Until recently most motorcycle riding suits were made of leather; it's flexible, resists abrasion and is a lot tougher than the human skin it protects. It is however expensive, difficult to waterproof properly and very, very heavy when soaked.
In fact, get it wet often enough and a leather garment will lose its shape.
British company Belstaff pioneered the use of waxed cotton fabric for riding gear in 1924; its jackets were bulky and smelled funny but they were truly waterproof.
The invention of nylon-based synthetic materials after the Second World War led to the development of Cordura, a very tough but rather inflexible canvas substitute originally intended for rucksacks and duffel bags, which was soon pressed into service for motorcycle gear.
Today there are a number of surprisingly abrasion-resistant woven fabrics available - some even containing strands of Kevlar or carbon fibre - and most bikewear suppliers offer suits in leather or fabric.
Fabric suits tend to look untidy because of their multilayer construction, however, while leather can be sleekly fitted and holds its shape better. A number of companies are now realising that both formats have their advantages and offer riding suits of mixed leather and fabric construction, among them British-based RST Clothing, which offered us its Electrik two-piece suit to try.
The shell is made of a mixture of Ballistic fabric and 1.2mm cowhide, using the fabric for flat panels and leather where required for flexibility (sleeves and collar), abrasion resistance (shoulders, hips and knees) and for its ability to retain the shape of the garment (across the chest).
The result looks a bit fragmented, especially as the leather panels are in red, white and black, but there's a good reason why each panel is made of the material it is. There are even soft, stretchy sections for comfort in areas where great strength is not required, such as inside the sleeves and at the crotch.
The jacket also has a wide leather waistband with elasticated sections at the hips, adjusted by Velcro straps.
The trousers are attached to the jacket by a nylon zip that goes almost all the way around the waist; they're elasticated in the middle of the rear for comfort while you're stretched over the tank of a sports bike, and have their own half-belt, also Velcro-fastened.
The entire suit is lined with a breathable membrane called Sinaqua that RST claims is completely waterproof. We didn't have occasion to test that claim since we reviewed the suit in summer but other RST garments have kept us dry in monsoon-like conditions and there's no reason to suppose this one won't.
There's also a quilted "thermal waistcoat" zipped into the inside of the jacket that was removed almost immediately; it makes the suit far too warm for an African summer.
The suit has CE-approved armour at the shoulders, elbows and knees as well as a polyurethane foam back protector; all set into pockets in the lining rather than the shell of the suit so they can line themselves up with the wearer's dimensions.
There are RST "race series" knee sliders Velcro'ed to the trousers, possibly an affectation for a road-riding suit but there are some lunatic street riders who use them - and for those who don't (including me) they're good pose value and no, Cyril, we didn't scuff them on the stoep.
The two zips in the white sections on the front of the jacket aren't breast pockets - they're "air intakes" (marked as such!) and there are two corresponding "air exhausts" on the shoulder blades.
These are intended to provide a flow of cooling air through the suit but what sounds like a great idea is partially blocked by the rucksack most riders wear. The white leather sections also rapidly become grubby from the rucksack straps.
When first you put the suit on it feels very restrictive - and the more you struggle with it the more claustrophobic it gets, especially the jacket. Then you learn to relax into the shape of the suit, rather than trying to force it to flex it in ways it doesn't want to, and it moulds itself to your body.
The leather sections at the shoulders and hips remained very stiff throughout the review period so the suit wasn't very comfortable to walk around in but once settled in riding position on the bike the stiffness translated to a very welcome feeling of protection.
I suggested to senior test rider Jenni Peters that she remove the armour plates to make the suit more flexible and easier to get into and out of, since even without them it would provide a lot more crash protection than her everyday leather bike jacket, but she refused on the grounds that (a) she wanted all the protection she could get and (b) that was the way the suit was designed.
Can't argue with that, I suppose.
The suit has pockets in the front of the jacket and trousers, plus a neat cellphone pocket just inside the gusseted main zip, but no inside pocket. Peters also said she found the sleeves a little loose and would have appreciated a wristband adjustment.
The zips are all YKK plastic but seem to be a little lightweight for their job; the slider on the trouser fly broke early in the review period and the zip was replaced with a heavier one, also plastic, which is still working fine.
This is not an isolated comment as the main zip on my RST Vento jacket has also worn badly at the bottom after seven months of use and needs to be started with great care to avoid crossed teeth.
This, however, is the only structural criticism I can make; the Electrik suit is otherwise well designed and constructed, with triple stitching on all the load-bearing seams, and should last well if you're careful with the zips.
It has leather where that works best and fabric where extra stiffness is required - and all the protection you could wish for - even if its stiffness takes a little getting used to.
It may be neither hair nor hide but it'll keep your body protected and dry.
Price: The RST Electrik jacket costs R2 650 and the trousers R2 250.