THE QUILT as history is not new. In Colonial days, friendship or memorial quilts were popular as ways to commerorate milestones both personal (weddings, births, new preachers, old friends) and public (the Constitution, a new railroad, an election). Such quilts were always group efforts by friends or organizations - an excuse for getting together and a way to accomplish a tedious job.

In the past year, as the United States celebrated its Bicentennial, there has been a revival of interest in commemorative quilts. Memorial quilts once again are commemorative quilts. Memorial quilts once again are being made by groups - not only at quilting bees but at historical societies, wives' clubs and just among friends. A great many have been efforts with Bicentennial or patriotic motifs. Others simply mark a particular time and place or celebrate the work of skillful needles.

Probably the largest collection of contemporary rememberance quilts in one place can be seen March 12 through April 3 at Woodlawn Plantation, Mt. Vernon, during the historic house's 14th annual needlework exhibit. The show is generally considered to be one of the - if not the - biggest needlework competitions in the United States, drawing entries by men and women from all over this country and even a few from abroad.

"I can never remember a year in which we had more group entries, and they come from all over the country," said Margaret P. Davis, the Woodlawn curator who annually puts the show together.

One fine example is a quilt by the 31 students of Annettee Rieger's fifth-grade class at Fairview School in Fairfax Station, Va., supervised by Phyllis Pizzurro. Each block celebrates "a person, a place or objects associated with the history of Fairfax County and the Nation's Capital," noted Mrs. Rieger.

"The fifth-graders drew a picture for their own block, transposed it into fabric, handsewed it, then quilted or tied the separate blocks." The quilt was finished off with Mrs. Rieger's version of the Bicentennial emblem, and Mrs. Pizzuro embroidered everybody's signatures and assembled the blocks. Mary Sterner, the principal, embroidered the name of the school. And the parents helped with the handfinishing and tieing.

The bold applique quilt, bordered with a traditional print, has all the charm of a primitive folk piece. The simplified designs are in primary colors. The heros commemorated are Thomas Jefferson by Tracy Sneath and Gen. Braddock by Mary Ann Kidwell. The places include grand and small: Woodlawn Plantation by Melissa Willey, the White House by Kathryn Finney, Bull Run Stone Bridge by Alan Bowler and Legato School by Charlie Sarkiss.

The quilt, after the show, will hang at Fairview School.

A real work of art, very sophisticated with a strong design presence, is the quilt worked by a group of faculty wives of the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, directed by Mrs. T. Jackson Smith and Mrs. D. F. Watson. The quilt is bothe applique and embroidery, all done by hand. Quilters will be interested that each square was worked and quilted separately. The squares were sewn together from the inside. The hems were whipped down to form a border around each square.

In the center of the quilt, marked by a dark border, are pictures of the duck pond, which is a favorite student spot, worked by Mrs. S. K. Cassell; Smithfield Plantation, built in 1772, worked by Mrs. Lawrence Adler (to Mrs. Cassell's design); a VPI cadet in the official uniform, by Mrs. E. W. Carson; the Huckleberry (a train so called because it backed the eight miles into Blacksburg and went so slowly passengers hopped off to pick huckleberries) by Mrs. Smith; Lane Hall, the oldest barracks, by Mrs. T. P. Floridis; and Highty Tighties Square, celebrating the band, by Mrs. M. P. Lacy, to Cecile Smith's design; a gobbler, the VPI mascot, by Mrs. Cassell; and Burruss Hall, by Mrs. Lacy.

Some of the best entries every year are done by students of the Area One Training Center on Franconia Road in Fairfax County, who have learning disabilities. This year, encouraged by their teacher, Ann Carr, the children have made a spendid crib quilt sprinkled with happy faces, a cheerful bird, flowering trees, all sorts of trains, planes and wagons and numbers. Another crib quilt has wonderful animals worked in outline.

This year the home economics class of the Rock Terrace High School in Rockville also entered sereral projects, including a pillow by Karen Caruso, a quilt by Bonnie Montgomery, an apron by Lisa Croci and another pillow by Tina Dempsey.

Lynetta Martin, who lives near Woodlawn, organized her own group - friends and relatives who each worked a block for her with designs from places the Martin family had lived, one friend's own horse and the favorite flowers of others. "Aunt Mabel embroidered a pictorial scene . . . which includes the pine tree she and Uncle Ronald would climb to dismantle a glass filled with ice and the date . . . commemorating the first time we met in Frankfurt," Mrs. Martin said.

The 50-member Heritage Committee in Goffstown, N.H., embroidered a quilt with a center depicting the Uncanoonuc Mountains. The quilt was presented to the Goffstown Historical Society. In Tamworth, N. H., a group of 24 woked a quilt with churches, antique cars, flowers, local scenes both past and present and Indians.

The Greater Washington Area Signal Corps Officers' Wives, headed by Donna Wegner, worked a perfectly straightforward log cabin quilt - but ornamented it with the signatures of all the living past First Ladies and the wives of Signal Corps generals. Mrs. Wegner was pleasantly surprised to find that a number of the women did the chain stitch signature themselves. The others signed in pencil, and club members embroidered the names.

An ecumenical wall hanging with 65,000 stitches, depicting Falls Church houses of worship, was made by members of nine churches and a synagogue in that area. Freda Line conceived the idea, and the project was supervised by Flonnie Swarthout. The hanging has been presented to the Falls Church City Hall, where it usually can be seen.

Woodlawn has its own needlework group, "Nellie's Needlers," headed by Mrs. Charles Bote, who make Woodlawn has always been a home to needlework - it was built for Eleanor Parke Custis Lewis, Martha Washington's granddaughter. Nellie, as she was called, was quite accomplished as a needlewoman, and made an example of her art for each grandchild, as well as a memorial "mourning picture" commemorating the death of a friend and a needlepoint screen that has been widely copied.

Hours for the show are 9:30 a.m. to 4;30 p.m. daily. All enteries will be on display March 12 through March 27. From March 28 to April 3, only the first- and second-place winners will be displayed. Judges are Erica Wilson, needlework designer and columnist; Lawrence Kane, Family Circle magazine associate editor and a needleworker himself; Doris Bowman, Smithsonian needlework authority; Mrs. William Riley, a quilt expert; and Mrs. Bolte. Proceeds from the $2.50 admission ($1.25 for children and senior citizens) go to maintain the historic house.