Rips, scuffs, abrasions, alterations and panel replacements. If you have a problem with your leathers, Lincs Repair is the go-to workshop for many a biker
When a couple walks into a store, the wife heads one way and her husband seeks out ladies’ handbags, what is one to think? Smile inwardly and ignore, or is one’s curiosity peaked? Is he some kind of leather fetishist, or is he on the look-out for a present? As it happens, Al Lui is the former, and happy to admit to it.
His name is known to the motorcycle fraternity nationwide. As the owner of Lincs Repair, Al carries out leather alterations and repairs to an extremely high standard. Rips, scuffs, abrasions, alterations and panel replacements… should you have happened to slide along the Tarmac at any stage, then he is the go-to repairer, with bikers travelling the length and breadth of the country seeking his expertise.
When I popped into his small workshop, he had just cleared his rack of customers’ gear, having replaced crash-damaged panels and carried out general repairs and alterations. Al can also perform ozone treatment on motorcycle clothing, a hygiene and odour elimination process. I know, I’ve been there. I first met Al when I acquired an RST one-piece race suit. Whilst fairly new and in great condition, it had been in a smoke environment, and also had a ‘saggy’ bottom. Al took two inches out of the bottom panel, reduced the amount of material on the thighs, and then put the suit into the ozone chamber to give it a thorough refresh. The results were amazing.
I guess the business name gives it away, but Al is based in Lincoln. I ask him how he got into the industry. “It began as a hobby. I used to carve with a swivel knife, outlining and cutting designs into the surface of leather as an initial stage to tooling the leather with decorations, and it progressed from there. I worked for a number of different businesses, including charities and in the care sector, repairing as much as possible including furniture, so I trained in upholstery to the stage where I was repairing everything and anything.”
Al then trained in SMART repairs, a small and medium area repair technique, which uses the latest paint technology, alloy wheel refurbishment and specialised dent removal processes to restore vehicles to showroom condition. However, spending hours kneeling by the exterior of a car was simply a step too far, so eventually he gave up on that and instead pursued his main interest of all things leather. “In the beginning my late wife Sally used to moan at me, saying she was a leather widow. We would go shopping in large department stores and I would disappear looking at leather furniture, picking up handbags, opening them and looking inside to see how well they had been put together and what with. She loved telling people that her husband had more handbags in his man cave than she had! I have been very lucky having worked for a couple of companies within the leather industry where I learnt some extremely useful techniques and methods, saving me years of trial and error.
“Sally started working with me and we picked up a few contracts for handbag repair companies, which provided very interesting and often very challenging work. We examined everything in detail as I was interested in how they were made, what they were using, the types of stitching involved, etc. We condensed in six months what should have taken us six years to learn. Even today many years later I am still coming across things that are new, as techniques and products are constantly evolving, so I am always learning.”
Al does not deal in exotic leathers. He won’t buy in crocodile or alligator skins because he does not like the way the animals are farmed. He does, however, deal with kangaroo leather, although again he doesn’t buy it in. “Quite simply, I do deal with all the leathers when they come in, but I won’t buy leathers or hides to replace them.”
As a long-time biker, Al was keen to get into motorbike leathers as a new skill-set. “I started off scrambling round the woods, stripping down C50s and everything else, and then became interested in how the clothing was put together. I knew manufacturers wouldn’t use any old leather to do that. Fortunately, I was able to get in with a company who taught me quite a lot and I developed from there.
“In terms of the leather business, I have worked on everything from private jets to Lamborghinis and Ferraris, to your normal everyday cars, jackets and bags. I was even involved in the set up of an international company who make travel gadgets. I handled the preparation of the aeroplane seats, which was part of an aeroplane mock up made for a television commercial.
“I certainly couldn’t survive if all I did was repair motorbike leathers, because sometimes they can take hours to do and then I don’t actually earn anything, but it’s a challenge and most of the time I enjoy it.
“Whilst I have a large number of customers from Lincolnshire, bikers come from all over the country. It’s nice when I go out on two wheels and see other bikers wearing product that I have repaired or altered, because I know they are going to be safe wearing it.
