Iranian textiles, like the Iranian culture, are full of subtleties, scholarly references, intricate twists and turns, entwinings, surprising juxtapositions and rich allusions -- not all of which are immediately understandable to the Western mind.

To try to follow these webs of threads to their center, Carol Bier, associate curator at the Textile Museum, has directed a four-year study of Iranian textiles, perhaps the most comprehensive ever. The resulting exhibit, "Woven From the Soul, Spun From the Heart: Textile Arts of Safavid and Qajar Iran, 16th-19th Centuries" fills all the galleries through Jan. 29 at the Textile Museum, 2320 S St. NW.

Most of this exhibit -- 40 rugs, 80 textiles, an occasional watercolor painting and ceramic tile, a jeweled fastener here, a gold-inlaid beggar's bowl there -- belongs to the Textile Museum itself. Its Iranian holding is one of the world's best, thanks to the taste and foresight of George Hewitt Myers, whose collection and fortune founded the museum.

The exhibit catalogue, edited by Bier with essays by eight scholars, will go a long way to help understanding of this art.

These artifacts demand clear translations, close looks, careful perusal of wall display text and catalogue, and long thoughts. Though many questions have been answered, many remain. There is even some debate as to whether a few of the textiles might be from India rather than Iran.

A case in point: An elaborate 19th-century Iranian embroidery panel that illustrates the average viewer's need for help in understanding the double meanings in some of these textiles. In its eight-point, star-shaped center is an inscription that translates to: "But only if one prepares all the bases of greatness." To properly appreciate the philosophy of the piece, you need not only to be able to read the exquisite Iranian calligraphy, but also to know that the quotation is the second line of a poem by Hafiz. The necessary first line, omitted from the embroidery, is "One may not gain a seat among the great through empty words," Bier explains.

Not only is the inscription obscure; there's also a metaphor in the fact that not all that glitters in this embroidery is gold. Actually the metallic threads that appear to be gold are silver foil wrapped around a white silk core and couched (a three-dimensional overstitch) in yellow thread intertwined with orange, blues and brown.

On one kilim (flat-woven) tapestry, lions, leopards and deer, realistic enough to look hungry, stalk the border. But just when you're used to real beasties, your eye is attacked by cavorting phoenixes and dragons, equally at home in purgatory as in paradise. Are feathers or flames fueling their flight? Who's to say?

Many figures in the weavings are androgynous to one who doesn't know the clothing styles and conventions of the Iranian past.

Two falconers stand on a velvet textile fragment that's pictured on the striking catalogue cover. One is a ghostly figure, worn out by its life since the first half of the 17th century. The less ephemeral figure clearly has voluptuous hips, glittering jewels and a motherly attitude toward the falcon. But this is a young man, dressed in the elaborate Safavid costume. The catalogue postulates that when the textile was whole, it held a row of falconers, long since flown.

To properly appreciate the falconers and their foil-wrapped silk wefts embellished with foil-wrapped silk loops, you should read the catalogue's tale of Thomas Herbert, a 1626 traveler to Iran. He wrote of a banquet host who made a late but triumphant entry: "... ushered by 30 comely youths, who were vested in crimson satin coats; their tulipants {turbans} were silk and silver ... they were girded with rich hilted swords in embroidered scabbards; they had hawks upon their fists, each hood set with stones of value. After them the duke followed ..."

Many of the exhibits are fragments, some threadbare, literally worn to a frazzle, or faded by the suns of many years.

On one field, animals fight for supremacy -- in spots it's so worn, the vanquished appear to vanish, as if they were eaten. An embroidery panel depicts Yusef, slave to Zulaykha, the Egyptian governor's wife, a story from both the Koran and the Bible. Zulaykha's women, who had criticized her for her passion for the young man, are overwhelmed by Yusef's beauty. Luckily for the susceptible, Yusef lost his head with the fabric's top.

Fortunately, many of the objects can be simply enjoyed without being studied. Where the colors survive -- for instance, in a 17th-century velvet panel called "Women in a Landscape" -- the dyes are glorious.

The 19th-century gouache, or watercolor, "Fath Ali Shah With His Entourage," shows marvelous mustaches, fierce beards (though some seem to have been donned for the occasion), hilarious hats and an assortment of courtiers paying homage to the shah himself on his gilded throne.

A fragment of a jacket or vest is a textile garden, blooming with rich red rosebushes with neatly pruned stalks on a metal ground textile, a background often made of metallic wefts.

A pile rug, from the Fars province in the second half of the 19th century, has borders of traditional small figured bands. But in the middle is a free-form creature, with two big eyes and many small ones, worthy of Miro'. Or "Star Trek."

Iran stands at the crossroads of the world, on the Silk Route, where ideas, talents and armies clash. The Persian Gulf is a route for commerce, a link to nations, and a passage between life and death for the soldiers and sailors whose dangerous destiny it is to defend the trade routes. From the 16th through the 19th centuries, silk was the cord that both linked trade among countries and as frequently tied it in knots; since the 1920s, oil for factories east and west has fueled the controversy.

These textiles reflect much of Iran's history, culture and philosophy. And Westerners might do well to study them for secrets in dealing with this powerful contender.

The title of the exhibition comes from this 11th-century poem, composed by Farrukhi of Sistan:

The robe I bore was spun within my heart

And woven in my soul. A silken robe,

Composed of words, that eloquence designed.

Jerome W. Clinton, in an essay in the catalogue, points out that Taraz (or tiraz), the word for embroidered fabric, as a verb also means to weave, to adorn or to compose poetry.

With their textiles, the Iranians have woven a sophisticated and often beautiful art, with ideas sometimes revealed, often hidden, in the warp and weft of the weave.

The exhibit also will be shown at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art (April 2-May 22, 1988) and the Detroit Institute of Arts (June 20-Aug. 14).

The $500,000 to pay for it came largely from the National Endowment for the Humanities, with other funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, Drs. John and Donna Sommer of California, and U.S. Trade Inc.