How I cultivated my research at UNC into an ethical fashion label

– Written by Marissa Heyl

“No freaking way,” I thought to myself, watching a young woman clad in a saffron sari stamp paisleys onto cotton fabric. She masterfully printed a series of vibrant designs onto what was to become a tablecloth—what I envisioned as a fabulous sundress.

For a long time, I had felt a need to go to India, drawn to its aromatic spices and vibrant textiles. I thought about the handicrafts sold at Ten Thousand Villages, and how my purchase of a product could translate into social change. I decided to frame my SURF project proposal around the notion of women’s empowerment through fair trade in India.

The grant, along with the Mahatma Gandhi Fellowship, afforded me a life-changing—albeit daunting—opportunity to visit artisan communities in slums and villages throughout India. I sat with women artisans from all different walks of life—many of whom were mothers in need of extra cash, some disabled, a few former sex workers—and asked them questions about their work and everyday lives. Their stories touched me, leaving an indelible mark. I felt a kind of kindred connection with these women who came from such a wholly different life experience than my own. I knew right then and there that I HAD to do something to support them and their work. Their art was gorgeous, and thinking back to that tablecloth, I had my ‘aha’ moment.

What if I could translate these artforms, which were struggling because of lack of demand and exploitation by middlemen, into fashion-forward pieces? Not the hippie hemp sacks. Like a fabulous dress. Or clutch. Or both?!

It was the perfect blend of my passion for women’s rights and fashion.

Global Textiles Meet High Fashion

Fast forward 6 years later, and after much soul searching and putting off this thing that I had wanted to do for so long, I finally got the courage to launch my own label. Symbology is an ethical label that uses fashion as a platform for social change. We support artisans from developing countries by fusing their traditional textiles with fashion-forward designs.


I started Symbology in January, developing prototypes, elevator pitches and a business plan. But there’s no way I could’ve done it alone.

I have been very fortunate to connect with some great mentors and interns here at UNC, which have enabled me to my my dream a reality. I spent my summer visiting  artisan groups in India to develop our first collection, Peacocks & Paisleys. We are expecting our first shipment in next week, and are planning a series of sales parties in the Chapel Hill area.

When I reflect back, I realize just how formative my research at UNC was to set me on this path. The SURF grant planted the seeds that allowed me to cultivate my passion into a venture that is not only viable, but supports artisan livelihoods and promotes threatened textile arts around the world.

I highly encourage every student reading this piece to apply for a research grant at UNC. It has forever changed my life. And it can do the same for you too.

A few tips:

  • Consider your passion, what drives you, and translate that into a research topic
  • Make sure you are plugged into all of the awesome grant opportunities..and apply on time!
  • Plan your project early. Many grants require applicants to be returning students


Please check out our lookbook:

Symbology Facebook Page:

We are hiring interns for the Fall semester. Email me at with your interest.


  1. Cruz Santibanez
    Posted December 10, 2012 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    I would love to interview Marissa. Is there any way that I could have her contact information? Thank you.

  2. chelsey bentley
    Posted January 28, 2013 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    Her email is: