By Motorcycle Legal Foundation
Irving Schott invented it in 1928 and a quarter of a century later, Marlon Brando made its popularity global. I’m talking about the leather motorcycle jacket, which next year will celebrate its 90th anniversary.
In the late 1920’s, motorcycles were becoming increasingly popular. And Irving Schott was looking for design cues for a new motorcycle-specific leather jacket. The son of Russian immigrants and factory owners borrowed ideas from the aviation clothing of the day, combining it with a lancer-style front opening of yesteryear and adding a little modern technology in the form of a zipper.
The result –the Perfecto motorcycle jacket, which has weathered the test of time to become one of the most iconic items of clothing of the 20th century, as its beloved by bikers, highjacked by Hollywood, and duplicated by designers.
Leather vs. Synthetic Materials
In this age of technologically advanced textiles, are leather jackets still viable? The short answer is, yes.
Leather is unique, quite literally. Even the way we measure its thickness in ounces is unconventional. For example, take a well-known motorcycle leather jacket worn by the California Highway patrol, made from competition grade heavyweight leather weighing in at approximately 3.5 ounces. Regarding thickness, this translates to 1.4-1.5mm. Incidentally, manufacturers invariably give approximate weights and thicknesses because leather is a natural product, so no two hides are the same.
As for durability, leather and personal protection have gone hand in hand since 300BC. Admittedly, a bike leather won’t, in normal circumstances, have to protect its wearer from an armed assailant. However, its ability to conform to the body’s contours and protect the wearer is as important now as it was over 2000 years ago.
Thickness and Durability
There is, however, a rule of thumb to apply when considering a motorcycle jacket and simply put, the thicker, the better. As mentioned before, thickness usually relates to weight and weight translates directly to the leather’s ability to withstand abrasion.
Lightweight leather jackets are enlarged 1mm thick (2.5oz), which makes them superior to a shirt or fleece and will save your hide in a slow slide. A general-purpose weight of a good leather is 1.2mm (3oz). Although this may not sound like much of an increase, the extra thickness translates to longer abrasion resistance.
Finally, the heavyweight, which is also referred to as a professional or racing weight, is usually around 1.4mm thick (3.5oz and upwards) and provides the best slide times. This claim is merely a generalization, as other factors such as construction, stitching, tanning process, and finish all play a part in the integrity of the finished product.
Today, leather motorcycle clothing, which covers jackets, pants, and one-piece suits, are subject to specific types of destruction testing to determine their suitability. These tests include abrasion resistance, impact resistance to a sharp object, and burst strength. Therefore, if you see a label inside a leather jacket bearing a CE or AS mark, then you know you’re in good hands.
The initials, CE, refer to Conformité Européene or European Conformity, which means that the garment has conformed to a European safety standard. These initials will have a safety confirmation code giving details of the tests passed and providing information on which particular body part it is referencing. This code will begin with the initials EN. Take for example EN1621-1:2003. The 1621 means it’s specifically rated for motorcycle use; 1 shows the armor’s testing level and 2003 illustrates the date of standard implementation.
Unfortunately, you won’t see such safety labeling in an American made leather motorcycle jacket unless the armor has a separate source. The CE tag is only found in European tested clothing, whereas AS is the Australian governments equivalent.
It’s fair to point out that legitimate manufacturers of quality leather motorcycle clothing in the US adhere to their own stringent in-house testing and quality standards. Therefore, there is no implication of inferior quality due to a lack of safety testing label.
Armor testing comes in a two-tier system. For a piece of protective body armor to pass Level 1, the maximum transmitted force must be below 18 kN, with no single value exceeding 24 kN. This number is the norm for the knee, hip, elbow and shoulder pads.As you would expect, the next level increases the ante regarding the strength of the shock wave allowed through the protector. The Level 2 maximum transmitted force must be below 9 kN and no single value can exceed 12 kN. If you’re looking for back protection, the armor needs to have undergone a Level 2 test.
Although these types of standards are unregulated in the US, many race tracks around the country unofficially adopting the CE/EN protocols as a minimum safety standard for racing gear.
Safety standards are a great start, but they only test for specific parts of the jacket and not the garment as a whole. Short of rolling someone off the back of a pickup truck while wearing a test jacket, this is obviously a difficult task.
Water and Wind Proofing
With protection from impact and abrasion covered, you may wonder, how does the leather jacket fair regarding protection from the elements? It’s important to remember that leather is a natural product and if untreated, it is going to leak like a sieve, which is the reason why manufacturers closely guard their tanning, preparation, and application processes.
Leather can be water repellent, but not waterproof. Most leathers keep the worst of the rain out but be weary of a manufacturer claiming that a leather motorcycle jacket is 100% waterproof.
Wind proofing I’m glad to say is an entirely different matter. Good quality, full grain leather provides excellent protection from the wind. Just ask any Sopwith Camel pilot!
Finding the Right Fit
It is possible to mitigate any potential problems if you know what to look for when you’re in the market for a motorcycle jacket. The first thing to be aware of is fit. Now, this may seem obvious, but it’s more important than we first realize.
