FENTON • Jennifer Labit remembers long nights sitting in her laundry room about a dozen years ago, folding and sewing together cloth diaper inserts made from microfiber cleaning cloths usually found in the automotive section.
Her efforts eventually led to the launch of Cotton Babies, the makers of the continent’s most popular cloth diaper, called bumGenius. The company also produces several other kinds of cloth diapers and other natural parenting products.
Cotton Babies announced recently it will move its sewing and manufacturing operations to its headquarters in Fenton, and expects to hire about 30 to 60 people in the coming months. Depending if manufacturing picks up, they hope to hire 150 total, and be running by the end of the year.
The headquarters is in the old New Balance warehouse at Interstate 44 and Bowles Avenue.
“This is huge. This is huge,” said Labit, who serves as chief executive of the growing company. “From a dream perspective, having it where it is, the ability to impact our city … this will be good for St. Louis.”
The company is reaching out to immigrants and refugees served by the International Institute of St. Louis and Oasis International to fill some of the jobs.
“My priority is to hire people who deserve good jobs,” Labit said. She’s excited by the idea of people from different backgrounds filling the company’s lunchroom.
Good for everyone
The move is good for the company, which is closing its manufacturing plant outside of Denver because its owners plan to retire. Having the manufacturing center based at the headquarters will streamline operations, save on transportation costs and allow Labit to better oversee the process. A new and more sophisticated computerized Gerber cutter machine is quicker than the one they have now, and will allow more pieces of fabric to be cut at once. They will also be able to do contract work for other area companies that need cutting services.
The company will be able to come up with items more quickly on an as-needed basis. They supply products to 500 independent retailers or independent websites, including Target online. They also carry products in the brick-and-mortar locations of Babies R Us and Buy Buy Baby stores.
The company employs about 60 people now, including Labit’s husband, Jimmy, who is the chief operating officer. As the company expanded, so has their family — they now have four children. Labit blogs about parenting and entrepreneurship and travels around the country to speak to other female entrepreneurs, and she often delivers this message: You can’t do it all.
“If I defined my success as a mom by June Cleaver’s standards or by the homeroom moms who never talk to me because they don’t know me, I’m a failure,” she wrote in a blog post about Mother’s Day. “If I define my success as a mom by the smart, well-spoken kids we are raising, we’ve succeeded so many times over.”
By parents, for parents
One company goal is helping other parents. Cotton Babies is one of the few companies in the area that allow younger babies to come to work with their parents, though they won’t be allowed in the factory. Cotton Babies also has a retail store here, at 1200 Town and Country Crossing Drive in Town and Country. The store offers cloth diapering classes and support for parents who are looking for more economic and Earth-conscious ways to care for their babies.
Cloth diapers have evolved significantly from the era of plastic pants and diaper pins. Current versions are made with hemp, suedecloth, microfiber, and waterproof outer layers designed to absorb wetness and keep a baby dry. The diapers stay closed through snaps or hook-and-loop closures.
Labit smiles knowingly as she recalls how she took a programming class about 20 years ago, and she asked her instructor some questions about a homework assignment she didn’t understand. Instead of being constructive, the instructor told her, “You’ll never invent anything.”
Now, Cotton Babies has 13 patents on its designs and other features. They’re constantly brainstorming ways to improve their product, a process Labit says is actually very fun. The company’s goals include helping families and reducing waste, something that’s happening by the move to Fenton, says Labit.
Disposable diaper companies have changed the definition of diapers over the last two generations, something that isn’t necessarily good for the environment or for families who have to stretch disposable diapers between changes because they can’t afford to buy more, she says. “While disposable diapers will always have a part to play in the lives of families, our goal is to make cloth diapers a primary part of mainstream culture again,” Labit said.
Applicants can learn more at cottonbabies.com or email their résumé to [email protected]. A sewing test will be administered, but beginners are welcome to apply as on-the-job training will be available.