BURKITTSVILLE, MD. -- For John Coker, running a clothing business is a lot like the volleyball game his employes play every day at noon.
The rules can be changed to accomodate the myriad sizes that real people come in, with profit -- like winning -- taking a second seat to how one plays the game.
When Coker and three associates moved Deva Natural Clothes mail-order business in 1979 to the sleepy Frederick County town of Burkittsville, which was founded in 1812 and has changed little since, the prognosis of success was not good.
As one employe put it, Deva was the only industry in town. "This is it, there's a post office and a Coke machine and Deva."
The apparel company had posted $30,000 in sales from its headquarters in Los Angeles, where loose-fitting, unconventional cotton clothing that places comfort ahead of fashion was more readily accepted. The company shipped about 10 orders daily.
But from its new home east of the Appalachian Trail in Western Maryland, the road to success was sure to be an uphill battle -- a winning battle that by this year's estimates will generate earnings of $1 million from as many as 100 orders for shirts, pants and shorts a day.
Sam Hawker, a Burkittsville resident who began working with the company in 1979, said she was suspicious when the group moved in.
"I thought they were real weird, there were two men carrying purses. Burkittsville didn't quite know what to do with them."
But Burkittsville left the group alone and ignored its strange logo -- an adaptation of a Sanskrit term.
Townsfolk watched quietly as the company expanded beyond the house where Coker and his partner-wife Nancy and daughter Jessie lived into a garage and side building.
Soon reams of multi-colored fabric were delivered and the post office, which might have closed otherwise for lack of business, was flooded with mail orders from around the world.
What stopped the town in its tracks was the day Coker decided his employes should play volleyball daily.
"We were working in the warehouse one spring day and one of the ladies said it's nicer out there than in here," Coker recalled. "We joked that it would be nice to have a convertible building."
Short of that, Coker found a ball and entered the warehouse with a whistle.
"I said, 'Everyone outside for recess. I want to take recess and I don't want to play alone,' " he said.
The group toyed with kickball and dodgeball until hitting upon the game that has become so much a part of the day that Coker said some employes only come to work to play volleyball.
The problem, though, was no one knew the rules.
"We designed the rules to fit the size of the players. We even made up names -- Jungleball and Karma ball," he said.
When the town got wind of the daily game, which is mandatory for employes, rumors began to fly.
Nancy Coker, 39, said, she even heard rumors that employes were playing volleyball naked.
But the game for Coker and crew, played fully clothed, is more than just fun. It is indicative of a work ethic that is prevalent in the cottage industry.
"It's the only game I ever played that it doesn't matter who wins," Coker said. "The main thing is everybody is playing. I get a thrill from the team spirit. We didn't impose any rules on our volleyball game. It's like the clothes, you don't restrict the movement."
Although making money is the reason most firms exists, Nancy Coker said that isn't true for Deva.
The company could be making more money -- its only posts a 2 percent or 3 percent profit, but that might require outside financing, something Deva has not used so far. And the company might have to increase prices.
"I can sleep at night. The human consideration is just as much, if not more important, than the business end," she said.
Deva's patterns are adaptations of centuries-old designs from around the world that are made to fit American bodies and the requirements of life in the United States, such as maching washing. The cloth is all natural.