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Is all motorcycle apparel made of leather?

Leather is like stylish body armor. See more pictures of motorcycles.
©iStockphoto.com/Kerstin Waurick

In a motorcycle crash, the only thing between you and the pavement is what you're wearing. Body armor absorbs impact, and the material your clothing is constructed of provides abrasion resistance. Making sure you have both kinds of protection is important.

To tell if your apparel makes the grade, look for a CE approval mark, a test standard in Europe for motorcyclist clothing. The CE approval process includes rigorous tests on garments to measure their armor effectiveness, seam strength and outer materials' abrasion resistance. The CE mark functions much like the Snell helmet approval system in the United States.

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Leather, the ever-popular choice for motorcycle apparel, stands up well to CE testing. Among the different leathers, the most common material is cowhide, which is used because of its strength and durability. Motorcycle-rated cowhide leather that is at least 1.3 millimeters thick provides the best crash protection of any material and is the choice for racing suits. Fashion leather is often made from a less expensive hide, such as sheepskin, and provides less abrasion protection, so you'll want to make sure your leather clothing is reinforced in critical areas, such as your butt, back, knees, elbows and shoulders.

Leather offers many advantages over other materials used for motorcycle apparel. It provides classic styling that doesn't look dated. That's a good thing because it can last as long as 30 years when cared for properly. Leather also doesn't show dirt.

On the flip side, leather is heavy and can be uncomfortable in warm weather. Its dark color affects visibility. Leather is not waterproof, and it must be treated to keep it soft. In spite of these disadvantages, leather is a sensible choice for motorcycle apparel, but it's not the only choice.

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Not crazy for leather? Motorcycle apparel made with modern synthetic fabrics, such as Cordura and Kevlar, offers adequate crash and slide protection for many riders, as well as a few other advantages. For example, synthetic apparel provides fashion as well as function. It's often stylish and brightly colored with reflector strips to enhance visibility. In addition, the fabrics are lighter in weight and have a zip-out lining to adapt to climate changes. Special airflow fabrics keep you cool when the sun's hot.

Speaking of weather, many synthetics are water-resistant, which eliminates the need for special rain gear. And most are machine-washable, saving you a trip to the dry cleaner. Be sure to check the garment label for washing instructions, because some detergents can damage the waterproof qualities. Riders can wear synthetic suits over regular clothes, so if you use your motorcycle to commute to the office, changing is easy. On the down side, synthetics won't last as long as leather and don't wear as wel, either. Fabric colors can also fade, giving you a washed-out look.

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Although definitely not recommended, you often see motorcycle riders wearing denim. The ubiquitous material offers little protection and isn't resistant to the abrasive forces in an accident. If you get caught in the rain, denim takes a long time to dry.

If you do insist on wearing denim, there are a couple ways to increase your protection. Leather chaps worn over your jeans will help, although open areas are still at risk for injury. Kevlar-lined jeans offer better protection. They come in a variety of styles and offer a comfortable fit, with the lining specifically positioned to keep skin safe in the event of a crash.

As with pants and jackets, leather reigns as the best material for gloves. If the thickness of leather gloves compromises your "feel," try some made with kangaroo skin. The ultra-thin hide provides phenomenal protection and feedback.

While leather motorcycle apparel offers riders the best protection against abrasion, other materials can do the job, too. As with any important purchase, do your research and be sure to make safety and protection key factors in your apparel-buying decision.

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Sources

  • Editors of Motorcyclist Magazine. "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Motorcycles." Penguin Group. 2008
  • Flames on My Tank. "Protective Clothing." (May 12, 2011) http://www.flamesonmytank.co.za/Clobber.htm
  • Schmitt, Genevieve. "Apparel Review: Kevlar Lined Jeans with Amazing Style." Nov. 1, 2010. (May 14, 2011) http://www.womenridersnow.com/pages/APPAREL_REVIEW_Kevlar_Lined_Jeans_with_Amazing_Style.aspx

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