Motorcycling continues to progress and so has the gear and the materials being utilized to keep riders safe. Through all the innovations and advancements in gear, however, leather has remained a constant favorite of riders.
Generally speaking, hides from cows, bison, deer, goats, lambs and calves are most commonly used in leather apparel. In the motorcycle industry, kangaroo, cowhide, and goatskin are the most commonly used.
You probably know that leather provides excellent abrasion resistance and it typically lasts quite a long time, hence why it’s utilized for racing on the tarmac. But beyond that, what else should you know when choosing leather gear? Let's take a closer look at some of the differences between the three commonly used kinds of leather and better understand why you might choose one over the other.
Cowhide is the kind of leather most commonly used in motorcycle gear. You’ll find it in boots, gloves, jackets — pretty much everything you might wear to keep yourself safe on your ride.
Cowhide is widely used because it is readily available and it provides an excellent “bang for the buck” option.
Kangaroo leather, which is often referred to as k-leather, is usually used in more expensive motorcycle gear. Yes, you read that correctly. Kangaroos, those cuddly little things (they’re actually rather large) in Australia that have a pouch and hop around. Now before you get too upset, kangaroos are to Australia like deer are to North America. They’re not an endangered species, they outnumber humans, and some people see them as pests.
While I’ll probably always think kangaroos are cute, I still wouldn’t mind having a kangaroo race suit.
One advantage of kangaroo leather is that it can be thinner and lighter without sacrificing strength. Kangaroos have less fat than cows or some other animals that are used for leather products, so the skin doesn’t have to be shaved as much during the manufacturing process. This allows the integrity and strength of the skin to remain intact. You can also split kangaroo leather, the same as you would with cowhide, but kangaroo leather will retain greater strength when compared to cowhide.
Goatskin is very durable, it's comfortable, and it provides riders with excellent tactile feel. It's more supple and softer that a lot of other hides because of the presence of lanolin in the leather. This is why you often find goatskin leather utilized on the palms of gloves.
In case you're like I was before I researched this article and you have no idea what lanolin is, it's an oily or waxy substance that is secreted by the sebaceous glands of animals that have wool, according to the North American Wool Growers Association. (I also learned there are a lot more animals with wool than I ever realized.)
Artificial leather or faux leather is commonly used in moto shoes, boots, and gloves. Synthetic leather is more cost-efficient and though it is not genuine leather, it still provides good abrasion resistance. So it offers a great vegan-friendly alternative for those riders who wish to avoid utilizing animal products.
You may see leather from other sources — like the Reax jacket pictured below that's made from buffalo hide — and in the past we saw gear made from deer and even horsehide. But the big majority of leather motorcycle gear you'll find today is one of the four kinds above.
Grades of leather
Of course there’s more to leather than its source. The grade of the leather and how it’s treated during the manufacturing process will directly affect its abrasion resistance, its hand (how it feels to the touch), and its overall durability.
You’ll find a lot of motorcycle brands out there with their own proprietary techniques for treating and manufacturing leathers to enhance or manipulate the material. For example, Dainese’s D-Skin 2.0 leather is full-grain cowhide that also utilizes various resins and silicon waxes to improve the technical features of the leather itself.
It also helps to understand the types of leather produced when the natural hides are processed. The list is long — corrected or embossed grain, split suede, nubuck suede grain, suede — but for motorcycle gear you'll typically see full-grain or top-grain leather used.
Full-grain leather is considered the best and the strongest leather. The entire grain remains intact and that’s why it provides greater durability and longevity. For that reason, it is the most expensive and sought after, even though it may have blemishes and imperfections.
Top-grain leather is a bit thinner in comparison to full-grain leather because top-grain leather is sanded to remove any imperfections. This gives the leather a more even look and feel. Top-grain leather is still very strong and of great quality, but it has been “corrected” to hide imperfections, which puts it a tier below full-grain leather in strength. While the enhanced appearance of top-grain leather may be important for fashion clothing, with motorcycle gear we’re more concerned about protection and durability.
So which kind of leather should I buy?
You really can’t make a wrong decision here. Most of my gear is made of common cowhide but there are a few instances where I prefer kangaroo. For example, I have a pair of Held Evo Thrux gloves that are made with cowhide leather on the back of the hand and kangaroo on the palm. I’ve purchased these gloves three different times because they are incredibly comfortable and the kangaroo palm makes them feel like someone already broke them in for you. I’ve crashed in these gloves multiple times and they’ve always held up very well, pun intended.
For the same reason, some riders prefer goatskin gloves. Especially with gloves, where feel is so important, it's worth trying on a few different kinds of leather to see which one feels best to you.
When it comes to my jacket, pants, and race suits, I’ve always worn cowhide leather. While kangaroo might be more comfortable or flexible, I’ve found the technology associated with moto gear has come a long way and has closed the comfort gap. All of my leathers have accordion stretch panels at the shoulders, elbows, and knees, which provide greater comfort and ease of movement.
Additionally, cost is always a big piece of the puzzle, if not the biggest, when I’m shopping for gear. Just to give one example, the Alpinestars GP Pro v2 Race Suit For Tech Air Race is made of cowhide and retails for approximately $1,300. It is certainly considered a premium suit. The Alpinestars Racing Absolute Race Suit For Tech Air Race, which is made of kangaroo leather, retails for approximately $2,600. That's just one data point, but it does show that you'll generally expect to pay more for kangaroo leather.
In the end, it mostly comes down to personal preference and how much you’re looking to spend. Either way, motorcyclists have been using leather gear for decades because of its durability and abrasion resistance, and today those old virtues have been enhanced with modern features and treatments. All of which means that leather is still a good choice.