In the past, leather was the material of choice for jackets, and was worn by professional racing riders.
Leather clothing is not waterproof though, and will not withstand continuous rain. With the modern waterproof materials now available, there is a huge selection of garments to choose from, and textile clothing is now surpassing the protection offered by leather. The main aim of the jacket is to offer protection to the wearer by using thick, high-grade leather, armour inserts, pads of Kevlar, and double-stitch sewing. The thicker the leather, the better the protection.
Although leather jackets are generally more expensive than textile ones, they usually last longer and are easier to patch or repair. After a while they become soft and comfortable yet still provide adequate protection. They offer high abrasion protection but have poor puncture resistance. Textile jackets are lighter, but can be more bulky.
As regards colour, bright colours are better as they are more noticeable. However there's nothing to stop you having a black leather jacket and wearing a high-visibility vest over it. Some jackets have reflective strips as part of the design.
When shopping around, bear the following in mind:
- Garments with loose flaps, collars and buttons are no good. The flaps will beat you mercilessly in the wind, and a buttoned front lets in wind and water. Zip fronts, if not covered, also let in water.
- The garment must fit snugly around your waist, neck and wrists, and must stay well-fitting when you sit on your motorcycle. There should however be sufficient room underneath to wear a sweater for cold days.
- Look at the quality of the seams and stitching, and pay attention to the quality of the zips (if fitted). Thick leather is of no avail if poor stitching causes it to separate into its component parts just when you need it most!
- Try and choose one with a detachable lining which can be removed for summer riding. Zipped vents are another thing to look for; these enable some airflow to cool you down in hot conditions.
(By the way, be careful not to put any sharp or bulky items in your pockets. Even something as small as a mobile phone in your breast pocket can damage you if you fall on it, not to mention the resulting damage to the item!)
Some jackets have a zip at the lower back which allows them to be joined to trousers. Why would you want to do this? Well, in the event of your sliding down the road, there is less likelihood of your jacket "rucking up" and leaving parts of you unprotected.
Garments containing Kevlar offer more protection. Kevlar is a man-made fibre used in bulletproof vests; if it can stop a bullet it can certainly offer protection from road burns! However the protective armour should be in the correct place; if it is supposed to protect your elbows make sure it actually covers your elbows!
What about complete suits? These were designed for riders who require the utmost in protection. Whilst you can buy a jacket and trousers separately, two-piece suits offer more protection as they can be attached together; and one-piece suits go one step further by eliminating any chance of this attachment breaking.
Yet no matter what your choice, you need to look after your gear. Clean it regularly and treat it with a waterproofing compound like those available from Nikwax. This stuff is very good; it's what I use.
What about additional armour like back protectors? Again, it's your choice. However unless you're riding in MotoCross events you probably won't need this.