For 73 years, the textile designs of Candace Wheeler lay tucked away among the Metropolitan Museum of Art's stored treasures. This week, those fragile 19th-century silks, velvets and cottons went on glorious display.

The museum calls "Candace Wheeler: The Art and Enterprise of American Design 1875-1900" a major retrospective. For all but a few experts, it will be an introduction to an unsung heroine of American decorative arts.

In her own time, Wheeler was the acknowledged national authority on decorative textiles and interiors, and she remained an articulator of trends until her death at 96 in 1923. Shortly thereafter, a daughter donated more than 35 textile samples to the museum. They came without drawings or documentation, and 10 years of research were required to reconstruct the designer's life story and present this show.

"She literally got forgotten," along with Victorian and art nouveau styles, says curator Amelia Peck.

Wheeler was to textiles what Louis Comfort Tiffany is to the art of glass. The two were briefly partners in an interior design firm known as Tiffany & Wheeler. They revamped Fifth Avenue mansions, decorated publisher James Gordon Bennett's yacht, Mark Twain's house in Hartford, and the remarkable Veterans Room of the Seventh Regiment Armory in New York.

That Wheeler has been forgotten while Tiffany's reputation has prospered adds poignancy. But fabrics are temporary. An 1880 Wheeler masterpiece, a stage curtain for the Madison Square Theater, was destroyed by fire within months of the opening. Today, of more than 500 designs created by Wheeler and her firm, only 40 survive.

More than 100 works will tell the Wheeler story through Jan. 6. A labyrinth of small galleries is hung with fabrics, wallpapers, drawings, period photographs and paintings, including a self-portrait of Tiffany. A rare applique of velvet tulips is sewn with silver and gold embroidery thread. Naturalistic purple irises rise from gold ground; the colors have faded but the work is exquisite. Blue denim printed with swimming carp is as modern and graphic as yardage for '60s patterned jeans.

Most remarkable for its artistry is a tapestry of "Penelope Unraveling Her Work at Night," woven by Wheeler's daughter Dora. The weaving process was innovative, but chemicals ultimately ate through many of the warp threads.

Wheeler was influenced by the English Arts and Crafts movement and elements of Japanese design. Ultimately, she fostered a sophisticated American style, using native flowers such as trumpet vine and asters. But one later abstract design of water lilies likely was inspired by a show of impressionist paintings, which Peck believes Wheeler would have seen.

The annals of interior design have long listed Elsie de Wolfe as America's first decorator. The flamboyant style maven of the early 20th century is remembered for sweeping Victorian gloom from New York mansions and setting decor on a path of lightness that continues today. She also posed as Mata Hari and stood on her head at parties.

But Wheeler preceded de Wolfe by a quarter-century. As Peck and research assistant Carol Irish found, Wheeler was a fiftyish housewife with no formal design training when she began her career. Her chief motivation was not to enhance lavish rooms, though she did that, but to put needy women to work. In that sense, her contribution appears more prescient than any de Wolfe style trend.

Wheeler was born Candace Thurber in 1827 in Delhi, N.Y., the daughter of a dairy farmer. She married a prosperous shipper, Thomas Mason Wheeler, and raised four children in a Gothic Revival style house on a 300-acre Long Island estate. (Her eldest daughter's son, Henry Stimson, grew up to serve five presidents in Washington.)

Wheeler's husband was friendly with Hudson River School artists, from whom she learned to paint. But it was a visit in 1876 to an international exposition in Philadelphia, where textiles from London's Royal School of Art Needlework were displayed, that changed Wheeler's path.

She was immediately inspired by the idea that women could earn money from needlework. In the post-Civil War economy, thousands of women had been left without support. Wheeler rallied New York's cultural elite and established the Society of Decorative Art to instruct women artists and also to sell their work. The New York Exchange for Woman's Work, which Wheeler also founded, continues charitable work today.

Tiffany and others taught at the Society in 1879. Wheeler learned needlework and design on the job. By 1880 she had invented a new method of stitchery for tapestry. She also invented a kind of silk canvas, which gives her textiles a contemporary iridescence. They were made by the all-female Associated Artists firm she founded after parting company with Tiffany in 1883.

Wheeler's crowning project came in 1892. She was asked to design the women's pavilion at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The Central Hall of Honor, which measured 67 by 200 feet, was done in gold and white with murals by artists including Mary Cassatt.

Wheeler retired in 1900 and wrote six books on design, including a history of embroidery in America, which is in the Textile Museum's library in Washington. Associated Artists closed in 1907. Sadly, says Peck, "when the firm went under, everything disappeared. We have no records."

The exhibition is accompanied by a 288-page catalogue. Peck writes that Wheeler was an instigator of change rather than an observer. Details are sketchy, but her determination could have stemmed from financial troubles in her own family. Her husband's business seems to have faltered after the Civil War, and by the time she joined Tiffany, she may well have needed a job. The product of an era that included war and financial panic, Wheeler viewed economic power as women's most immediate need. She found and shared it through her extraordinary textile designs.

Candace Wheeler left an enduring legacy on ephemeral late-1800s textiles such as denim printed with swimming carp and abstract clematis on silk, above."Penelope Unraveling Her Work at Night" by daughter Dora Wheeler: Remarkable artistry, going too soon.