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Sean Michael’s take on Fox Creek Leather…

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Leather and adventure are not merely the panache of Brandoesque bikers. The history of motorcycle-borne adventurers affirms the material’s resiliency and effectiveness in hard core travels. How far back does this go? Before the WWII Harley HLA’s were carrying GI’s in leather, Robert Fulton became the first person to circumnavigate the globe on a motorcycle and found his protection in a leather bomber. Ted Simon, nearly a half century later, popularized the same journey wearing a flight jacket. Likewise, in the 60s, Danny Liska donned similar garb as he rode his BMW R60 from Alaska to Argentina, making the first crossing of the Darien Gap. Even the great chronicler of the American landscape, J.B. Jackson, wore a classic double-breasted leather jacket as he criss-crossed the Lower 48 on his Bimmer.

Leather was long the only logical choice for riders seeking a range of protection when riding. The benefits of the material continues to challenge modern apparel makers as they seek to improve upon its characteristics. However, leather has by no means been left in the dust by Cordura, Ballistics cloth, Gortex, etc. Instead, riders simply end up choosing what appeals to them. However, the textile vs. leather choice isn’t as clear cut as some would suggest.

Short of a Darien or perhaps a Bimmer suit, you don’t form a relationship with a textile jacket. You use it, wear it out, and try to get a good price for it. If you’re Ewan McGregor you may have a suit worn to the point that someone wants it for its character/history, but barring that (or wannabe buys of faded Aerostich suits on ebay), textile gets sold off because it’s gone downhill. Leather? It is the stuff of memory, stories and the dreams of sons and grandsons longing to inherit what Grand/dad wore. Leather absorbs events and adventure the way a face, it too a fleshy diary, chronicles days in the sun, miles traveled, and trials endured. While textiles lose the characteristics that endeared them to buyers (not dissimilar to some spousal choices), leather improves with each passing season, becomes more valuable, ultimately being that comfortable partner some would, again like a mate, call their best friend.

The decisions to buy behind all those battered old leather jackets was probably a lot less thought out than many of the consumer purchases by riders these days. Frankly, the playing field is a lot more diverse, and the choices almost innumerable compared to options in the 50s, 60s and 70s. One thing, however, that has not always grown for the better is quality. Leather jackets range from the faddish to the flimsy. Consequently, cutting through the chaff to find a product worth riding in for a few hundred thousand miles may actually be harder today in a marketplace that, like the rest of the world, is overrun with paid ads that derail Google searches for “premium leather motorcycle jacket”.

Ultimately, the textile/leather dichotomy will only be decided by the one who will don the jacket, as they reflect on what they want the garment to do for them. This apples-and-oranges choice has only so much room for comparison. For instance, the rider who believes textile may be unavoidable due to issues of inclement weather may have a point…if his/her home is Seattle. And they refuse to throw on a rain shell (like Liska did) when it is really coming down. Or, leather may seem like the sole choice should the rider think a certain style is de rigeur. In reality, for most of our riding, either is an excellent choice, and only at the fringe lie circumstances or preferences that tip the balance toward one or the other. Perhaps, then, as important as any soul searching decision is whether you are absolutely sure you will only have one jacket to fill all needs.

I assumed, like many today, that textiles were the only way to go. Leather is “old school”, I thought. I was used to riding all the textile fabrics, and assumed leather only had a place for show-n-shine cruiser rides. Still, when Fox Creek Leathers (FCL) offered to have HU riders try out their products I was game. What follows is my experience with the company and their products.

In late 2006, FCL agreed to have me put three of their products to the test. Following are my experiences living with each of these garments. First, however, a bit a on FCL. Riders making gear for riders is the first way to describe the company run by Paul Trachy and started some two decades ago in the Blueridge Mountains of Virginia. Committed to “made in America” production and continually on the search for how to make the best product they can, the ___ employees of FCL have grown with the renown of their craftsmanship. Today, the company has multiplied to match its “discovery” by bikers worldwide. Their quadrupling in sales and facility space attest to how well received each of their 120+ items have been.

FCL is committed to personalized business practices, from their second-to-none customer service, to their family-run atmosphere. This is not some bunch that markets products borne on the backs of foreign laborers earning pennies on the hour. The artisans producing their products are in the States with their workmanship kept under close watch. And speaking of close watch, try getting any info out of FCL about their leather sources! As a fan of fine leather, I was curious about the what’s and where’s of the company’s leather. Nothing doing. You can wear it, but don’t ask about its well-guarded source.

