Farah Ahmad started Sweet Root in 2013 and is helping thousands hold on to their loved ones' memories by making quilts.
Processing loss is a very personal affair. While some may choose to internalise the pain and deal with it, others write, talk and paint to express themselves.
Farah Ahmad, a Bengaluru resident, found a rather cathartic release in making a memory quilt with her mother’s clothes after losing her to COVID-19. “The second wave of COVID-19, which hit so many of us in 2021, took away my mother and brother in quick succession,” she tells The Better India.
In a matter of a week, life as she knew it had turned upside down. Yet, she found the strength to channelise that grief into something that today helps thousands cope with their loss.
Farah, who describes herself as a serial entrepreneur, had launched her own company called Sweet Root in 2013.
“Troubled by the number of clothes one often buys for newborns and then proceeds to discard them is what led me to make memory quilts. These are made recycling old clothes and becomes a keepsake for families,” she says.
This 39-year-old entrepreneur prides herself on trying to solve the issue of waste by converting old clothes into keepsakes. “After losing my mother, when I was cleaning out my cupboards and arranging the clothes I wondered what I could do with all her clothes. I did not have the heart to throw them away or even just give them away,” she says.
She says that just holding the clothes close to her body gave her a sort of “unexplainable comfort and security”.
“I wasn’t ready to let go of my mother so soon. While at Sweet Root we were already making quilts from baby clothes, using the clothes of a deceased family member was a new concept for us. This was how the memory quilts were born,” she adds.
Even in Farah’s friend circle, many people lost loved ones to COVID-19 and expressed a desire to have the memory quilts made.
She acknowledges that while as a business idea, making memory quilts for people brings her no joy, what she understands is how precious it is for those she makes it for. “On days when I feel miserable, I sit wrapping my memory quilt around me. I feel like my mother has hugged me and whispered into my ear that things will work out,” she shares.
Loss: Bringing strangers together
“Sharing the pain of losing someone close to you is never easy. All the more so when it is with a complete stranger. However, in my case, it has been such a therapeutic experience for me. I have come to meet so many people who have lost dear ones and listening to their stories has made me stronger,” she says.
For Farah who also lost her brother, she says that seeing her nephew use the memory quilt made with her brother’s clothes brings her comfort. “Without planning it I have forged a connection with so many of the clients who order memory quilts,” she says. The ability to hold on to memories is what makes the memory quilt so special, she adds.
“The security that one derives from a piece of clothing belonging to someone dear who has passed is unexplainable,” she adds. Being able to look at a piece of clothing can bring back so many memories and experiences. The memory quilts stir up the tactile senses in a way that nothing else can.
“These memory quilts serve both functionally as well as aesthetically,” she adds.
Sangita Dasgupta, a Delhi resident who got the memory quilt made after losing her husband to COVID-19, shares, “On 8 May 2021, I admitted my husband, Arindam Moitra, to the hospital as his oxygen levels were showing a decline. Within four days of hospitalisation, the situation worsened and he was shifted to the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) and put on the ECMO machine. After a month-long fierce battle, he breathed his last on 8 June 2021. The pain of it continues to stab me.”
She continues, “While on one hand my 16-year-old daughter, Sulagna Moitra, and I were dealing with the void he left behind, we were also clueless about what to do with all his clothes. It was during that time that someone suggested getting a memory quilt made. Even today, when Sulgana misses her father, whom she was very close to, she sits wrapping the quilt around her. She says she can feel his presence and his smell this way.”
The woman behind the quilts
While originally from Kolkata, Farah has spent over two decades in Bengaluru, which she describes as home. With a Master’s degree in biotechnology, Farah has worked with companies like Yahoo. She chose to move toward research and worked with various professors at the Indian Institute of Science (IISC).
“I was selected for a programme being conducted by Goldman Sachs at IIM-Bangalore, which further propelled my entrepreneurial spirit. It was while setting up and operating a toy store that the thought of working on sustainability struck me,” she says. To put to use the clothes that newborns and toddlers often accumulate, Farah came up with the concept of converting them into quilts.
Having started with minimal investment, the company is now making close to Rs 80 lakh annually. “What we are more focused on is the number of clothes we have upcycled and prevented from ending up in landfills. More than 1 lakh kilo of clothes has been upcycled so far,” she says.
Dharani Jain, a design student from JD Institute of Fashion Technology, who is currently an intern at Sweet Root, says, “This project brings me happiness. It is all about preserving memories and to be a part of that process is so lovely. These are things that people hold so close to their hearts. The best part is how beautifully we can upcycle each piece of clothing. Nothing is wasted.”
How to get a quilt made:
“The process we follow is very transparent,” says Farah. “The customer is asked to fill out a form on the website, detailing each item they send across. Once the clothes are received, each image is captured and sent back to the client for approval. We understand the size requirements and if they want any sort of customisation done before we start our work.” Post this the team sends a concept note to the customer and after final approvals, the work starts.
On average, making a memory quilt takes two weeks. A pick-up service is also offered at an additional cost. “We work with many young designers from the National Institute of Design and Sristhi,” adds Farah. The cost for the memory quilts starts at Rs 2,500, depending on the size of the quilt. While all shapes and sizes of clothing are accepted, Farah recommends using cloth that can be easily washed at home.
Sweet Root today works on close to 500 quilts a month, which includes memory quilts as well. This is done by a team of 15 that includes designers, store managers and tailors.
In conclusion, she says, “Loss and pain are inevitable in this journey. However, being able to connect with people who have had similar experiences, brings me so much solace. In making these memory quilts I have forged some beautiful bonds that I now cherish.”
To reach out to Sweet Root, you can click here.
(Edited by Yoshita Rao)