Nate Wessel

Bicycle Leathers – Part I

September 2014

I finally got around to starting on my bicycle leathers project!

The idea is basically this: motorcyclists are accustomed to wearing full leather, with the idea that it will protect them in case of a crash. Longboarder racers do this too though in a much sexier way if I may say so. But bicyclists never have. Roadies go to great lengths to prepare for crashes — roadrash is the main reason cited for shaving legs, and the helmet debate has been raging for decades between various camps — but yet they never to my knowledge do anything to cover their skin. I’ve gone down in lycra, and I can assure you it protects nothing.

Ostensibly this indifference might be to ‘save weight’, a common roadie obsession, but this concern simply doesn’t apply to my urban riding in the flat Cincinnati basin. Hell, my lock weighs at least 6 pounds all by itself! Anyone riding for practical purposes in New York or Chicago would surely be in the same situation. But of course… the leathers and the lock are part of a bigger imaginative context. The road, particularly for those unencumbered by petrol motors and roll-cages, can be a very mad-max place. There really must be some sense of the heroic for one to engage confidently in certain situations out there.

I think the reason motorbicycle leathers don’t often strike me as sexy is that the rider seems passive. The longboarder of course is a very active figure, swinging low into the corners, bending, leaning and sliding. Even sexier than the longboarder is the superhero, and too clad in protective layers, physically deflective but imaginatively magnetic. We are so drawn to these heroes in every context but those that matter that it’s curious to me that motorcyclists are the only ones who seem to approach the look of the modern hero. I loved the movie Kickass for it’s dark and sarcastic take on an actual attempt at heroism, though I think it’s ultimately too cynical. Or rather, it adopts an extreme case and is rightly cynical about an attempt taken too far. The movie’s costumes are the butt of jokes, and are made to be, but it’s clear too that the actors are enabled to be heroic or villainous by these same costumes. This is actual psychology!

Are we so cynical about actual heroism these days that we’re afraid to give ourselves the psychological tools necessary to try it? Or so cynical, that we know others will laugh down any attempt? I say it’s worth a try.

Back on track:

I started with shorts. I was initially going to cut these out of a dark oily brown leather that I picked up recently, but I lost my nerve at some point and went with the leftovers from the backpack I made last year. This left me with sharply contrasting colors which are great for being seen, so I’m not complaining too much. Given easier access to a range of leathers, I might have gone with a slightly darker color in place of the green, but…oh well.

So these are the first draft in actual leather, after several mockups in some leather-approximating vinyl to get the fit right.

Just a little process:

patterning leather bike shorts

Wearing them around the studio:

leather bicycle shorts, green and black
leather bicycle shorts
bicycle leather shorts

One of my original thoughts was to have this piece laser-cut. I wanted to make these very airy where I could by punching everything full of holes and perforations. As it stands, the shorts do little to explicitly address sweat and evaporation though the leather itself actually breathes great so far.

There are three pockets, all with brass zips: One in the rear, accessible by the right hand, is small and leaves it’s contents sitting neatly in the cavity between the cheeks and lower back. Cyclists are used to carrying things here though they usually do it with their jersey. The other two are right at the knees when standing and just above the action when riding. Originally, because I ride best with my left hand, I was going to make two pockets accessible to the right by putting a third pocket on the inside of the left thigh. This plan was spoiled by my own slightly rushed and habitually symmetrical cutting, so that will have to make it to another version. As it stands though, both knee pockets serve their purpose of protecting their joints from side impact with multiple layers of leather and the pocket contents themselves. Similarly, it would be great to protect the hips from side impact, but I haven’t yet been able to work out a compromise that allows a full range of movement. There’s another idea for the next phase.

As for the closure, they’re front entry with an offset, adjustable, asymmetrical front right zip, reinforced by an extension of the right front panel that wraps around and attaches to a couple of brass rings above the left hip. Huh? Adjustable zip, you said? I needed the waistband on these to be adjustable by about two inches. I want them near my waist when I’m riding and on my hips when I’m not. Higher for keeping them in place, hips for comfort and style. Also, because I’ve had trouble with slowly stretching leather waistbands in the past, I wanted to build in a way of tightening things up over time. The front zip is sewn onto the front left panel, but attached via some lacing to the right, where the seed-shaped black leather piece is inset within the green. This piece provides a firmer hold for the lacing and eliminates the pulling and gathering that would have occurred if I had laced the zipper to the softer green leather. There is nothing but buttery soft leather at the top of the closure. which is obviously the idea since I’ll be mostly hunched over the handlebars while wearing these.

Let’s see if a few more pictures can’t do a better job of explaining all this…


leather bike shorts

Fully adjustable side closure:

green and black leather bicycle shorts

Just the zipper now:

leather bicycle shorts waist closure detail

Behind the scenes:

leather bicycle shorts, front closure detail

The laces fit pretty snuggly in the holes, so friction is enough to hold the zipper in place. At it’s top, it’s adjustable by almost two inches by letting some of the lace out. (I still need to trim it)

I will definitely try to get some on the bike photos of these, hopefully before the winter.

Overall, I’m quite satisfied with the shorts, though eager to pick up some more cheap leather that I won’t worry too much about experimenting on! I really want to try out some laser-cutting and other ventilation ideas.

As for other pieces, I have a jacket started in black pig leather and blue denim, but I’m not sure I like the fit well enough to finish the collar. That jacket was designed for winter, but I think I’ll start one for summer soon, just to spite the weather or I.