In the beginning, there was gravity, two wheels and an engine. Motorcycling was born and motorcyclists wore whatever was on hand—long coats, dusters, work gloves and boots. A multimillion-dollar industry specializing in motogarments was still a hundred years away, though it wouldn’t take long for the leather jacket—adopted by pilots who braved the enemy and the elements in open-cockpit aircraft—to filter into motorcycling. By World War II, the so-called bomber jacket morphed into an icon, becoming a symbol of rugged individualism and freedom. That it may not have been the ideal piece of motorcycling gear didn't much matter.
Today’s motorcyclists are likely to have one foot in the past and the other treading toward tomorrow (which can hurt if you’re not limber). What’s more, their choices are nearly mind-numbingly broad. Leather here, goatskin there, even kangaroo, all competing with a swath of new and remarkably inexpensive textile gear for your moto-clothing buck. Like all longstanding disagreements, you’ll find plenty of bodies lined up between the velvet ropes—leather lovers on one side, friends of fabric on the other.
To be honest, we’d love to answer this question definitively: Which material is best? Unfortunately, there are simply too many variables involved—your kind of riding, sense of style, body type, climate, hygiene, phases of the moon—to point to one material and say, unflinchingly, “There, that’s the one!” We know some of our loyal readers will sniff and say, “But I like my unpadded, $99 quasi-leather jacket,” or, “You’ll pry me out of my Aerostich when I’m cold and dead.”
This much we know for sure: Modern, high-tech motorcycle gear is nothing short of amazing. “What’s available today is dramatically better than the gear we had 20, 30 years ago,” says Andy Goldfine, inventor of the Aerostich Roadcrafter suit, which deserves the lion’s share of credit for kicking off the textile boom. What’s more, the motorcycle-apparel market has expanded—there are more manufacturers from more countries than ever. For the consumer, the question comes down thus: What do you want? Is it important to look good, or feel safe? (At one time, these were mutually exclusive concepts.) Think carefully and follow along.
A Nod To Armor
If anything has changed the motoclothing landscape, it’s the infusion of hard armor drizzling down from race gear. Two decades ago, a street jacket—worn with jeans, natch—might have had an extra layer of leather at the shoulders and elbows, and if you got a really expensive one, it may have had a thin slice of cotton batting between those layers. In essence, this construction created a second line of protection against abrasion but essentially nothing for impact protection. Today, thankfully, it’s a different story. When shopping, look for CE-approved armor in, at least, the shoulders and elbows. What’s CE? This is a standard devised in the European Union intended to level the playing field for claims that a certain garment has impact-resistance. There are two standards, one for shoulders, elbows and knees, and yet another for spine protection, that determine the size and placement of the pads as well as their ability to cushion shock and, to a much lesser extent, resist penetration.
Many high-end garments boast CE-approved armor, and this mark assures you the garment meets a decent standard of crashworthiness, at least where the pads are concerned. There are also several kinds of protection that do not meet with CE approval, but that doesn’t mean a whole lot—companies such as Aerostich and Vanson build armor that is not CE-approved but is just as effective.
You can tell the armor’s quality just by picking up the garment. So-called cosmetic armor will be soft and spongy—you will find this in low-end jackets and pants—while true impact-absorbing armor will be stiffer. You should also be able to squeeze the armor plates and feel them give slightly. Typically, these pieces of armor are made from closed-cell foam of various thicknesses and densities. The basic idea is to allow the energy of the crash to be absorbed by the armor’s gradual compression; the faster the foam compresses, the more the impact will be passed on to your body.
In reality, armor can be further divided into soft and hard categories—hard armor adds a plastic or even carbon-fiber hard shell to the impact-absorbing foam sheet as a second (or third) line of defense against wear-through. You’ll see hard armor on racing suits and some high-end street jackets and suits.
Back protection is another area that receives much-needed emphasis in street clothing. Again, there are really two types of spine protection—soft pads intended to help distribute impact forces, and stiffer pads (often with plastic petals or shells) intended to provide protection from penetrating objects. More is better, but we admit you can end up looking like an armadillo with all that hard armor. Check out the racers at Daytona—the ones on the track, not Main Street—and you’ll see each and every one of them wearing hard back protection and, increasingly, hard torso protection.
Nonetheless, the fact that such race-derived armor has made it to street clothing is a very good thing.
A Breeze Runs Through It
Yet another recent technology that pays big dividends for street riders is ventilated gear. If you live in Scottsdale or Peachtree City, you’ve seen these mesh jackets around. The idea is simple—replace the body of the jacket with free-flowing mesh while retaining safety features such as shoulder and elbow padding. In general, these are great garments, but you should assume that they’re not as safe overall as a full jacket—they simply can’t be, because the mesh isn’t as tear- or puncture-resistant as even a lightweight solid textile, and there’s always the risk that you might catch the mesh on something and rip it. We’ve seen a few of these jackets after a crash, and they held up amazingly well, but common sense says you wouldn’t want to go racing in them. For around town? Sure, you bet.
