Needlework today, as is true of most of the crafts, is far more sophisticated and finer work than that practiced 16 years ago when Woodlawn Plantation's annual Needlework Exhibit began.

The Woodlawn show mirrors the trends in needlework across the country. This year 500 needleworkers from 21 states and three foreign countries have entered about 1,200 handmade objects from pictures to teddy bears using techniques varying from simple stitches to the intricate counted thread work.

The exhibit opened yesterday and continues through April 1 from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at Woodlawn Plantation, at the intersection of Route 1 and Mount Vernon Parkway, south of Alexandria.

When Woodlawn's exhibit began, it was the only show in town and one of the few in the country.It's still one of the largest, if not the largest, in the country, but there are now hundreds of smaller shows.

Beginning Tuesday, the Athenaeum at 201 Prince St. in Alexandria will show needlework from the National Standards Council of American Embroiderers -- a juried show of 87 pieces of work by 66 artists from 23 states, Canada and Korea. The work includes applique, quilting, trapunto (padded), surface stitchery, soft sculpture and needleweaving. The show continues through April 1.

Merry Bean, one of the area's better-known needleworkers, is exhibiting her work opening today and continuing for the next four weeks in the Alexandria Torpedo Factory's Fiber Work-shops. Her work, inspired by "Six Sexy French Postcards" is stitchery and applique, actually needlepainting on stretched canvas.

The Textile Museum (2320 S St. NW) has constant fabric shows, the most comprehensive program in the country. Opening March 23 is an exhibit of 120 Indonesian textiles from the late 19th and early 20th century. Ikat, supplementary weft and warp patterned textiles, and batik are included in the exhibit.

The textile arts are the most popular of the crafts in the United States.Anyone can do needlework -- the Woodlawn exhibit includes work by mentally handicapped children, nationally known needlework professionals, two generals, one admiral and at least one 82-year-old. It is the easiest of the crafts because it takes fewer tools, less investment and can be picked up and laid down at will. Needlework also can be practiced by people with greatly varying skills in design and technique.

"We had some awful things in the first year," said Adelaide Bolte, who originated the show. "All the needlepoint was in that terrible continental stitch. And so many people used kits. There were very few original designs. We didn't jury the show because we wanted it to be inclusive, not exclusive. Actually, in a year or two people began to jury themselves. They looked at the work and decided not to enter it if it was not up to standard. Since then, I think most needleworkers decided to either learn how to do things properly or to take up tennis.

"Needlework was not so popular two decades ago. Mostly it was practiced by affluent women who had leisure and servants. Now many working people -- men and women -- find handwork so relaxing they make time for it. I know I can't go to sleep without my dose of needlework."

Margaret Davis, who has been in charge of the show for the past eight years or so, said she has seen a steady improvement in the quality of the work. "It's surprising how fads come and go. At first most of the work was utilitarian -- chair seats, pillows, that sort of thing. It was mostly older people who entered the work. Not much was mounted professionally.

"About eight years ago, there was a great deal of what was then called 'creative stitchery' -- free-form work with feathers and such. Now there's hardly anything like that. What we see today are a wide range of every sort of stitchery under the sun -- metallic work, intricate techniques long lost and now revived, and much truly creative work inventing new ways to do things."

Today pictures are the most popular work. A series by Bonnie Crumpack of Arlington shows scenes of Colorado, where she lived. Floating above the fields and houses are a flight of balloons. The work is stitched with some parts -- the balloons, for instance -- stuffed. The Congressional Club picture is of the White House, with the names of the Carter family worked into a wreath. The club gave the picture to the Carters. Family houses and the family dogs, cats and horses must lead the list of subjects.

Pillows are the second object in popularity. Julie Nixon Eisenhower has sent the show her annual pillow -- this time a lion. Elaine Gormsen made a pillow (drawn by Needlework Design of Georgetown) of a cat with ears protruding above the edge.

Quilts, perhaps because they take so much time and material, come in third. This year, hands down the most interesting quilt was made by the children and grandchildren of Mr. and Mrs. Ed Murphy of McLean for their wedding anniversary. Each of the blocks has something to say about one family member or another, or an important part of the family lore.

We learn, for instance, that the favorite dish is "Mrs. Emery's Green Beans," and there's the recipe, embroidered. The family song is "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles." There are seven different houses portrayed and, appropriately, a moving van. A coat of arms of the Murphy family and a "Manhattan Mercury" front page with a wedding story are easy to understand. More obscure are the frightening skeleton and the block of crutches.

