You’re a beginning rider, and you want to buy your first motorcycle jacket. You quickly learn there are two basic options: textile jackets, or leather jackets (the same choices are there for pants, but most riders buy the jacket first).
Which should you choose? The answer depends on what kind of riding you plan to do, where you plan on riding, what kind of weather you plan to ride in, and how fast you plan on riding.
Not all textile material is the same; you’ll see different thicknesses (measured as denier — a 1000-denier material is much more beefy than 500-denier material). There are natural fabrics like waxed cotton or denim, which have a vintage look that retro-bike riders love (think café racers or choppers), but they don’t have high crash resistance. Then there are more modern fabrics, like Cordura, or aramid-reinforced materials. These hold up better in a slide.
There are three main reasons people buy textile gear: the price, technical capability and the selection. Some people want the style as well.
You can get reasonably tough textile gear at a reasonable price, when compared to high-end leathers. Even the highest-priced manufacturers of textile gear, companies like Motoport and Aerostich, still have kit that’s priced lower than its leather equivalent. At the least expensive end of the price scale, there’s not as much difference between cheap leathers and cheap textile gear: crap is crap, and not worth the money no matter what it’s made of. But once you get into mid-range stuff, textile gear tends to be better-priced than leather.
There’s a wide range of technical capability possible from textile equipment, especially if you mix and match a waterproof material like Gore-Tex with a proper protective fabric like Cordura. In general, it’s much easier to find good, waterproof textile gear than it is to find a waterproof leather riding jacket and pants. It’s also easy to make more breathable textile gear — mesh gear is mostly made from textile, and it tends to breathe very well when compared to leather jackets. It also reflects heat better than most leather, so as a result, textile is definitely preferable in hot weather.
If you’re planning to ride in all weather conditions, then textile is usually the best choice, as it will be more comfortable than leather. Even if it offers less protection than leather, you’re better off buying gear you’re more likely to wear; a leather jacket doesn’t offer any protection at all if you leave it at home.
Some textile gear does match the road rash resistance of leather, although a lot of it doesn’t but is still fine for most riders’ needs. If a rider doesn’t want to buy leather gear because it’s an animal product, there is some textile kit that can match leather’s toughness.
Leather gear tends either to be aimed at sporty riding or cruiser posing, and the styling tends to reflect that. Textile is available in those styles, but also in classic waxed-cotton styles, 3/4-length adventure jackets and more.
As said above, quality leather offers more protection than the majority of textile gear. Textile clothing doesn’t offer as much insulation for cold-weather riding either, although layering or a heated vest can overcome that problem.
Nobody wears a textile motorcycle jacket for a night on the town, as you look kinda dorky. If you want a jacket you can wear off the bike, you’ll definitely want leather.
Leather is the classic motorcycle look, whether it’s a rider on a relaxed trip aboard a cruiser or a serious sportbiker getting a knee down in the corners. Most proper motorcycle leathers are made of decently tough cowhide, although if you spend more money you might have other options available, and if you spend less, you will get inferior material.
There’s one very important reason to choose leathers: protection. In just about any comprehensive real-world test, a leather jacket shows much more crash resistance than a textile equivalent. That’s why almost every roadracing body as well as most trackday organizers require riders and racers to wear leathers, not textiles.
Other advantages: Leather tends to be a bit warmer, so it’s nice in cold weather, and you can find leather jackets (and maybe even pants!) that don’t make you look like a total goof when you’re off the bike. And if you want to have a classic cruiser-style jacket, you pretty much have to go with leather, unless you have a moral objection to it.
Although textile is often more breathable and more easily waterproofed and holds off the heat better, you can get perforated leathers that do allow some airflow, and advanced leather suits like the Aerostich Transit come with treatments that reflect UV rays and shed water (the Transit is now out of production, but still available used; other manufacturers offer similar waterproofed leathers, like this Harley-Davidson jacket, or this one from Dainese, but they’re mostly not as waterproof as the old Gore-Tex bonded leather suits, which are getting hard to find as the material seems to be unobtanium at this point).
You won’t find leathers that work well off-road, but for street riding, you can get stuff that works in almost all conditions, if you want to spend the money.
We’ve discussed most of these already, but the main downsides to leathers are expense, poor breathability, and lack of versatility. Also, while quality leathers are more protective than textile, the cheapest may offer no more protection than a denim jacket. All leather riding gear is not created equal.
Also, beware of fashion jackets that are merely styled as “motorcycle” jackets – if the leather is comfortably thin it will offer little protection, and if the stitching is inferior, it will pull away on impact and render the jacket useless.
If you want the features of both leather and textile, you can have that — some gearmakers (Macna, for one) have textile construction, but leather pieces added to the areas most likely to be impacted in a crash. This compromise is perhaps the best solution for anyone who’s not taking to the track.
What’s for you? If you’re a street rider who’s a sensible motorist and not hooning about at excessive speeds, a textile jacket and pants will get the job done, keeping you comfortable in variable weather conditions; if money is tight, textile gear can also be had at a lower price than leather. If you’re an adventure rider who’s looking for gear that works on the street and in the dirt, textile is what you want. But if you’re looking for gear that holds up in a high-speed off, or gear that has classic biker jacket looks, you’ll want leather.