IN THE MARKETS of Guatemala, small mountains of extraordinarily vivid color -- cochineal reads, mollusk purples, vegetable indigo -- burn themselves into the memory. The colors seem to be the essence of the tropics, of an enormously creative people. It is as if the macaws, the vegatation, the sun itself had been reduced to primary colors.

The colors are mounded up in large round platters on the ground in front of the sellers. It is disappointing to learn that they are only commercial dyes, powders usually imported from Europe. It has been many years since people made their reds by grinding up bugs that live in the prickly pear cactus, or their blues from the indigo plants or their purples from irritating shellfish.

Some of the most exquisite original fabric in the world is made by the imaginative weavers of Guatemala. Today, because of the tragic political unrest and violence, especially visited upon the Indian villages, the great skills of the weavers and their magnificent textile arts stand in peril of being lost.

It has been 20 years since I stood in the courtyards of the ancient city of Antiqua and saw women weaving with the backstrap loom, a primitive method of great tedium and slow results, producing magnificent, original fabric.

On the steps of the great cathedral in Chichicastenango, on market day, we saw the smoke rise from sacrifices not altogether addressed to the saints within the Catholic cathedral. The old gods are still alive in Chici, and their followers believe in placating them. Looking up at the bottom of the steps, we could see the brilliant costumes of the Indians, the reds and yellows and purples vivid despite the smoke.

Now that these important traditions are in danger, the Textile Museum has wisely mounted an exhibit of 60 Guatemalan textiles and about 30 photographs, open through May 15, along with a catalogue by Ann Pollard Rowe, Western Hemisphere curator of the museum. The exhibit originated at New York's Center for Inter-American Relations, and it will travel throughout the country.

About 30 works come from the Lilly de Jongh Osborne (a woman who lived in the country for many years) collection, about 10 from the Textile Museum and the rest from other museums and collectors. Some of the most interesting photographs dating from the '30s are from the Middle America Research Institute of Tulane University. The more recent photographs comeSee GUATEMALA, Page 2, Col. 5 Guatemalan weaver. Colorful Fabric -- GUATEMALA, From Page 1 from Emily Norton of Washington, who studied children's costumes for the Museo Ixchel in Guatemala City.

The oldest costume is a circa 1900 ceremonial man's outfit from Totonicatan, from the Osborne collection. The most recent comes from the '70s.

Rowe, in assembling the show, tried to trace the changing traditions in weaving. We tend to think of handicrafts from unfamiliar countries as having remained static for centuries. But the village weavers have their own fashions and their own techniques, based on what is available in raw materials, what they have seen in costumes of other cultures and what simply hits their fancy. Rowe traced the changes from the silk threads available in the '30s, the changes from native to commercial dyes, the motifs woven on the huipels (blouses), and the use of commercial fabric as an embroidery background.

Though none of the textiles is in the Textile Museum show, for 20-odd years the Guatemalan weavers have made commercially, probably largely for export, fabrics with gold and silver lurex threads. They are some of the most beautiful textiles to be seen anywhere, competing with the glittering saris of India. For many years, the Pan American Union gift shop sold dress lengths of the fabric for a shamefully low price, considering their desirability.

The revered G Street Remnant Shop, haunt of Washington's textile buffs, has sold Guatamala ikat weaves. Gossypia in Alexandria also has sold Guatemalan textiles.

Once you have seen the Guatemalan fabrics, you can never get enough of them.

The Textile Museum show covers work from 11 villages of Guatemala. Because of the violence in that country, Rowe was not able to update her 1974 research in Guatemala. The show is put together out of sources available in the United States.

Even so, it contains many wonderful objects. It is the reds that you remember most, especially when they are juxtaposed against the intense purples and the yellows which strike like sunlight through the fabrics.

Sometimes, as in the Chichicastenango women's tzute (kerchief) of the '30s, charming animals are woven into the standard stripes. The Austrian double-headed eagle (from the brief rule of Austria's Maxmillian in Mexico) appears on textiles, notably on men's jackets. Brilliant birds fly across a pair of men's pants from Santiago, Atitlan, possibly the most beautiful place in the world. A whole village of people and birds (rendered as the same size as the people) parade across a huipil from the Nebaj area.

But the most handsome textiles in the exhibit are the geometric designs set against fabric of pure, vibrant color. The white and varicolored huipil from San Martin Sacatepequez; a man's red, and blue-green shirt from the same village; a man's purple and red tzute from Chichicastenango, all these are sophisticated designs not surpassed by weavers in richer countries or more populous cities.

Perhaps the Textile Museum show will arouse enough interest for people to collect and treasure what still can be saved. It is terrible to think how much beauty was lost, first in the earthquake of a few years back, now in the civil violence.