Triple Stripe jacket
Fox Creek’s Triple Stripe jacket, like the majority of their over two dozen tops, is designed to serve in an array of conditions. It’s not meant as a rain jacket. It isn’t designed for motocross. And it won’t be the preferred gear for a day at the track. But does it handle the spectrum of conditions short of extreme or repeated batterings? Here’s what I learned.

I started riding a Triple Stripe (XL, Long) in January of this 2007. I ride my KLR year-round (including some jaunts down to 4 degrees F last year) on pavement, gravel and dirt, so the FCL jacket went into commission right off the bat. Those riding impressions are key, but first a bit on how the jacket “handles”. To begin with, when I found the box postmarked from my old stomping grounds in Southwest Virginia I was struck by its weight. It felt like two jackets must have been inside. Instead, the full bulk of the package was, save the pair of elkskin gauntlets, from the one jacket. I later weighed the Triple Stripe and found the jacket weighed in at 7.5lb (3.4kg), with the insulated liner weighing another 12oz (.34kg). For comparison, my Motophoria Meridian Touring jacket, constructed of Cordura and ballistics cloth and similar to other high-end ¾ length textile jackets, weighs 6.8lb (3.1kg).

The Construction
The explanation for the Triple Stripe’s mass is in the leather. The stuff ranges from 1.4-1.6mm in thickness (up to 4.5oz). That’s thick! In and of itself that does not explain much beyond weight; there are jackets aplenty on the market with merely thick leather. But the FCL leather is, as my hands found out, stunning in its suppleness. Buttery or creamy come to mind as I searched for adjectives to capture its hand, yet both fall short of the tactile nature of the jacket. Perhaps a better description lies in the reaction of friends and family members who see it then touch the leather, get wide-eyed, and then finally, after they realize their breaking some social taboo by caressing my garment, retract their paws and stammer “wow, that’s a niiiice jacket!” Although touch alone makes a leather jacket distinct from textiles ones, what few mention is the other sense it awakens. FCL garments call out to your olfactory receptors. I have found I can’t walk past the hall closet without my nose shouting “I smell a ride waiting to happen!”. The leather smells that good, that distinct.

The rest of its construction is a mixture of beefy “heirloom quality” construction, such as the brass zippers and snaps, and comfortable next-to-skin treatments (e.g., the silky liner materials). High wear areas are constructed with doubled leather or, where appropriate (e.g., inside of pockets) nylon lining. The lining is a perforated nylon jersey material. All of these materials, coupled with the hand-made in the USA construction, add to give FCL confidence to extend a Lifetime Guarantee of quality on their products. It also permits custom sizing. For example, men’s jackets can be sized in 24 standard variations PLUS there is customized sizing available. Women’s jackets come in 8 different sizes, and are also sized by each customers bust (from 30” to 56”!) assuring a made-for-me fit for everyone.

The jacket comes standard, like most of jackets from the company, with four pockets; two generous hand warmer slash pockets (I can fit a gloved hand in them), and two inner pockets. The latter are fully accessible with the liner zipped in, with one closing with a zipper and the other a brass snap. The left pocket is BIG, measuring about 10.5”/26cm deep by 7”/18cm tall.

The Triple Stripe, like much of the FCL jacket line, comes with a Thinsulate zip-in liner equipped with a thoughtful hideaway neck warmer. The neck warmer is polarfleece lined, velcro’s in the front, and adds 3.5”/9cm of additional protection above the jacket’s leather collar. The liner adds a bit of bulk to the jacket, but doesn’t disrupt the overall fit. With or without the liner the jacket closes up snuggly but without discomfort at the waist, neck and sleeves, helping assure January winds stay out. Small button and loop attachments keep the liner in place within the jacket’s sleeves. The jacket’s sleeves use brass zippers to close the gussets, while the sides can be adjusted with two Velcro waist straps over the elasticized leather panels.

