Motorcycle Jacket Materials: Synthetic vs Leather

Motorcycle Safety No Comment

Probably since synthetic fibers were first used in motorcycle safety gear, there’s been a debate about their comparative safety as compared to leather in Motorcycle Jacket Materials. The conventional wisdom appears to have been that leather is better, and the synthetics have to measure up. But some articles in a motorcycle-related publication put this widely-held belief in doubt.

People who use research regularly make a distinction in types of publications between “refereed journals” and other types of periodicals (magazines, trade journals, and so on). A refereed journal is one where the articles submitted for publication are first passed before a board of professionals in the field – the “referees” – who determine if the article is worthy of publication, based on the quality of the research, the usefulness of the article, and other criteria.

To the best of my knowledge, there’s no refereed journal for motorcycles; the closest thing I’ve found is Motorcycle Consumer News (MCN). MCN does not accept advertising (which is also a characteristic of refereed journals; the suspicions would exist – whether true or not – that advertisers had influenced the research or the choice of articles to be published). Further, reading the articles in question (listed below) suggests that MCN follows fairly rigorous procedures in collecting the data, and tries to stay free of industry influence.

Very well, then. The first thing to point out is that all leather is not alike. The MCN article in which the leather was tested (Hambleton, 2000) divided the available leather into six types: Brazilian buffalo hide, goat leather, gunmetal cowhide, machine washable leather, standard racing leather-black, and standard racing-leather-white (a lighter grade of racing leather than the black). The author then tested these for abrasion resistance and for tearing resistance, under identical conditions, and subject to British standards. (These two tests were chosen as being the ones most likely to matter for motorcycle protective gear. In general, motorcycle jackets will provide some protection against abrasive injuries, but little against strikes, unless armor is added.)

The results were surprising. In the abrasion test, the heaviest grade of standard racing leather had far and away the best results, surviving almost twice as much abuse as the next competitor. But the next five best test subjects were all commonly-available synthetics. Further, the next leather subject in the abrasion test (gunmetal cowhide) survived only one-seventh as long as that heavy grade of racing leather. In the tearing test, eight of the nine most durable test subjects were the synthetics (the one leather in that group was the gunmetal cowhide). The mesh currently available on summer-weight jackets (like those available from Joe Rocket and Fieldsheer) was not tested.

Now, most leather riding jackets, to the best of my knowledge, aren’t made of this heavy racing leather; cursory inspections at motorcycle shows suggest that they are made of all types and grades of leathers.

Further, leather degrades with time. It also degrades with sweat, according to the article on leather care (Smith, 2004). Luckily, there are quite a number of leather-care products available, and they all work reasonably well for the decade-long life of a jacket… with two exceptions:the waxes and silicon gels used to waterproof leather, and products with a pH in the extremes (which includes some saddle soaps).One expert also warned about the use of detergents rather than plain soap. Leather is skin; the best treatments for leather are the ones you would use on skin. (There is a Leather Apparel Association which publishes a list of approved leather cleaners on their website.)

See the top-performing fabrics in each test.

Just a few things to have in mind when you’re shopping for your next jacket.

The articles alluded to above are:

  • Hambleton, Sarah, 2000. Crash Protection Performance: A Scientific Comparison of Leather and Synthetic Riding Suit Materials. Mission Viejo, CA: Motorcycle Consumer News, June 2000. (Reprints available from Ian Smith Information/MCReports; do article search for “synthetic materials”.)
  • Rau, Fred, 2003. Buying a Motorcycle Jacket: A Common Sense Guide to Getting the Most For Your Money. Mission Viejo, CA: Motorcycle Consumer News, October 2003. (Reprints available from Ian Smith Information/MCReports; do article search for “buying jacket”.)
  • Smith, E. Don, 2004. Leather Care. Mission Viejo, CA: Motorcycle Consumer News, January 2004. (Reprints available from Ian Smith Information/MCReports; do article search for “leather care”.)

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