Perhaps you’ve run into this scenario before. You’re in the market for gloves, and you start searching for the best pair. There are dozens of options, and each one lists several materials and features: goatskin leather, chamude and neoprene. But what about this pair that’s all cowhide? How does it compare?
Certainly, you need to try on gloves to feel their stretch and flexibility, but you won’t be able to learn or experience everything about a glove in the store. How water-resistant is the material? Will these gloves be too hot for summer? Is it worth buying gloves with extra armor, or is leather padding okay? The list of questions goes on and on.
Related: New Rider Glove Guide
It would obviously help to know what the materials of a glove are meant to do. Knowing the difference between cowhide and kangaroo leather, for instance (beyond the price), can help you make an informed decision about your purchase so that you don’t come to regret it later.
Most gloves today are made at least in part with some type of leather. Due to its excellent abrasion resistance, it makes a quality material to use for protective wear, especially around the thin skin of the hands. Furthermore, when used on the palm of the glove (if the rest is made up of other materials), it reduces hand fatigue from the vibrations of the bike. However, manufacturers use different types of leathers. Is there any real difference between them?
Traditionally, cowhide has been the most widely used leather because it has such a thick hide, thus offering the best abrasion resistance. This makes it especially durable, and if maintained well, it should last you a lifetime. The soft, smooth grain of cowhide has always been an attractive quality as well. However, because of the makeup of cowhide, it loses an incredible amount of strength if it is split (i.e. made thinner). Since cowhide is so thick, it is recommended more for use in cold weather.
While goatskin is thinner and less durable than cowhide and not as soft, due to its pebbled surface, it can in fact be split without demolishing its abrasion resistance. This means goatskin can be shaved to achieve a closer, more nimble fit, which makes it an excellent material for lighter summer gloves. Furthermore, goatskin is more water resistant than cowhide due to the natural lanolin – a waxy oil substance – found within it. Finally, if budgeting is a factor, note that goatskin costs about 25% less than cowhide.
At first glance, you might be asking, “Kangaroo leather? Really?” Actually, kangaroo leather is incredibly popular for motorcycle racing gloves because of its incredible strength. Due to the parallel structure of collagen and the lack of sweat glands in kangaroo skin, this type of leather is very uniform, unlike cowhide or goatskin, for example, where the different layers of skin have varying compositions. This uniformity enhances the strength of the leather even when it is split, making it far stronger than other split leathers. However, on its own, kangaroo leather is not waterproof and would need to be treated to make it more water resistant in wet and humid conditions.
Did you know suede is just another form of leather? It’s made from the underside of animal skin, which is softer and more pliable, though not as durable. It has a fuzzy, napped finish and is often a comfortable lining for gloves. On the downside, suede is much more difficult to clean and maintain than leather, since it is more susceptible to scratches, scuffs and stains.
While all-leather gloves are common in the market, there are plenty nowadays that combine a mix of genuine leather and synthetic materials. Some of these materials try to mimic the properties of leather; others are fabrics or polymers crafted for comfort.
Polyester is a cheap, easy-to-clean fabric that is both strong and durable. Furthermore, it is resistant to most chemicals as well as water, with an inherent ability to dry quickly. In addition, polyester maintains its shape well. It doesn’t wrinkle (a very handy asset for when you’re constantly folding gloves to tuck in your pockets), and it resists shrinking and stretching. Polyester can also form a strong mesh, allowing gloves to be very breathable in hot weather, but still remain durable.
Whether because it’s cheaper or because it’s not an animal product, you may prefer synthetic leather to genuine leather, but how does it compare? Since synthetic leather is made up of layers of plastics, it is smoother to the touch than real leather, but much more rigid and less flexible. Synthetic leather is also inherently waterproof and doesn’t need to be treated, as genuine leather might. However, it is far less durable than genuine leather, prone to cracking and peeling. You are guaranteed to need replacement gloves within a few years if they feature synthetic leather.
Chamude is a microfiber synthetic leather suede. This high-quality material has a similar structure and feel to leather, so it can be expensive. However, it is a popular material for lining because of its softness.
Neoprene is a synthetic rubber prized for its flexibility and resistance to all sorts of environmental conditions, such a heat, cold and water. It is another popular liner.
Skinned knuckles are not only painful but annoying as they heal. Your fingers are constantly moving, shifting the skin and muscles over your knuckles. These actions pull at any wounds on those bones, and they itch up a storm. That’s why it’s important to get gloves that have extra knuckle protection in case of a fall. While many gloves feature extra leather padding over the knuckles to reduce impact and scuffing, many gloves that come with pre-curved designs (to fit the natural curve of the hand, especially on a motorcycle) feature shaped knuckle armor.
Often, this armor, which is made up of plastics, is carbon reinforced. Basically, the armor is a fusion of plastic polymers with carbon fibers that lend strength and stiffness to the material. Many times, these plastics and fibers are heated and melted before being poured into a shape mold, where they harden. This process, called injection molding, gives us the ergonomic armor found on the backs of many gloves today.
The next time you go shopping for gloves, take a close look at the features each has to offer and consider your needs when it comes to protection, climate, comfort and budget.