The Fit
The cut of the jacket was excellent. Following an array of measurements, the FCL folks recommended a Long 46. That call was spot on. I have excellent sleeve coverage thanks to the 2” of extra sleeve length and the articulated shoulder joints. No matter how I rotate my arms, the sleeves are always contacting my hands and never ride up. The other change of the Long cut is the added 2” of material at the waist. I’ve come to find this a mixed blessing. The jacket fits fine without any fiddling around over jeans or regular pants, and forms a good seal to boot. However, when worn over riding pants such as my FirstGear HT pants or FieldSheer mesh pants I find it easiest to have the jacket cover the waist of the pants by wrapping the jacket’s hem over the pants and then zipping it up. This insures a windproof seal and prevents the hassle of fitting the zipped up jacket hem over the riding pants. The other thing to consider if debating the Long size is the fit in the crotch versus over the tail. I love the seal in the tail that the extra material affords. The cost, however, is that in the crotch the jacket’s thick leather rides low and creates a bit of pressure. My solution is simple; I fold the front hem upwards once I am on the bike. If I were custom sizing though I would have the front cut 1-1.5”/2.5-3.8cm shorter.

The Ride
I’ve worn the Triple Stripe for over 6 months of varying riding conditions. Consequently I’ve gotten to try it from well below freezing to the upper 80s. Here’s what I found. First, recognize that my physiology is that of a tall (6’-3”/190cm), lean (185lb/84kg, 8% body fat) build, and so my results may vary from yours. My comfort limits with the Triple Stripe were, in overcast conditions, from about 45F/7C with the liner zipped in, to 55F/13C without it. For comparison, the Motophoria textile jacket with its Thinsulate liner in place is good alone down to about 40F/4.5C. All of these figures are for rides up to an hour and using a tall windscreen on the Kawasaki, and wearing a light turtleneck underneath. To ride longer, or in colder weather, I either had to wear my electric liner jacket or a thicker sweater under the Triple Stripe to keep the chill at bay. However, wind penetration is not an issue with the jacket. Its seal is excellent at all corners. Despite that protection, to truly be comfortable below 45F/7C I 1) pulled out and utilized the neck protector and 2) wore my electric liner jacket. With that combination my core would remain comfortable down to 20F/-7C.

The Triple Stripe, like the other FCL jackets, utilizes pairs of front and rear zippered vents. Unlike the other jackets, the Triple Stripe has the front vents at mid-torso level. This configuration retains the clean look of the namesake three horizontal stripes (two in cream, and one in brown—which is the thinner 1.4mm leather), but limits the flow through air to mostly below the chest. In my experience this is a trade off that makes this model less fit for warmer weather than most others in the lineup. For example, most models direct the flow in and around the chest/underarms via sleeve or shoulder vents. I found that in warmer weather I needed to unzip the upper ¼ of the main zipper to direct airflow that would ventilate the upper chest. As a result, the threshold for wanting to swap the jacket out for my mesh FirstGear jacket was around 80F/27C. Beyond that, if sunny, the Triple Stripe had me wishing my KLR lacked a windshield, as airflow was not sufficient. Again, your mileage may vary, as bikes without tall windscreens would experience far better cooling and could well be comfortable up to 90F/32C. Also, I did not benefit from the gusseted sleeves due to all my gloves sporting long gauntlets that overlap the sleeves.

In motion, the Triple Stripe is unflappable. Literally. The jacket is virtually forgotten thanks to the excellent fit and tough exterior, resisting wind but not movement. My rides in light rain/snow and dust while following others on dirt/gravel roads showed the jacket to be very resistant to the elements. Water tended to bead off the surface thanks to the drum-died treatment. Dust and dirt brushed off the leather leaving only a slightly more distinct contrast in the leather’s grain pattern. The jacket is equally unperturbed by spills. Although I did not personally put the jacket to the asphalt test, the FCL web site (which is one of the very best in the industry—they’ve even had a Blog covering leathers, leather care, bikes, and so on since 2005) offers testimony after testimony of patrons whose crashes had their FCL leather products emerging unscathed. Although the jacket does not come with armor or armor pockets (the Black Rock jacket does) the shoulders are lightly padded.

The Weaknesses
Aside from the sizing issues of the Long cut, the jacket’s needs are rather minor. First, I found the sleeve liner to be cut too long. The light nylon liner material, while very comfortable, protruded beyond the sleeve ends just slightly. I suspect this was a construction flaw and not the norm. I am also confident that FCL would have swapped out the jacket for another had I asked. An issue relating to long-term durability is the button/loop configuration that holds the liner in place in the sleeves. This method works fine, however with time I fear the button or loop will fail, but I have no evidence that it is starting to do so. Situated about 5”/13cm up the jacket’s sleeve, the loop stays out of the way and does not snag on anything.