A calendar quilt with blocks showing cheerful children, all very neatly done and a pleasure to admire, was made by the Area One Training Center of Fairfax County. Ann Carr, a teacher there for 14 years, always plans a project for the children to enter at Woodlawn. "They're so excited about it. They police each other to keep the work clean. They really work very hard on it."

This year Patty Emerson helped Carr with the project. The quilt was made by Dee Ann Tulp, Louis Zhieberger, Pam Henry, Veronica Thorne, Joan Rouleau, Kathy La Rose, Sharon Thornton and Lisa Wagonhoffer. Kenny Moore entered a sampler and Lisa Wagonhoffer another crewel piece, as well.

Technically among the most difficult quilts was one with trapunto cherubs made to look like marble figures by Mary C. Baker of Arlington.

A patchwork cape, apparently for someone who wants to dress up like a bird, is easily the strangest object in the show. It was made by Gary Schatmeyer of Berlin. The hood on the cape includes a beak to be dropped over your nose at your option.

A sofa, completely slipcovered in a fitted-quilt pattern, is a surprising use of the technique by Joanna Pessa of Alexandria.

The counted threadwork table runner with intricate flower wreaths by Roz Hoagland of Springfield called up much interest from the show's professionals. Ruth Watson of Stratford Landing, a member of the Woodlawn Nellie's Needlers, said that one begins counted thread work by counting threads (warp and weft) on the fabric serving as the background -- in this case a very fine linen. The design and colors are sketched out on graph paper, with each stitch charted on the graph's blocks. The stitches are then made to correspond with the background, unlike surface embroideries laid on without respect to the background weave. In counted stitchwork, especially as fine and delicate as this, the work seems actually to have been woven into the fabric when it was made. Hoagland's work is on such fine linen it seems impossible that anyone could see to do such tiny stitches.

Another counted thread piece is by Janet B. DeWilde, who offers a welcoming verse with designs around it. DeWilde did the work while sailing, she said, though it's hard to see how she could hold her needle steady enough. And her husband said she had to wash the salt water out before she exhibited it.

Retired Army Maj. Gen. Frank B. Miller worked two years to make 12 chair seats for his dining room from designs on a screen he bought while serving in Korea. Unfortunately the screen only had eight flowers, so he sent to Korea for pictures of four more. The Korean Embassy translated the directions and he found the proper colors in a flower encylopedia.

"I've always done handwork," Miller said. "First I did handweaving, but bursitis set in. Then I hooked rugs until I got tennis elbow. So I took a few lessons from Needlecrafters in Annandale and started on the chairs at the request of my wife."

Pictures, pillows and quilts aren't the whole story. More clothing was entered this year than usual, including several christening dresses and two wedding dresses, one intricately worked with lace and pearls. A display case of 17 teddy bears by Tapestry Design Shop and a great deal of miniature furniture for doll houses -- including a half-inch-long Christmas stocking -- are unexpected pleasures.

Excluded from the show are machine stitching, crochet, knitting and weaving, though Davis said perhaps a second show should be held for these textile arts.

Judges this year are the show's founder, Adelaide Bolte, Renwick Gallery curator Michael Monroe, designer Vladimir Kagan, needlework author Hope Hanley, Smithsonian textile expert Doris Bowman, and Jinny Byer, who recently won Good Housekeeping's quilt contest.

Work by needlework professionals, inculding Elas Williams, Erica Wilson, Virginia Avery and Dorothy Kaestner, is on display as well. There's also a group of celebrity work -- pillows by Julie Eisenmade for Rosalynn Carter by her mother.

All entries will be displayed the first two weeks of the show. The last week will include only the first-through thirdplace winners. Admission is $2.50 for adults and $1.25 for children. The proceeds are a major source of maintenance money for Woodlawn, a National Trust for Historic Preservation property. CAPTION: Pictures 1 through 5, Top: A detail from the quilt made by the children and grandchildren of the Ed Murphys. Above: Margaret Davis in a patchwork cape made by Gary Schatmeyer. Left: A slipcover quilted by Joanna Pessa. Below: Bonnie Crumpack with a needle-art picture of a Colorado scene. Right: A needlepoint fireplace screen by Roberta Dore of Richmond.

Photographs by Harry Naltchayan The Washington Post; Picture 6, Frank Miller with his needlepoint chair seats.; Pictures 7 and 8, The Carter White House in needlepoint by the Congressional Club, above, and a fancy needlework pocketbook by Adelaide Bolte. Photos by Harry Naltchayan -- The Washington Post; Picture 9, "Great Grandmother Smith and Friends" by Jacqueline Snyders from the "Needle Expressions" show at the Athenaeum in Alexandria. Picture 10, Ann Carr with the quilt made by her students.