Martin Fitzpatrick's Guide to Motorcycle Leathers

Original artical posted to Ixion by :        Martin Fitzpatrick at BBC Scotland

Artical reposted to Ixion by:        Geoff Adams

How do you tell good leathers from bad ? This is a question that has been bothering me a lot of late, and I've been taking a look into the whole thing. I've taken a bit of time and trouble to dig up the information, and I thought someone out there might benefit from it; especially since one thing has become clear to me - you do not always get what you pay for.

The waters are very muddied, claims and counter claims abound, and it's all pretty difficult to make sense of. I've spent time reading magazine articles, reading sales brochures, talking to experts and talking to assholes. The result is an IMPRESSION of what to look for in good leathers - feel free to agree or disagree, but do me one favour - don't confuse the issue too much with your postings. I'll be glad to get mail about anything you want to discuss, but please only post stuff that you think will contribute to the thread. Thanks.

Also, I see a lot of "I know better than you / No you don't / Yes I do" crap out there. In posting this stuff I'm not trying to prove that I'm the god of leathers or some shit. I admit openly that I know diddly-squat about the subject - I'm only posting this because if some poor sucker out there knows less about it than me (and I fell into that category a few weeks ago), then they might appreciate this information (I know I would have). Don't flame me for being a smartass - I'll just get angry and you wouldn't like me when I'm angry. Also, please don't turn this into a discussion about whether leathers are a good thing/necessity/waste of time - I have plenty of views on that subject myself, but this is neither the time nor the place.

Okay, so I walk into a shop and they've got rows and rows of leathers. Where do I start ? Well, there are a lot that you can just walk right by, but you probably knew that already. Anything that looks more like a bondage jacket than a motorcycle jacket probably is what it looks like. Little straps on the shoulders, tassels (pleeeease !), studs (you-gotta-be-fuckin-kidding), distressed leather (you would be too), zip-off sleeves (no, really I have seen it, honest), ultra-soft leather, baggy jackets - even if you like these things, it should be obvious that these were made not to save your skin but to make a fashion statement. Fashion statements loose some of their impact when delivered from a hospital bed. If you really are worried about fashion and "pulling the chics" and so on, think on this - would you French-kiss someone with a skin-graft?

Right, we've got past the Ugly, only the Good and the Bad left. How do we tell them apart ? Have you ever seen a suit of racing leathers ? Well, here's the bad news - they're boring (apart from the colour schemes). None of the Mad Max shoulder pads or any of that shit - just plain old leather, and lots of it. They have almost no straps anywhere, no pockets, very few fastenings. They also have as few seams as possible, by being constructed of only a few, large, pieces of leather. This reduces the number of seams - seams being the weak points of a suit. Racing leathers are also skin tight.

No, I'm not suggesting that we all run out and buy one piece racing suits. My point is that if the leathers you're looking at look not at all like race leathers, then this probably tells you something about their quality. Not definitely, but probably. Anything extra is probably making things worse - eg. straps, zippers, studs, etc - they weaken the leather and in a crash will either dig into your flesh, or rip off, leaving your flesh rubbing along the road. Use your common sense - if it looks silly, it probably is. Don't buy leathers with "I'm a dork" spelled out in metal studs on the back just cos the salesman says they're great.

Okay, so I've settled on something that looks the part. Is it as good as it looks ? Close inspection time. The easiest thing to check is just the shape of the jacket. If someone tried to physically pull it off you, would it come off easily ? If so, it will definitely come off in a crash. The arms should get narrower towards the wrist, to stop them sliding up your arms. The body should be shaped to stop it riding up your torso.

Next, the zips. These should NOT be metal - they should be nylon, but good chunky ones all the same. How do you tell what they're made of? Simple, the metal ones look like metal ! If they don't look like metal, they probably aren't, because most makers leave the metal bare because paint would just chip off. Any coloured zips will probably be nylon (even if the colour is black). Another good clue is that cuff (ie. wrist) zips should be on the inside of the arm, not the outside. If they haven't got that right, they've probably made some other mistakes as well.

Next, the stitching. Just take a good look at it. You should expect to see double stitching (ie. two rows of stitching side by side) on all the major seams - front, shoulders, etc. Is the stitching regular (ie. the gaps between the stitches are the same size) ? Are there any dropped stitches (ie. the thread just goes straight for a bit where'd you'd expect a stitch to be) ? Learn to recognise an inch - for me this is the distance from the tip of my index finger to the first knuckle. Find a similar handy (no pun intended) measure. Count the number of stitches in an inch - there should be more than 7 and less than 12 (usually 7-8 or 10). Too few and the stitching is too weak - too many and the leather will be weakened by the stitching.