The choice to wear a leather vs. a textile jacket is not one that any rider or writer can make for you. Similarly, the quality level and features you seek in a jacket is yours and yours alone to decide. What I can tell you though is that if you’re considering a leather jacket and want one to last you a lifetime, the Triple Stripe and other FCL garments represent a level of craftsmanship generally lost in this age of global economics and sewn in Asia/Mexico/South America products. Like so many consumer choices, the devil is in the details, and even the best of web sites fail to help (usually on purpose) good from the great quality. Not that you can’t spend more for leather riding wear. But you’ll be hard pressed to gain much in quality or manufacturer support.

Distressed Brown Buffalo Nickel Vest
When FCL asked for Horizons Unlimited readers willing to review one of their leather vests I thought it made sense to give it a try. I have always been a vest wearer. Maybe it is because of my lean build and a need to keep my core warm. Maybe it is because I am a gear head and like to try an array of garments. Whatever the case may be, my closets hold over a dozen vests of various purposes, weights and materials. Might as well try a riding vest I thought. That said, allow me to clarify a key point; I ride ATGATT (all the gear all the time). I’m not a cruiser rider, and I don’t don gear to fly my “colors”. To me, a riding vest is part of a layering system.

FCL offers fully 19 different models of vests. Most are a classic cut with naked leather in the 1.2-1.6mm range. The Buffalo Nickel versions feature the thicker jacket-weight (1.4-1.6mm) leather. The result is that a size 44 weighs 2.8lb/1.3kg. That’s noticeable but not annoying. What is interesting is that the distressed treatment of the leather, which gives it a distinct marbled appearance, also results in a unique sound. The vest, unlike the Triple Stripe jacket, has that unique squish sound of thick distressed leather. The Triple Stripe is silent in comparison when you wad up or crinkle the garment. I suppose this speaks in part to the relative stiffness of each leather. That’s not to say that the distressed leather is in anyway uncomfortable, but it is not the same luxurious feel of the jacket’s creamy exterior. A non-distressed leather version is also available.

The Buffalo Nickel vest has its namesake in the use of genuine US currency for the four snaps that serve as the main closure. Each snap is made from a highly polished 5-cent piece featuring the distinctive silhouette of an American bison or “buffalo” (the model for which was a captive bull, named “Black Diamond”, in the Bronx Zoo). Minted from 1913 until 1938, the coins make solid and durable and very aesthetic coverings for the snaps (I only wish the Indian Head side of the coins were also offered!). In case this touch doesn’t make you want to go explore somewhere west of you, consider that it was the icon of American adventure, Teddy Roosevelt, who ordered the new coinage design to replace the bland Greek-inspired designs that preceded his presidency.

Like any of my favorite vests, this one is not short on pockets. In fact, many consider vests to be primarily about carrying stuff in an organized fashion. Witness the multitude of travel, adventure, safari and Outback vests from companies like Orvis and LL Bean, some with as many as 24 pockets! The Buffalo Nickel vest shows a bit more restraint in its designers. Outside are two subtle horizontal pockets that just about disappear against the seam lines. Each is about 6”x6”/15cm x 15cm. On the inside are two other pockets. The left is vertical and can be accessed when the upper and/or lower snaps are still snapped. It is quite large (10.5”/26cm deep by 7”/15cm tall) and would hold travel documents well. The right pocket has a horizontal opening, is deeper than it is wide, and measures about 5”x9”/13cm x23cm. Each is trimmed at the opening with leather for durability, and the left pocket is also leather lined, with the inner side being an almost white leather to aid in looking inside.

The vest adjust for differences in belly size via laces on either side. I have a 46” chest but found the size 44 vest was best (I tried the 46, but sent it back for a swap). The issue is the cut of the vest. My build means I don’t need a “fuller cut” to allow for too many beers. The Buffalo Nickel vest is a bit on the full side. Though it can be custom cut to address larger or smaller midriffs, I elected to use the laces to take up the extra circumference. In the end this worked out OK. I would probably prefer a snugger fit, but was not concerned enough about it to ask FCL to sew up a custom version (though they will do so for customers).

