What’s the best?
When it comes to motorcycle gear, you have two choices – leather or textile. Leather garments are made from leather, funnily enough. Textile garments are made from various high-strength fibres, including things like kevlar and cordura. Which is the best to buy? Should you buy both? Let’s take a quick look, but before that, let’s consider what motorcycle gear actually does.
Motorcycle gear has two main jobs: to protect you from impacts and from abrasions, or ‘road rash’. If you come off your bike you’ll get two main kinds of injuries: blunt force trauma from striking the ground (or another type of object) and abrasion injuries from your skin running along the ground. Blunt force impacts can be slightly absorbed by armour pads, usually located at major joints like shoulders, knees, and your spine (plus your helmet), and while they can’t absorb all of the force, they do a pretty good job at it.
The rest of your gear, that is the leather or textile in your jacket and pants, is designed to protect from abrasion injuries. The rough surface of the road grinding against your skin will strip it in no time – and despite what you’ve been told, denim holds zero protective value. While lots of people choose not to wear motorcycle pants (which is fine, I don’t always wear mine if I’m honest) they do form an important protective barrier, and losing all the skin off your leg isn’t fun. Road rash takes ages to heal and if you’ve got no protection you might even be looking at a skin graft.
But whatever, it’s ultimately your choice what you do when you ride.
Leather: Safety First
Leathers are what most people think of when they think of motorcycle gear, and the iconic leather jacket has been associated with motorcycling for decades. However no standard leather jacket will do – it has to be an actual motorcycle jacket. Leather jackets and pants for motorcycles contain armour at the major impact points (usually the back, elbows, shoulders, knees, and hips), while the rest of the outer jacket is made of a highly abrasion-resistant leather. Fashion leather, while much more comfortable to wear, is nowhere near as protective.
Leathers are the equipment for abrasion protection – proper motorcycle leathers are far, far more resistant to abrasive forces than textiles. They simply do a better job, so if you’re looking for the best protection, this is the gear to get. One leather jacket and pants will probably survive a few minor accidents involving mostly abrasive forces, although any decent speed behind the accident will probably grind them into uselessness anyway. They also last longer than textile gear on average. They can also be a bit warmer than textile jackets so long as they’re not perforated – with a winter liner in, they tend to offer good protection from the wind.
However that’s about all they have going for them – they’re strong and tough, and that’s about it. Leathers offer poor comfort in a number of ways. Firstly, new leather gear is uncomfortable to wear until it’s been broken in, and even then it’s not quite as flexible as textile gear. Leather heats up quickly and keeps that heat trapped during warm, sunny weather – even air vents won’t help much. Also leather isn’t as good for poor weather conditions – wet leather is horrible and quickly loses its strength, and it takes ages to dry out, so leathers are almost useless for wet weather conditions. As a slight aside, leathers tend to fit tight, especially the pants, so you can’t wear too much underneath them.
Basically, you wear leathers for their protective value. However it’s important to carefully check what sort of leather you’re buying – not all leathers are created equal, so just because it says “leather” it doesn’t mean it’s better.
Textiles – Workhorses
Textiles refer to a number of different kinds of textiles. There are a number of different kinds of materials that are used with textile gear, but the vast majority of them will use Kevlar or Cordura (a kind of nylon) fibres for protection layered with some other kind of fibre for strength. Cordura is more common although Kevlar tends to appear more in ‘motorcycle jeans’ as stitched-in sections or sometimes full liners under normal denim jeans, but these provide lesser protection than Kevlar with a bit of Cordura or something too. You’ll often see a ‘Denier’ number attached to Cordura or other nylon ratings – generally a ration of 600 or above is good enough for road protection.
Textiles have a number of major advantages which make them good all-round gear. Firstly, they’re cheaper than leather on average. Secondly, they’re far more comfortable – they’re very flexible, light-weight, easy to wear, and offer better protection from the weather. They often come with liners and air vents. They tend to breathe well in warm weather and don’t heat up as quickly, and they tend to have removable inner liners for cold weather. Some have ‘water resistant’ liners which technically do work, but are generally inferior to wearing an actual rain jacket or pants (and often don’t last very long). If they do get wet, they dry out much quicker than leathers. They also tend to fit a little more loosely, allowing you to wear your regular clothes underneath them.
That said, you might compromise on protection a bit. Few textiles can withstand more than one accident, and they tend to wear out much faster than leathers since they fibres tend to be weaker. High end textiles stand up much better to abuse and general wear and tear but prices tend to approach leather territory. Secondly, their protective value on average is lower. While they will still do a good job and the higher-end gear is still highly protective, leathers will still do a better job generally speaking. This doesn’t mean textiles are unsafe – they’re still very safe, but not as safe as leathers in general. Thirdly, and this is more personal preference, textile riding jackets stick out like a sore thumb off the bike – they don’t blend well with street gear.
Textiles are versatile and still provide good protection – but if you come off, you’re almost certainly going to have to replace them, and they will wear out from general use. But they’re cheaper, they’re more comfortable, and for road use they’re generally more than sufficient.
So which do you choose?
For me personally, I prefer to ride in textiles. I have a textile jacket, some textile pants, and some textile motorcycle jeans. On the last one – these provide better protection than just denim, since they have a kevlar lining along with knee pads, but they’re still only marginally more protective and that protection is mostly from the knee pads. I also have a leather jacket with a winter liner. For my part, the leather looks a lot nicer, and since it has a heavy weave with a good winter liner, I tend to prefer it for colder yet sunny days when I’m just going out for a general ride. I usually wear it with my motorcycle jeans to complete the look.
For commuting to work, or if the weather is rainy or threatens to rain, or if it’s warm outside, I pick my textile gear. It’s more comfortable, it breathes a lot better, it fits better over my clothes, and it generally feels better for me. However it’s not as good as my leather jacket for protection or in cold weather (but I live in a warm climate, so for my first set of gear I chose it for warm weather).
If you could only get one set, I’d say you should get a textile set. They’re very versatile and offer good protection, and will generally be of more use in more situations than leather. However if you have some cash to spare, I’d get a leather jacket too, mostly for fine weather or joyrides.