In 1898, when he was a student at Yale, George Hewitt Myers bought an Oriental rug for his dormitory room.
And that led to the establishment of the Textile Museum, now celebrating its 60 years with a show of "Collections and Recollections" through Sept. 22, at 2320 S St. NW.
Another early acquisition was almost as important. From the Paines Furniture Co. in Boston, Myers bought what he thought was a Go rdes, a Turkish prayer rug. But as he wrote in 1931, "The first sight of a tattered old Ghiordes Go rdes threw the spotlight of authenticity upon two or three of my earliest purchases, which had proved to be modern examples of this weave which had received an effective application of pumice-stone and elbow grease."
The Textile Museum label is harsher on the fake: "It shares few if any technical features of true Go rdes rugs."
Operating on the principle of "fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me," Myers set out to so educate his eye that he wouldn't be fooled again. One of his great preoccupations was tracing the origins of a design back as far as he could. As he put it, "The only underlying thought, if any, was to find out what went before a certain piece to make it as it was."
Put together by director Patricia Fiske and financed by a National Endowment for the Arts grant, the museum's 60th anniversary exhibit is a sampler, a patchwork quilt, following the threads of textile history through the collection. It includes more than 100 rugs and textiles, those bought by Myers often juxtaposed with others acquired by his successors.
Myers opened his museum in 1925 with 275 rugs and 60 textiles, and at his death in 1957 it housed 480 rugs and 3,500 textiles. The collection has since expanded to some 10,000 textiles and 1,000 carpets, almost evenly divided between East and West. Only two or three museums in the world specialize in textiles, said Fiske, and no other can match the Textile Museum in Pre-Columbian, Peruvian, Egyptian and Islamic textiles and Oriental carpets.
Myers was a scholarly and imaginative collector, and he early on understood the necessity of collecting fragments. From one Cairo dealer, over more than a quarter of a century, he bought three similar rug fragments woven in Akhmin, Egypt, in the 9th century. From the same dealer he bought medallion portraits of Dionysus, fragments of a 4th-century (late Roman period) Egyptian tapestry.
The two 15th-century Spanish armorial rugs are among the museum's greatest prizes. Only 10 rugs woven by the Mudejars (Muslims) with Spanish coats of arms are known to exist, said Carol Bier, associate curator for the Eastern Hemisphere. A circa-1500 Mamluk three-medallion carpet, purchased by Myers in 1926, is one of the earliest surviving carpets in the world.
Among other delights:
* Two Turkish rugs, one 18th-century, one 19th-, are called Transylvania rugs because many were imported into that region from Usak. Their reciprocal patterns fool the eye as to what is fore and what is background. Myers chose to have his portrtait painted with a 17th-century Usak rug in the background.
* An Iranian Gabbeh rug, made in the 19th century by the Qashqai tribe, is as hard-edged as any contemporary painting, yet it was one of the first Myers bought, in the 1890s. A Turkish Ottoman fragment, late 15th/16th-century, has a strange geometric design of three buttons in a triangle, interspersed with lips.
* A charming Indian rug fragment, regrettably named by an anonymous staff member as the "Upchuck" rug, is a bestiary of strange creatures in various stages of eating each other and staring at the beholder.
The Central and South American collections are among the most important in the world. A 17th-century Peruvian ecclesiastical hanging, bought by Myers, shows four skeletal figures, one wearing a crown and the other a papal tiara. The piece is linked to the deaths of Pope Paul V and Phillip III of Spain, said Ann Rowe, Western Hemisphere curator. The collection also includes a 19th-century sarape in delicious cochineal (red) dyes, and a Oaxaca Mexico huipil made in 1980.
A Japanese fireman's uniform is an ingenious construction of quilted outer and inner layers that, when doused with water, helped protect the fireman. The intricate designs were worn on the inside for work, on the outside for ceremonies.
Myers may not have known Morocco's wonderful Chichaoua rugs, but now the museum has a fine collection of 50, including one of goats on a red field. And seven Indonesian textiles, bought by Myers in 1941, are remarkable, said Mattiebelle Gittinger, the southeastern Asia resarch associate, because few collectors bought these warp ikats from the outer Indonesian islands.
"Collections and Recollections" celebrates 60 years of connoisseurship, and weaves together textile makers and lovers everywhere into a universal magic carpet.