In an early 17th-century wall-hanging, Indians with great oval eyes look with amazement (and perhaps amusement) at the funny Europeans in their hilarious clothes.

The people of the Coromandel Coast of southeastern India had every right to jeer at the Europeans, because the residents of the great subcontinent knew how to raise, spin, weave and dye cotton. The Indians could wash their clothes without washing away the color. The Europeans had to wear their nonwashable clothes until they fell apart from age and their burden of dirt.

A new exhibition at the Textile Museum, "Master Dyers to the World, Technique and Trade in Early Indian Dyed Cotton Textiles," tells the little-known story of a masterful craft of the Indian people that survives to this day. Ubiquitous Indian bedspreads, dresses, scarves and dhurri rugs are still a major export, covering the world with lavish color and design.

The Indians were making and exporting their textiles to China as early as the 5th century, according to the show's curator, Mattibelle Gittinger. But they probably were adept at the techniques two millenniums before Europe knew how to even grow cotton. When European traders began to import Indian textiles in the 17th century, the western peoples were still wearing woolens and linens which could not be successfully washed. Gittinger writes in the fascinating catalogue that "cotton textiles . . . altered patterns of agriculture, and changed fashions and concepts of cleanliness." As far as fabric was concerned, the spread of Indian textiles was an event as important as the invention of the mechanical loom, or the introduction of coffee by the Turks to the Austrians.

Not only were the Indians experts in producing cloth but they were the first to use mordants (chemical fixitives) to make it colorfast.

From the standpoint of trade, the genius of the Indians lay in making designs that suited their buyers. Their artists could paint anything, going representational or abstract as the market demanded. The Textile Museum shows long strips made to be wrapped as turbans in the Middle East. The expensive gold embellishment was only on the section which would show when wrapped. A bedspread made for the English market is covered with huge rose blossoms. A type of kimono is covered with trees shaped like Japanese fans.

By far the most entrancing textiles in the show are those made for the home market. The cotton picture panels of the strange Europeans, for instance, on loan from the Brooklyn Museum, were used as wall-hangings in India. Several others are genre scenes -- some of the buildings are as precise as proper architectural drawings. The hunting scenes are fierce and fast. (The small, accompanying show of Indian rugs shows the most fantastic beasts.) A splendid set of panels, intended to form a festival tent, still bloom with brilliant fountains of flowers. A series of panels, intended as scarves, have highly stylized organic designs.

Though the show is cohesive, to the point, and easily understood, it is not an exhibition to fly by. You'll want to go, read the catalogue, and go again, for the sheer joy of all that color and movement, captured by the Master Dyers to the World.

The show runs through Jan. 2, 1983, at the Textile Museum, 2320 S St. NW. graphics: Deep green cypress trees with red veins adorn an 18th-century Indian sash India's Old Master Dyers By Sarah Booth Conroy

In an early 17th-century wall-hanging, Indians with great oval eyes look with amazement (and perhaps amusement) at the funny Europeans in their hilarious clothes.

The people of the Coromandel Coast of southeastern India had every right to jeer at the Europeans, because the residents of the great subcontinent knew how to raise, spin, weave and dye cotton. The Indians could wash their clothes without washing away the color. The Europeans had to wear their nonwashable clothes until they fell apart from age and their burden of dirt.

A new exhibition at the Textile Museum, "Master Dyers to the World, Technique and Trade in Early Indian Dyed Cotton Textiles," tells the little-known story of a masterful craft of the Indian people that survives to this day. Ubiquitous Indian bedspreads, dresses, scarves and dhurri rugs are still a major export, covering the world with lavish color and design.

The Indians were making and exporting their textiles to China as early as the 5th century, according to the show's curator, Mattibelle Gittinger. But they probably were adept at the techniques two millenniums before Europe knew how to even grow cotton. When European traders began to import Indian textiles in the 17th century, the western peoples were still wearing woolens and linens which could not be successfully washed. Gittinger writes in the fascinating catalogue that "cotton textiles . . . altered patterns of agriculture, and changed fashions and concepts of cleanliness." As far as fabric was concerned, the spread of Indian textiles was an event as important as the invention of the mechanical loom, or the introduction of coffee by the Turks to the Austrians.

Not only were the Indians experts in producing cloth but they were the first to use mordants (chemical fixitives) to make it colorfast.

From the standpoint of trade, the genius of the Indians lay in making designs that suited their buyers. Their artists could paint anything, going representational or abstract as the market demanded. The Textile Museum shows long strips made to be wrapped as turbans in the Middle East. The expensive gold embellishment was only on the section which would show when wrapped. A bedspread made for the English market is covered with huge rose blossoms. A type of kimono is covered with trees shaped like Japanese fans.

By far the most entrancing textiles in the show are those made for the home market. The cotton picture panels of the strange Europeans, for instance, on loan from the Brooklyn Museum, were used as wall-hangings in India. Several others are genre scenes--some of the buildings are as precise as proper architectural drawings. The hunting scenes are fierce and fast. (The small, accompanying show of Indian rugs shows the most fantastic beasts.) A splendid set of panels, intended to form a festival tent, still bloom with brilliant fountains of flowers. A series of panels, intended as scarves, have highly stylized organic designs.

Though the show is cohesive, to the point, and easily understood, it is not an exhibition to fly by. You'll want to go, read the catalogue, and go again, for the sheer joy of all that color and movement, captured by the Master Dyers to the World.

The show runs through Jan. 2, 1983, at the Textile Museum, 2320 S St. NW.