“What I mean by that, for instance, is there are people out there who use sewing machines both domestic and professionally to work on motorcycle leathers, most are good at what they do, but some are not, especially when you ask them about more technical details on leather suit construction, when they will fall pretty short and that is when problems can arise, such as when they are sewing a leather suit up or replacing a zip, which isn’t really good enough for the job, or the techniques they adopt to do it.
“A lot of safety areas should be brought into play when you are putting a suit together, the basic one being the stitch lines. A stitch line is basically where two pieces of leather are sewn together with a sewn seam (line); it is that thread that is holding the two pieces together, so the strength of that piece is all down to how strong the thread is, irrespective of how good the leather is. That most definitely is not what you would want on a motorcycle suit because you are completely relying on whatever thread has been used to keep it together. As a minimum there should be at least two stitch lines on each seam. One seam often used which has two stitch lines is a flat felled seam, i.e., two pieces of leather sewn together, then one side is folded over and another stitch is laid along the length of the seam next to the first, but above it, so you have one stitch line that can be seen on top of the leather (it looks like decorative stitch) and a hidden stitch line, which is shielded between the leathers. So if you have an accident and start sliding and you grind through that top layer of leather and stitching, you still have the one underneath as a fall back. If you wanted to go one step further, there would be another hidden stitch line underneath there so you have three to go through, so in essence you have to grind through all that leather and three layers of stitching before it pops open, reducing the chances of it opening and exposing your skin to the road surface. I have seen suits made with only one stitch line and I have seen the outcome of a lot of people who have been in that situation, and it worries me.
“Sometimes minor accidents can incur nasty injuries because they are wearing cheap leathers, or perhaps they haven’t looked after them. Leather is tanned so it does not rot, but it can degrade. The fibres of the leather can start to degrade because of everything that soaks through them and then around the fibres, which weakens the strength between fibres, which holds leather together.”
Previously, any hard armour had to be CE tested and the rest of the suit could be made out of any leather the maker saw fit. That was until April 2018 when it became law that any motorcycle clothing is PPE and all aspects of the newly made clothing has to be tested. (All motorcycle clothing first placed on the market from April 21, 2018 is required to conform to PPE regulations 2016/425). “I have personally seen a suit that was bought off the web and they had even used split leathers to make the suit; any accident in that would have been catastrophic for the rider,” says Al. “For example, bovine leather (cow hide) can be up to 10 or 15mm thick in some parts (motorcycle leathers are on average about 1.4mm thick), so you could potentially get a lot of slices out of one leather hide. The tanning house will skive the leather by cutting the top layer off, and that is your premium cut of leather. The fibre structure at the top of the leather hide (epidermal layer) is much more tightly knitted together and is, therefore, the strongest part of the leather. Every slice of leather under the top cut is called a split leather. Closer to the bottom of the hide the fibre structure becomes far looser, and right at the bottom of the leather hide the strength of the fibre structure is equivalent to toilet paper so split leathers are absolutely no good for motorcycle PPE leathers whatsoever.
Whilst I was chatting with Al on the Sunday morning, who should pop in but Rob Child, well known as a sidecar passenger in the Isle of Man TT and Spa races. Rob had brought in his partner Jane Morris’ race suit, also a sidecar passenger, but with a different team. A slider panel had been put in the wrong place when her sponsor had had the suit made, and Al was charged with sorting it out.
“I have people turning up at some really strange hours,” Al tells me. “even evenings up to about 9pm after they finish work. I don’t mind so long as I know they are coming and not just rocking up, as I like to get out on my bike as much as I can.” Interestingly, as a man who works daily with leather, Al prefers to wear textiles when on two wheels. “My whole life is leather, but I mostly don’t wear it, partly because I get hot when riding. Leather is the best medium you have got for protecting yourself against abrasion, but there is no thermal protection in the material or impact protection, other than what is added to it. Leather also is super-absorbent, even though it has coatings on the surface to reduce the amount that goes on and soaks in. You have no protection on the underside of it, the skin side, so that makes it even more absorbent. We perspire, and when we are really concentrating on something we get really hot and that’s why if you don’t wear base layers, when you try and take a one-piece off you are dislocating shoulders! Textiles don’t quite have the same abrasion property as leather. I had a slide recently, having lost it on a bend and I slid across the road, ending up in the grass verge. The textiles suffered a few scuffs, so they do what they say they do. A lot of the Cordura material is like a 600 denier, so it’s generally tough stuff.”
