It took $1 million and a year of labor, but the wait was worth it. For the first time in its 55-year history, the Textile Museum, 2320 S St. NW, whose renovated galleries reopen tomorrow to the public, looks like a museum. No longer are the walls a grungy shade of green; the dark linoleum of the floors has been replaced with oak; the air is cool; the ornaments are gone; the track lighting is new.
In the pleasing anonymity of that space, the deep red pile rugs of "Turkmen: Tribal Carpets and Traditions" glow like woolen jewels.
These 18th- and 19th-century rugs, writes Louise W. Mackie, the museum's curator of Eastern Hemisphere textiles, "are the most widely admired, studied and collected of all Oriental carpets made during the last 700 years."
Turkmen is not a word like "Chinamen," used for all Turks. It refers to a group of tribes who began to migrate from the steppes of Asia westward toward the Caspian Sea some 2,000 years ago. The nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes -- whose women made these carpets on the central Asian deserts of Afghanistan and Russia, Syria, Turkey and northeast Iran -- saw these knotted textiles as a form of wealth. It is easy to see why.
Once these rugs and bags and trappings -- "the loveliest product of the desert loom" -- furnished Turkmen tents and decorated camels. Displayed on the walls here, they tend to look like strange, complex abstract pictures. But their beauty is more than visual; it is visceral as well. Though you are not supposed to touch them, these enormously luxurious, soft-yet-heavy textiles speak to the skin as much as to the eye.
Age has lent them lustre. Though they are made of knotted wool, their fibers, rough and hairy once, have been smoothed by use. They shine now as if they were silk. The colors are amazing. Though it's sometimes said that Turkmen rugs are red, that one term will not do: The "reds" range from orange to burnt brown, from apricot to crimson.
Turkmen rugs are also characterized by those regularly spaced medallions that, from the Persian word for flower, are now known as "guls." Sometimes they march across -- or up and down -- the rugs in ordered rows; at other times, they obey the diagonal. That vastly subtle play of quiet colorshifts and complex, rhyming rhythms is one beguiling aspect of this handsome show.
Scholars do not know when the Turkmen started weaving such knotted rugs. These hundred textiles -- half of which came from the museum's own collection, the rest borrowed from more than 30 lenders -- were made from memory, in accordance with old rules passed down from mother to daughter. Though to the untrained eye these rugs -- and door flaps, bags and pot holders -- look much alike, each tribe developed its own motifs, fabric structures and techniques.
The nomadic Turkmen lived in tents of wood and felt (one such tent is on display). While the men were working outside with their flocks, the women stayed at home, weaving on their ground looms carpets such as these as dowries for young girls. It took perhaps 12 hours for a skillful weaver to make one square foot of common rug. But the pieces on display are among the finest known, and the weaving of the largest might have taken years.
Though a live, and patient, camel will be dressed with Turkmen trappings at 11:30 Saturday morning in the museum's garden, this show is not a grabber. It takes an hour of looking before these quiet, shimmering rugs begin to weave their special magic. A scholarly book -- priced at $75 -- is being published in connection with the exhibition, which closes Jan. 3.