Take into consideration that European and US sizing may differ when ordering online It is always a good idea to ask the supplier for actual measurements in inches rather than centimeters for better conversion and be sure to check the returns policy.
A motorcycle-specific jacket by design is not a fashion item; its primary purpose is to put itself between the rider and the road. It cannot do that if it’s too loose, rides up, or is so tight that it creates pinch spots that has the potential to burst on impact.
When trying a jacket on, wear the type of clothing you would normally ride in and remember that a good leather will eventually adapt to your body shape and give slightly.
Built-in armor is, of course, important. Theoretically, you will find it in all the potential contact points such as elbows, shoulders, and back. Whether you have all or none will depend on the style and price.
Some armor is fitted into pockets, other times it may be sewn in. For it to do its job, it must stay in place, Test it out by putting the jacket on and moving around in it. This test will identify if the armor stays where it should and also give a good indication of comfort levels.
Jacket Construction and Fastenings
The traditional method of attaching the component parts of a leather is by stitching, and so it makes sense for this to be particularly robust on a motorcycle jacket. Ideally, check the seams for overlaying or triple stitching. Industry standards for this style of leather jacket suggest 11-14 stitches for every 5cm run.
Pull the seams apart. If the holes in the leather elongate or the thread stretches, then the leather is poor quality. Another indicator of a poor quality jacket is if the jacket is made up of a number of different panels.It is easier to make smaller panels from offcuts rather than using larger cuts of hide. As a general guide, the more panels, the greater the risk of failure in an accident. Burst seams are the most common failure in motorcycle jackets.
Fasten the zipper right up to the top. Does it move freely and feel secure? Does it separate easily at the bottom? Don’t forget to check the fastenings on cuffs and pockets. It’s especially important if there’s one fitted around the waist to connect to matching trousers.
Last but not least, try on as many different leathers as you can. When you finally find the ‘one,’ you will know, as your body will let out an audible sigh.
High Visibility Options
Although there’s an unwritten law about bike leathers having to be black, there’s worth noting that you can play it safer with some added visibility.
You won’t find a cruiser style jacket like this, but the sports bike crowd seem well covered in the high-visibility department. Jackets like the AGV Sport Dragon, Cortech Latigo and Alpinestars GP Plus all come in Henry Ford black, with high-viz stripes or inserts. If, however, you want to go full on high-viz, there aren’t a lot of choices, but the Icon Sanctuary will ensure you light up the night.
One-Piece Leather Suits
Despite the versatility of a leather jacket and pant combo, many consider the additional safety benefits of one-piece leather suits.
A correctly fitted one-piece suit gives better coverage in the event of a slide, which also means that body armor is less likely to move on impact too.
Man has been wearing tanned hides for protection for millennia and for excellent reasons. Today’s motorcyclists have an extensive choice of style, protection levels, and price ranges from which to choose.
An Alternative to Leather
What if the look of leather is important, but you aren’t comfortable wearing an animal product? Fortunately, certain manufacturers with their finger on the pulse have introduced a range of vegan-friendly motorcycle riding gear.
Just a quick word of caution, we aren’t talking about faux leather, leather look, or PVC motorcycle jackets. These are fashion garments; all of which have the abrasion resistance of thinly sliced salami.
Although the choice of motorcycle specific jackets is far from extensive, there are a few products out there that do fit the bill. If you are looking for a vegan jacket that will stand up to the great outdoors, the Icon Oildale Jacket could be for you.
According to the manufacturers, the material is ‘waxed heritage coated canvas.‘ The ‘vintage finish continues to evolve,’ which is an alternative way of saying that it looks better with age, similar to real leather. It comes with D30 elbow shoulder, and back armor, which is British-made, military-grade, and shock absorbing padding.
If it’s a riding suit you want, then the choices are reduced to one –the A51-RR Evolution suit by Swedish manufacturers, Alien Moto. This one-piece suit was seven years in the making, and according to the manufacturers, it not only looks like leather but outperforms it considerably!
Similar to the Icon, although no specific facts and figures are available for abrasion resistance, the A51 has the highest standard (CE Level 2) armor in the back, shoulder, elbows, tailbone, hips, and knees.
After Care for your Jacket
It stands to reason that in order maintain your leather’s quality and protective properties, as well as ensuring it remains supple, it’s going to need maintenance.
For routine cleaning and bug removal, do a light wash with warm soapy water. Once the leather has dried naturally, apply a leather feeding lotion. Lastly, rub in a waterproofing solution. Tackle small areas at a time and pay particular attention to areas around zippers and seams.
If you’re a leather lover and you enjoy riding through the winter, you may have considered whether it’s possible to find a heated leather jacket. Unfortunately, it wasn’t possible to track down any such beast, as heated motorcycle jackets tend to be textile based.
Heated vests and liners, however, are readily available and are ideal for wearing under the jacket. These either have a power supply in the form of batteries or more commonly, a plug for your bike’s power outlet.
Aside from specific details regarding the safety aspects, the best advice on choosing a leather motorcycle jacket is simple – take your time and try on as many as possible. Don’t forget, leather is unique, so find the right one for you.