We then turned our focus to caring for leathers. “People tend not to look after their leathers, even after they have been to me and had repairs or alterations made,” says Al. “Being absorbent, leather will suck in all sorts of things when you are on your bike. You have a clear protective coat on the top to help protect it, it is tough, but it is very thin. Just think how many times you have ridden with your visor up, it is painful when things hit you, such as a fly. Think about grit, dust and bits of tar flicking up from the road and hitting the leather. In time it abrades it, wearing away the protective layer and attacking the all-important epidermal strength layer. Then people might chuck it in the garage, which is the worst place you can put leather. You have got all this moisture from being outside, and the inside of the leather is full of body oils and germs. The leather is warm and you place it in a cold, damp garage, and that’s where you leave it for the next week or more. That’s when you find you have white mould patches when you return to it, and it starts to smell very funky. Leather doesn’t rot, but think about all that body oil soaked into and surrounding each fibre. Body oil can rot; when it does it will split the leather’s fibres apart, you then lose its protective strength.
“Sometimes I don’t actually earn anything by doing
motorcycle leather repairs, but I enjoy a challenge.”
“Often I have leathers brought to me to be cleaned. Fortunately I have an ozone chamber, which helps eradicate a lot of the nasties. Whilst it is difficult for people to clean the inside of leathers without appropriate cleaning and sanitising products, generally what everybody needs to do for the outside on a regular basis is buy a dedicated cleaner that has been specifically made for motorcycle leathers. I have always been against trying to name specific products because there are so many about and they change. If your suit is caked up with flies, my advice is to take a hot cloth in a bowl with the tiniest amount of washing-up liquid and simply lay it over the worst areas where the flies are for a few minutes, to soften them up before wiping them off. Grab another cloth and your cleaner and a leather protector. It’s not particularly difficult, but just by giving your leathers a general clean every few rides, you are giving them far more chance of being able to carry on doing what they are supposed to do. Always allow them to dry naturally in a warm, ventilated room. Using an artificial heat source to try and dry your leathers can cause them to harden and even shrivel up. And never use anything abrasive like baby wipes!
“People buy all sorts of aroma sprays and under-sink remedies, which just mask the smell. It’s like spilling milk in the back of a car. You can try and mask the smell with sprays, but what people use is not actually getting rid of what is causing the problem, so that needs to be sorted first.”
At Lincs Repair the leathers are cleaned by hand, using appropriate leather specific water-based cleaning products designed for the safe deep cleaning of leathers. For the inside specialist antimicrobial products are used which are effective for political micro control of A/H1N1 swine, P.aeruginosa, E.coli, S.aureus, Enterococcus hirae, Bacillus subtilis, MRSA, C.difficile, Aspergillus niger, Listeria, Salmonella and Legionella pneumophila. “Unfortunately, as some odours can still stick to leather, for that I use the ozone chamber,” explains Al. “Ozone is created with super high electricity charges passing through the air molecules and it explodes them, and one part that comes off is an ozone molecule. That molecule attracts mould spores and odours, and they stick to it. Because it is very volatile, it doesn’t last very long. It kills itself and takes the spores and odours with it. It then goes back to being oxygen. Ozone imparts its own kind of fragrance afterwards, which has been likened to chlorine or that smell after a violent thunderstorm, but this doesn’t usually last very long.”
Sadly, Al’s wife Sally passed away four years ago. Now approaching his mid-50s and working alone, he is clearly still passionate about what he does. “Sometimes I don’t actually earn anything by doing motorcycle leather repairs, but I enjoy a challenge. You have something tangible to deal with. You know what you started with and you know what you have got at the end of it. It’s all about being as safe as you can possibly be as a rider.”
Such is Al’s popularity with bikers, that word of mouth, biker forums, a Facebook page and a dedicated website are his lines to the outside world. But he seems happiest inside his cramped workshop, surrounded by work benches, an eclectic assortment of machinery and looms and roll upon roll of leather, amongst which he can often be found beavering away well past midnight, by which time even the cat has got fed with him chatting away and has slunk off into the night.
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