Despite the continuing developments and versatility of motorcycle textile garments, leather is still the number 1 preferred method of keeping you in one piece in the event of a spill. There's a couple of reasons for this:
- Leather has a high tensile strength and excellent abrasion resistance.
- Leather suits will typically fit more closely than textile apparel so the protectors inside should be able to stay securely in place against the joints they're designed to protect.
- The closer fit also eliminates bunching of the garment in a slide which can catch on the road or track surface causing additional stresses on the garment.
Let's cut through the bull
Almost all motorcycle leather garments in the shops will use full grain leather. This is where the natural pattern (or grain) is visible on the outside. Many manufacturers will claim "full grain leather for maximum abrasion resistance" but in reality, it's the only acceptable form of leather for use in performance wear. Most high performance suits are made from kangaroo hide, although the majority of clothing on the market uses cowhide which is significantly cheaper and easier to source. Other claims of "japanese or brazilian cowhide" can be spurious. "Buffalo leather" usually means that the hide has come from a water buffalo (very common in South East Asia) rather than a majestic bison.
There is a huge variation in the quality of leather on the market. The type of animal, the breed, it's diet, it's environment and the various tanning and preparation processes will all affect the strength of the finished product. It's reasonable to expect that a handmade custom suit from Europe will be made of higher quality leather from proven tanneries than an el cheapo from ebay.
In the early days of motorcycle leathers (when most were of fairly poor quality compared with the products available now), the mantra was "The thicker the better". In our experience, we have found that thickness is no indicator of quality or resistance to damage. Typically, cow leather should be around 1.3mm thick and kangaroo around 1.0mm thick. Look for a double layer around the seat and hip areas. Some manufacturers will also add an additional layer in other impact areas.
The higher the quality, the better it will resist damage in an accident, which will protect your body from abrasion, and hold the various protectors in place. We highly recommend regular maintenance of your riding apparel. Bugs and road grime can be wiped off with a damp cloth, and an annual application of conditioner will help restore natural oils and keep the leather strong and flexible. Stay away from some saddlery products that claim to toughen and waterproof the outer surface. Healthy leather must be able to "breathe" that is, to retain a certain amount of moisture and allow it to conduct through the material itself.
Good leather is typically more supple to the touch than the stiffer skins used by low quality brands. Have a feel, have a look and learn to judge for yourself.