive. There are less suitable cows being raised for leather production than ever before, less grazing land available and drought in some parts of the world has hit cattle farmers badly. Plus the tanning process has become increasingly restricted by tough environmental legislation for leather manufacturers.

“We recognized some time ago that the use of leather on motorcycle gear could start to diminish due to high costs and some of the issues facing cattle farmers. Plus there are number of really good solutions available that are now man-made,” said Gustafson. “Leather won’t disappear completely but the advances in technology, production methods and these new materials means that very soon we will have gear that has all the inherent qualities of leather, that will look just as good but will be stronger, lighter and more comfortable.”

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ICON currently uses high-tech materials in a lot of its gear combined with leather. In particular there’s high-build nylon incorporated into its Citadel jackets, while a combination of top quality leather and ballistic nylon fighter mesh features in its ICON 1000 line-up.

“We are a few years away from introducing high-tech materials across all our range, “ said Gustafson. “But we’ve been working with a company called D3O that does a lot of research and development work in this area. D3O currently produces high-tech polymer materials for the military, sports world and medical field.”

For example, D3O has created a polymer for a miner’s boot that can withstand the impact of a 30,000 lb bolder. ICON is currently working with D30 as it feels that polymer material has a great future in motorcycle gear as it can be adapted for a wide range of use.

“Foam armor is used a lot in the side panels of motorcycle jackets, as it offers reasonable protection but it cannot withstand constantly getting wet or too hot and over time it hardens and becomes brittle,” said Gustafson.

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“We’ve replaced all the foam in our entire ICON 2013 motorcycle clothing range and use D3O’s polymer material instead. It’s flexible, a lot thinner and is far more abrasion resistant.”

Production methods for motorcycle gear have also changed at ICON, which has now adopted a system called unit-fuse. In the past, glue was used to bond manmade clothing materials together. Now ICON uses a new high-tech process that effectively welds two different man-made materials together – such as a jacket panel and mesh - using thermo plastic urethane (TPU) and thermo plastic rubber (TPR). This in effect makes the jacket even stronger, flexible and improves the garment’s overall structural integrity as well as making it very durable.

“In the near future you are going to see a lot less leather in our motorcycle gear and more use of high-tech materials,” added Gustafson. “Some of them, such as polymer, have abrasion resistant properties that are better than leather. Polymer can also be manufactured to produce a jacket that is good looking, lighter and more comfortable to wear.”

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ICON can’t reveal yet when these new high-tech materials will start to be introduced in all of its gear. But it says we can start looking out for it in the 2014 collection.

Related Links:
The Armor: D3O
Women's Gear: ICON 1000 Federal Jacket
Men's Gear: ICON Compound Mesh Jacket

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