Leather: A Brief History
Wearing animal skin has been with us since humanoids stood erect, and it remains popular for a host of reasons. Properly processed and assembled, leather is durable, strong and somehow comforting in its organicness. It stretches and molds to your body shape, and it takes on a beautiful patina when worn often and dutifully cared for.
Your cool leather jacket starts with animal skins (hides) that have been specially treated in a chemical process known as tanning. Tanning makes the hide strong and flexible, in addition to preserving it. This process starts with curing, which entails drying the hide once it’s been removed from the animal. (This is where you start to feel bad for the cow.) Most common is brine curing, in which the hides are placed in vats containing salt and disinfectant. This process takes 10 to 16 hours, after which the hides are soaked in water for several days to help remove salt and dirt. Next come steps that are just a tad too grisly to report here—let’s just say the ex-cow’s hair and skin must be removed somehow—that can take as much as two weeks to complete. Finally, the tanning process begins, with the goal of further preserving the skins and making them more pliant. So-called vegetable tanning is used for stiffer leather, while softer skins are treated to mineral tanning—using a dunk cycle in an acid/salt mixture and then immersing the skin in a chromium-sulfate tank. Finally, the skins are dyed and treated to a finishing process that gives them the desired luster.
Of course, it’s a big step from a rack full of hides to a finished garment. According to several industry insiders, the essential shift in leather-garment manufacturing has been the rapid movement to offshore construction. While such a change surely alters the bottom line—you have to agree that we get a lot more garment for the money today than in the last decade or two—it also creates another issue for smart shoppers to consider. It’s unfair to say that anything made offshore is inferior to an American-made item, but there are some strategic differences. For example, the first reason many companies turn to offshore providers is economy, and for those subcontracting garment manufacturers, the bottom line is king. As a result, you will find skins that do not have quite the sheen or texture you’d see in an expensive American jacket. In addition, the quality of construction is typically not as good.
A large variable in leather jackets is thickness. Often, jacket manufacturers will list thickness in millimeters. A hard-core sport suit might be in the 1.4 to 1.6mm range, with street-oriented jackets down in the 1.1 to 1.3mm range. Generally, the thicker the leather the greater its abrasion-resistance, but variations in tanning and construction techniques can make a well-made thick jacket more comfortable than a poorly made thin one. Don’t go solely by the hide thickness, but do keep it in mind; it’s not the only important parameter.
There are several areas that bear close scrutiny as you compare leather jackets. How do the hides look? Do opposing panels have a similar sheen and texture? Obviously, one jacket will have hides from different animals, sometimes from different sources or tanneries, and the better manufacturers take great care to match hides.
Look closely at the stitching. You want double stitching at least, with a third safety stitch a better option. In this construction, two sections of the jacket are sewn together with one stitch, and the remaining “flap” of material is folded over and top-stitched. In critical areas there may be twin, parallel-top stitches. On cheaper jackets, the two sections are glued together rather than stitched, so a crash that penetrates or wears through the main stitch will tear the garment apart in that area; the glue simply locates the parts of the jacket, and it’s in no way structural.
While you’re examining the jacket, pull at the various stitched seams and look at how the material separates. If you can see the thread stretch or the hole in the main material elongate, you’ve got a cheap or damaged jacket in your hands. Those seams should be so tight that you can’t possibly pull the material apart.
So here’s the bottom line on leather wear: You get what you pay for. Really, no kidding. (This penetrating glimpse into the obvious brought to you by...) Whatever you do, buy a real, honest-to-goodness motorcycle jacket. It pains us to see riders on the road wearing fashion leather—or worse, nothing at all. That’s just road rash looking for a place to happen.
In The Other Corner: Textiles
If leather is the material of choice for old-style motorcyclists, miscreants and road racers, modern textile has become the calling card of the long-distance tourer and the ain’t-got-a-car commuter. Good grief, how did this happen?
Simple. Textiles have come a long, long way since the nylon Mach 1 jacket you wore in high school. Modern fabrics are strong and durable, lead by DuPont’s Cordura, which is supposedly twice as strong as nylon and three times stronger than polyester. What’s more, because of this strength, textiles can be made lighter for a given degree of impact resistance.
When shopping for a textile garment, pay attention to the denier rating. (In pure terms, one denier is equal to one gram per 9000 meters of material weight.) The higher the denier rating, the heavier the strands that make up the fabric. This does not mean that a 500-denier fabric cannot be as dense as a 1000-denier fabric; there is a separate specification, called pick, that denotes how many of the fibers are woven into a given area. Various manufacturers use wildly differing specifications, so one suit made from 1000-denier Cordura might feel stiff (boardy) while another made from ostensibly the same material might feel light and airy. The only way to know is to touch the garment. “Textiles have advantages for those who ride a lot,” Goldfine says. “They’re washable, lighter, tend to be cooler...all a big deal for the daily rider.” Implicit in that argument is the textile’s versatility. Fabric suits and pants span the range from cold-weather items to hot-season, blow-the-wind-through gear, forming what Goldfine calls a “quiver of different arrows” for various riding conditions.
