Garrett Byrum

Bates Leathers Mixes Art And Cowhide

Take a walk through the skin factory

D

aniel is making a roadracing boot. He pulls the leather over the toe with a plier-hammer combo that would send you screaming out of a dentist’s office. It looks easy, but his forearms are the size of my thigh. Around the corner from the boot table, Jewell is stamping out D-shaped bits of foam padding on a big orange press. “I call it a clicker, but I don’t know what its official name is,” she says. She looks over at Dana Grindle, the owner of Bates Leathers in Lakewood, California, who says: “That is the official name. We use it to cut small pieces for boots and suits, but most of what we do, we cut by hand.”

What they do—by clicker or by hand—is custom jackets, riding suits, boots, gloves, retro saddles, and pillion seats. The Grindle family took over Bates Leathers in 1996, but its history goes back to when Robert "Bob" Owens Bates began repairing scooters in 1939. His interest in two wheels expanded into accessories, and Bates Motor Scooter Service expanded with it into windshields, saddles, visors, luggage racks, mirrors, and pipes—first for scooters, then for all kinds of two-wheelers. Bates was a regular at the motorcycle races, attending with a homemade ambulance and first-aid kit after he noticed there were no official emergency services at the tracks. He started making leather jackets and pants in the 1950s and was inducted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame Museum in 2009.

Daniel works leather over a boot toe
Daniel works leather over a boot toe. Bates can make custom boots in nontraditional sizes.Garrett Byrum

Dana's eyes light up when she tells me about Bob Bates' innovative designs and his focus on safety. She pulls out old catalogs and points to multicolored tuck-and-roll pillion seats and low-collared leather "race shirts," then gestures across the room, where paper patterns rustle in the breeze of a big box fan. File cabinets line the wall. Every suit she's ever made is in there, in the form of pattern pieces and measurements. Repeat customers, like NHRA drag-racing champion and factory Harley-Davidson rider Eddie Krawiec, have their own drawers so Dana can quickly pull their preferences and sizes for new gear. It's a back-and-forth with racers, Dana tells me.

“Eddie is always looking at ways to save weight, make the suits more aerodynamic. He gives me the feedback, and I figure out how to do it but still keep him safe.”

“Sew better, sew longer, life is good. It’s not about who makes more money, it’s about who makes a better product, who makes the sport better.”

Leather by itself is protective because it doesn’t tear or unravel like woven materials, or melt like man-made ones, but the way it is sewn and padded can make it more or less likely to save your skin in a crash. Dana has spent hours studying the old suits in the Bates Leathers collection—many of which sport the marks of unintended dismounts—to figure out how to change the way she sews, where she puts the stitches, and how the materials overlap in order to make Bates suits stronger and safer.

leather motorcycle seat and jackets
The company keeps every pattern it has ever made so that in the rare event you wear through its gear, all you have to do is call up and have a replacement made to your exact specifications.Garrett Byrum

“I was an upholstery seamstress before this,” she says. “I had never sewn a garment before Bates, but my background helps me sew strong, and because I ride, I really think about what will happen when someone falls. Will those stitches get ground off?”

She walks me through the “showroom,” a small loft above the main factory floor. In one corner, a distressed black leather jacket sits on a broad-shouldered mannequin in front of a poster from Terminator 2. Arnie glowers from atop a Harley, wearing the same jacket.

“We had to make 50 for that movie,” Dana says, encouraging me to slide it over my own less-broad shoulders. “Everyone wants to try on the Schwarzenegger jacket.” It’s heavy and hot, but I do feel briefly invulnerable.

It’s not yet possible to be invulnerable on a bike, but good gear helps. Dana readily admits that there are cheaper options. Bigger companies sell similar riding gear, and she encourages everyone to buy something, even if it isn’t from Bates. But what Bates can offer is total customization.

banged up leather suits
Bates wants to see what a fall does to their suits. The team examines banged-up leathers for weak spots, then reinforces new designs to better protect the rider.Garrett Byrum

“Technology has been great for us,” she says, holding a photo of a customer’s foot used to create a one-off pair of women’s riding boots. “This woman had no chance of finding a standard motor boot that fit her,” she says. “We do nontraditional sizes here. I have all the standard patterns. But who is standard size? I’m not standard, and I’ve always been available to make it fit.”

If a rider isn’t able to have the Bates seamstresses measure them, Dana or her sister can direct customers how and where to take their numbers by video conference. They just ask that you wear skivvies.

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“I’ve had to send a couple guys home before, tell ’em come back with some shorts on,” she says, laughing. “I don’t care if you ride naked, we don’t measure naked.”

Bates Motorcycle Accessories Catalog
Bates Motorcycle Accessories CatalogGarrett Byrum

Dana doesn’t want to see her customers in the nude, but she does want her suits to fit like a second skin and be flattering.

“When I first started this, I thought, ‘What can I do for women? How can I make them feel attractive and fashionable?’ If you feel good in it, you’ll wear it.”

She's made leathers for women racers, and if you've ever admired NHRA racer Angelle Sampey's bedazzled suit, you've seen Dana's fitted, low-rise design.

Terminator 2 leather jacket
Bates made 50 identical leather jackets for Terminator 2: Judgment Day.Garrett Byrum

Downstairs, Daniel moves over to screwing the heels onto a drag-race boot. They need more screws because the sticky tracks pull the soles off, and they need to be lined in Kevlar so they don’t burn on the exhaust. For Nitro Harley racers, the boots are lined in steel, not aluminum, because the riders steer by dragging their feet. Watching motor­sports is a big part of the Bates Leathers research and design process.

“If you don’t watch the racing, how can you help them?” Dana asks.

She walks me out past a shelf full of bright-hued skins, more than 500 colors. It’s a Saturday, but Dana, Daniel, and Jewell have more to do before they go home.