I’ve found the vest to be a valuable layer for those days I am trying to add a bit of warmth, or on cooler days when I want the warmth of a vest after I am off the bike but don’t want to wear one of my backpacking or hunting vests. In other words, this vest is good looking, neither looking like a pseudo safari garment, nor saying “Harley biker”. It looks good with a simple button up shirt, and feels comfortable so long as the temperatures are 75F/34C or below.

Like other FCL products, the Buffalo Nickel vest is a beautiful example of what handcrafting combined with hand-selected top tier leather results in. A riding vest is a gear choice that rests on the individual rider, but it’s apparent that anyone looking for one should consider what this Virginia-based company has to offer. Adding a valuable layer of warmth, functional pockets, and a clean look, the vest is at home riding or for casual wearing after the ride, whether it’s dinner or wandering a market. The leather is good for a lifetime, too, so plan on handing it down to your grandkids.

Elkskin Gauntlets

I hate gloves that wear out. And gloves that get stiff after being wet. And gloves that poor tactile sense. And gloves that my hands get cold in. Or that have nasty seams or poor fit. Other than that, I love most gloves. In fact, I have a bevy of gloves so extensive my wife’s shoe collection pales in comparison. So with these modest expectations I told FCL, when we agreed to reviews of their jacket and vest, I was only interested in reviewing a product they make (they also carry the famous Lee Parks DeerTours) and that would hold up over time. The choice was obvious: their Elkskin Gauntlets.

If you don’t know leathers or are not from North America elk hide might not be as obvious a choice as I make it out to be. Elk, or wapiti, are the large ungulates that once roamed across the continent (and which are being reintroduced in several eastern states). Their skin is particularly thick and supple. Next to bison, it is about the toughest leather of any animal native to North America. Elk hide is above deerskin in toughness, but a notch lower in dexterity. Hence those wanting very fine tactile control must choose between thinner deerskin and the thicker yet still soft “hand” of elkskin. I know how tough elkskin is because the best welding gloves are made of the stuff. In fact, I recently replaced my first welding gloves, a pair of elkskin Black Stallion model 850’s, with the same model. They lasted years of abuse from metal work, and yet you can feel relatively small objects with them.

The same is true and then some with the FCL Elkskin Gauntlets. Made of hand-selected naked 1.7mm elkskin and drum-dyed black, the gloves are super soft with no stiff segments to them. Controls on the bike are readily felt through the gloves. In fact, to give you an idea about how much feel they have, I can operate a Garmin GPS while riding thanks to the sensitivity my fingers have through the gloves. That’s saying a lot.

Regarding toughness, I’ve not laid palms to paving, so you’ll have to read the testimonies of riders wearing these gloves posted at the FCL web site. The half a year I have worn them has left them with virtually no signs of wear, save some very minor abrasion along the outside of the little finger and the tips of the middle and pointer fingers.

For comfort range, the Elkskins have proven warm down to 50F/10C to 85F/29C. Beyond those thermometer readings my bony fingers are either needing electric grips or mesh gloves to stay fully comfortable. If you have more meat on your digits than I do then you’ll likely be fine with these gloves down to several more degrees.

The fit of the gauntlets is very good. The XL models I tested are perfect for length, but a bit roomier than a skinny hand needs. That is understandable, and permits me to wear a pair of thin, fingerless cycling gloves underneath for added vibration absorption (a good idea when you ride a 650cc single with knobby tires on washboard roads). The gauntlet itself extends far enough up the wrist to readily cover any jacket. The XL measures 13”/33cm from tip of the middle finger to the top of the gauntlet. The opening is broad and thus very easy to slip into. That said, I found that this cut was a bit too generous. I would have preferred that its circumference be reduced by 20%. In warm weather this was not an issue, but such a reduction would have improved cool weather riding.

If you’re looking for versatile riding gloves that wear like iron, have great dexterity, offer good protection, and fit, er…like a glove, the Elkskin Gauntlets are a superb choice. You can spend far more, get gobs more armor, and have more exotic leather in a glove. But for $60 this FCL offering is very reasonably priced for a hand-made in the USA glove.

By Sean Michael
For posting at Horizons Unlimited web site
June 19 2007

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