Few things identify or say more about you as a motorcycle rider than the jacket you wear. Traditionally speaking, if you see a guy walking around in a waist length black leather jacket with buckles, you will automatically identify him as a motorcycle rider. But not just any motorcycle rider, but a “biker” who straps himself to a Harley, that loud and punishing king of the street cruiser. These were the guys your mother warned you about, remember? But things have changed a bit in the world of motorcycling with the introduction of the imported sport bikes, and along with the bikes came a whole new breed of rider and riding gear. The new breed generally doesn’t wear the traditional black leathers, but sport fast looking, high-performance synthetic fiber jackets to match not only the color of the bike, but the new riding attitude as well. Those hardened old school bikers will always remain faithful to the traditional leathers; it is after all, part of the culture. However, with advances in textile and fiber technology, many riders and motorcycle jacket manufacturers are crossing over.
In this article we’ll draw some comparisons and explore the anatomy of a motorcycle jacket.
There are basically two options available when it comes to motorcycle riding gear: leather and synthetic fiber. As a protective material, natural fibers such as cotton or wool do not perform well are not typically utilized in the manufacture of motorcycle riding gear.
Myriad studies have shown that leather as a protective material for motorcycle riders is unsurpassed. It actually acts as a very tough second skin, assuming of course that you have purchased a high quality product. There are a lot of imported and cheaply made leather jackets on the market that use inferior grade hide. The primary things to consider are the thickness and quality of the leather, and the stitching.
High-tech synthetic fibers such as abrasion-resistant poly-titanium and Kevlar® are now being widely utilized in the new generation jackets. These materials perform much better than their early heavy nylon cousins, but still do not match the protection of a quality grade natural leather jacket.
Contained within the broad scope of comfort are the dynamics of thermal and moisture protection, breathability and fit. If the riding weather presents you with a 30 degree wind chill, leather is again a superior choice because the molecular structure and tanning process of leather provides maximum insulating capacity and wind resistance. On the other hand, if it’s a 70 degree day and riding in leather, you’re likely to reach your destination being a mere fraction of your former self. Simply put, leather does not breathe well and requires ventilation to stay cool. In terms of water resistance, leather performs reasonably well, though regular maintenance is required to maintain its water resistant qualities.
By contrast, synthetic fiber jackets tend to breathe extremely well, and possess superior water resistant qualities, with some materials even possessing water-proofing. However, fiber jackets tend to be somewhat less effective in overall thermal protection than leather. Fortunately, there are options available that we’ll discuss later.
Fit is also an important part of the comfort equation. With today’s advanced manufacturing processes, jackets can be easily tailored for a good fit in either leather or synthetic. The primary comfort features to look for are gusseted or buckled waist and sleeves to reduce wind, as well as, an integrated flap over the zipper. Underarm and shoulders should provide ample freedom of movement without being floppy. Many high-end synthetic jackets are even custom tailored with a built-in bend in the arms to provide a more natural and comfortable riding position without binding.
From a durability point of view, leather is again, unequalled. Because leather is highly abrasion resistant and a non-melting natural material, a quality leather jacket can withstand the rigors of multiple crashes. Assuming you’re fortunate enough to ride without incident, a good leather jacket will quite likely go with you to the old biker’s home.
With the advanced fibers currently in use, a good quality synthetic jacket will be quite durable as well, but cannot equal the longevity of leather. This is largely a function of the material’s tolerance to general wear, and the breakdown of material in a crash event. If you’ve ever intentionally burned off a loose string of man-made fiber, you’ve seen that it actually melts. Now consider the extreme heat and friction being generated by a sliding mass on asphalt, and you get the picture.
In general, synthetic material is easier to maintain than leather, being both easily washable and treatable for water resistance. By contrast, to be cleaned, a leather jacket needs to be sent off to the cleaners, and the leather needs regular conditioning to maintain suppleness and water resistance.
In addition to the basics we’ve discussed, here are a few other things to consider
Breathable – An optional way of combating moisture retention due to lack of ventilation in a leather jacket is through the use of moisture-wicking liners such as Gore-tex®.
Insulating – In order to enhance thermal performance, particularly for synthetic fiber jackets, many higher end products will include a ThinsulateTM liner.
Heated – Some manufacturers are now offering heated jacket liners that also integrate with gloves.
Ample pockets are a nice feature in a motorcycle jacket, and generally speaking, a synthetic jacket will provide a greater number of pockets than the leather alternative. This is largely a function of the manufacturing process.
Padding & Armor:
One of the most distinguishing features in a synthetic jacket is the use of built-in memory cell foam at certain points such as torso and shoulder areas, and even armored elbow and shoulders. Again, due to the manufacturing process, this is more cost effectively and easily accomplished with the fiber material than leather. However, there are many high-end leather jackets available that incorporate these additional safety features.
Visibility: Bright vs. Black
When it comes to safety, visibility is vital. Traditional black leather jackets are simply less visible to other vehicle operators than the new generation jackets. Synthetic fibers can easily be dyed to virtually any highly visible color, while leather is less flexible in this regard. Additionally, synthetic textiles also lend themselves well to additional reflective material being sewn in than leather.
And The Winner Is:
Sorry, no clear winner can be declared. The simple fact is that each style or type of jacket possesses certain qualities that make it superior to the other and both will perform well under most conditions. On the one hand you’ve got the leather jacket; that time-tested material that’s been around as long as cows, goats and maybe even dinosaurs have roamed the earth with man. On the other hand you’ve got the new generation, high-performance synthetic fiber jacket that’s lightweight, comfortable and generally inexpensive by comparison. Which option you choose is entirely a matter of personal choice and you wouldn’t necessarily be wrong either way. But consider for a moment your risk management program and the entire reasoning for wearing a riding jacket in the first place; and the answer is protection. Given the information available, which option do you think is best?