Now the actual construction of the leather. Easiest to check are the areas where there should be double thickness leather. These are your "impact points" - the knees, hips/arse, elbows and shoulders (UK arse = US ass). How do you tell if they're double thickness ? In some cases, it looks really obvious, because an extra piece of leather is stitched onto the outside - however, you still have to check that the it has been layed on top of the original leather, and not just sew in (which would be very bad news). Get one hand inside and one outside. If it's double-layered, you should be able to separate the layers a little by working at it with both hands. Also of great importance is a quick look at how the garment has been designed. Has it been put together with the minimum number of "panels" (the separate pieces of leather which make up the garment) - remember : the more panels, the more seams; the more seams, the weaker the leathers. How do you tighten/loosen them ? Are there buckles or stretch panels ? Buckles should be far enough away from the impact points to avoid them digging into you when you meet the tarmac. Stretch panels are generally made of a thinner leather, so they also should not be too near to the impact points. The most important thing is actually the most difficult to work out - the thickness of the leather. For this you'll just have to check the labels, or ask the staff. The leather should be at LEAST 1mm thick - anything thinner is complete crap : most decent suits will have at least 1.3mm and maybe up to 1.5mm if your lucky.

Right, now we come to the area that had me REALLY digging. Padding/Body armour. Everybody talks about it. If you listen to the advertising, Joe Bloggs' leathers are better than everyone else's because they've got Protectoshite body armour. The beauty of it all is that is that almost all of it is actually complete crap!

Looking about, I could see all these claims and counter-claims, and I knew they couldn't ALL be true, so I did some research. Eventually I got back to what seems to me to the proverbial horse's mouth. The guy's name is Dr Rod Woods, and he works in Cambridge, England, UK. He has a materials testing lab where he's working on a new EC Personal Protective Equipment Directive (EC = European Community). He seems to know what he's talking about, and he doesn't mind talking about it - even to the likes of me. I won't tell you how to contact him because the guy has a job to do and he won't be too pleased with me if I set the whole internet to phoning him all the time. If you're any good at research and you WANT to, you'll be able to find him as well.

What this guy told me was that there's only one sort of padding that's worth having, and almost nobody uses it ! It's made of a compound call Polynorbonene (it should be 8mm thick), and it sells (in Europe) under two trade names, Norsorex and Noene. It's a SOFT padding. The Doc says HARD padding in a complete no-no. In the first place it doesn't absorb impact - it passes it straight on to your body. In the second place, the rigid shape of the pad is likely to rip straight out of the leathers, leaving your skin to get acquainted with the ground. "But", I said to the good doctor "Surely hard pads help if the hit something sharp." "Well, it might," says he, "but statistically speaking, that doesn't happen !" This is when we got into an involved discussion about statistics.

Now, the following piece is based on the Good Doctor's knowledge of the statistics. Me, personally, I don't want to argue with the guy. It seems to me that he's been in contact with most of the major hospitals in the UK. I can't compete with that personally.

The Good Doctor tells me that, statistically speaking, you want to protect yourself from the feet up. He tells me about this idea of a rating of the frequency with which an injury occurs (over, say the UK in a year) and the dehabilitation caused by the injury. Turn the statistics into betting odds, and we're talking about your chances of not being able to walk after a crash. Now, the Good Doctor says that this rating DECREASES as you go up the body, ie.fewer people are dehabilitated from chest injuries or back injuries than from foot injuries. Yes, I found it hard to believe too, but he's got the st atistics ! That means, protect your feet first, then your legs, then your body. He admits that there's a peak at the head, ie. the head causes more dehabilitation than the body, but from there down, this rule holds.

I openly admit that this all came as news to me. I told him all sorts of scenarios - chest injuries from upper body impact : ruptured kidneys from back impact : broken back from back impact - he told me that statistically speaking, they just don't happen. Back injuries seldom happen to bikers - and those that do would not be prevented by back protectors. "How so ?", I ask him. Well, statistically speaking, all back injuries in bikers (and they're few and far between) involve bending or twisting of the back - like when you r shoulder or chin hits the ground hard, with resultant detrimental effects on your back. Back protector won't help there, pal. He tells me that broken ankles are the most common injury you can imagine. Compare them to broken backs and you're talking mountains and molehills. Surprising stuff. Time to revise my ideas on protection.

Okay, so what can we draw from all this. Polynorbonene is the only padding to have. I don't know of anyone in the US supplying the stuff, and only three in the UK. Please e-mail me for details, if you want. On the other hand, I'm sure you're going to turn round and tell me that the stuff has been in the US for years, and how come we haven't heard of it?

The next point is very interesting - you need more protection to your feet and legs than to any other part of the body (apart from the head). How many salespeople have you heard saying that ? "None" is my answer. So don't believe the salespeople.

So to sum up, my advice to anyone thinking about leathers would be as follows :-

  1. Before you do anything else, go out and buy yourself a decent pair of boots, with built-in ankle protection. By that, I don't mean armour in the boot, what's more important is that the boot grips the ankle so that any twisting or bending action is prevented. Take a look at a good quality pair of mountaineering boots for an example of this. They're built specifically to protect against this, since it's easy to break an ankle on uneven ground and it's then a big problem getting home.
  2. Then buy yourself a good pair of leather jeans, double-layered in the right places, and padded (in the same places) with Polynorbonene (if you can find it).
  3. Lastly, buy a jacket with the same double-layering and padding rules.

Right, as soon as I post this, I'm sure half the net is going to flame me, but what the hell. I wrote it in the hope that it would be of some help to someone, and I stand by that.

Good luck with your leathers!