Modern textiles are often available with a Gore-Tex layer or membrane. Developed by W. L. Gore & Associates, Gore-Tex is a semipermeable membrane whose holes are too small to allow rainwater through but large enough to permit water vapor—heat, perspiration—to be released. Gore is extremely fussy about how suits and jackets go together, and the pieces must be genuinely waterproof before the garment is allowed to wear the Gore-Tex label. As a result, some design elements might seem a bit strange. For example, external pockets usually have floating internal liners because stitching them down would penetrate the Gore layer and cause leaks. It’s also true that, while still breathable, a Gore-Tex suit is not generally as comfortable in warm weather as a standard textile garment. You can’t have everything.
Textiles have become incredibly durable. Says Goldfine, “Everyone comes to the conclusion that the kit lasts longer than the motorcycle. I know plenty of people who have had the same gear through three or more motorcycles.”
When considering textile gear, perform the same inspections you would with a leather jacket. Seams should be straight and tight, and the stitching should be reinforced in high-stress and impact areas. Consider carefully how you’ll use the gear—textiles tend to be more tightly focused on certain riding styles or weather conditions.
While on the subject of textiles, can we make a comment about riding in jeans? Yep, we all do it from time to time, but it’s just not a good idea. Traditional denim has very poor abrasion-resistance, and it can wear through to precious skin in surprisingly slow crashes. If you can’t be seen in leather or textile pants, at least wear reinforced riding pants such as Draggin’ Jeans.
Leather Versus Textiles:
The Pros and Cons
Let’s examine a few areas where we can discern true practical differences between leather and textile garments.
Abrasion resistance. This is the big one for leather lovers, and it is, on a theoretical basis, a slam dunk for cowhide. Simply put, leather is better at going down the road; in a crash, it will abrade slowly and predictably without gaining a lot of heat. (That’s not to say it doesn’t get hot, but it is not inherently flammable.) Textiles are at a theoretical disadvantage. At some point—and that point depends on myriad variables, including material strength, garment construction, rider size and weight, the abrasiveness of the, er, crash surface and, most importantly, the speed of the get-off—the leather will protect you better in a sliding crash. That’s theory, but how about reality? At street speeds, a textile garment is likely to do just as good a job as leather. Why? Because low-speed crashes usually don’t involve a lot of sliding, so the textile garment is less likely to drag along the ground long enough to heat up and melt. (No, the textile will not catch fire, but the nylon threads will melt under extreme conditions.)
Care and feeding. This category favors the textile garment. Leather needs frequent care to prevent it from drying out; regular cleaning and treating are necessary for a long garment life. (Then again, a lot of riders consider leather care in the same light as polishing chrome or waxing the Corvette; it’s a labor of love, a chance to be close to a cherished possession. Only you know which side of the fence you’re on.) Textiles can be thrown in the washer. Done deal.
Feel and texture. OK, another one for leather. While it’s true that a well-worn textile outfit can become as comfortable as old blue jeans, there’s just something about leather. What’s more, both leather and textiles need some breaking-in time. The advantage of textiles here is that you can accelerate the process by washing them.
Weather protection. Leather is a good insulator, but it’s nearly impossible to make it waterproof. With advances such as the Gore-Tex layering system, it’s possible to make textiles essentially waterproof. (Why the hedge? Even though Gore-Tex resists water intrusion, it’s possible, by messing up the design, to have a coat that may not leak through the skin itself but will get you wet anyway. Once more: The more expensive jackets and suits do a better job here.) If you need all-weather protection, textile is the way to go—or always pack a rain suit.
Wear resistance. In our experience, this is a push. Undeniably, leather takes on a wonderful patina after a pile of miles, but textiles—the good ones, anyway—wear extremely well if kept clean. Allow dirt and road grime to get worked into a textile suit, and you may not get it all the way out. That’s partially true of light-colored leathers, but they can often be redyed.
Repairability. No question, leather holds a big advantage here, even if it’s mainly because so many companies know how to work with leather. It’s been around for so long, and the large leather-jacket makers are so well-versed in repairs, that getting a jacket patched up is not difficult. True enough, you can get your Aerostich repaired, but the simple truth is that it’s unwise to spend a lot of money repairing a $200 textile jacket—at that price point, the value, not the material, is the issue.
Weight. Hands down for textiles. Modern fabrics are astoundingly strong, and they provide incredible strength for their weight.
The Bottom Line
Have you been keeping score? Who wins, leather or textiles? Honestly, we can’t say. After due deliberation, we can’t come up with an iron-clad reason to pick one material over the other. In fact, to look only at the construction shortchanges the purpose of protective motorcycle gear: Buy what you like, what fits you—so that you’ll wear it every time you hop on a motorcycle.
Check out our Parts and Gear page to see what leather and textile options are out there.