Adelaide Bolte is an Army brat born and bred who, at 80, can work a jawbone every bit as fast as she can draw a service revolver.

Sure, a lot of handshaking as the wife of Charles L. Bolte, a four-star Army general, retired, got her a case of brusitis that forced her to quit tennis. Now she swims three times a day, raises mastiff dogs, talks quicker than an M16 and thinks women should be drafted along with everyone else.

The bursitis didn't stop her needleworking either, an acitivty to which she has been devoted since before graph paper, almost. She finds a few moments each week for her needlepoint passions, such as her work at Woodlawn Plantion in Mount Vernon, Va., and at St. Luke's Epsicopal Church in Alexandria.

An oriental rugs.

"I'm crazy for oriental rugs," she says. "It's the one thing I'd cut my best friend's throat for."

A rug on the mansion's first floor is the one she was married on nearly 60 years ago. She since made a gift of it to the masion, a property of the National Trust for Histroic Preservation.

Bolte was 63 when she thought of a new way to raise funds for the plantation. The idea was a needlework exhibit, which seemed appropriate enough. The former lady of the house, Nelly Custis Lewis, Martha Washington's granddaughter, had spent a number of years in the early 1800s working needle and thread herself.

Bolte convinced 68 exhibitors that first year. They sent a man around to collect the work. And that was the beginning of the annual Woodlawn Needlework Exhibit, expected this year to draw in excess of 13,000 visitors through March 30. For $2.50, or $1.25 for children, they will see approximately 2,000 pieces, more than ever before, by an assorted 500 competing craftsmen and exhibiting profesionals from a few dozen states and a couple foreign countries.

"I think," says Adelaide Bolte, "we've created a little Frankenstein."

If Bolte and Margaret Davis, who has run the show for nine years, created a monster, it is a benevolent one. It is also one of the biggest of its kind in the country, feeding on the enthusiasm radiated by a seemingly limitless variety of craftsmen, young, old, professional and amateur.

They stream through the French doors off the mansion's dining room, lugging quilts, canvases, chairs, pillows and anything that can take a needle through it. Always with a smile. "You know I sat down in there the other day at 9 in the morning to tag all those entries," says Davis, "and I didn't get out of the chair until 5 in the afternoon."

And still they keep coming.

No doubt one of the reasons behind needlework's popularity is its accessibility. Unlike many crafts, it requires few and relatively inexpensive materials. No blow torches, kilns, power saws or electric potter's wheels. Some manual dexterity and patience help. And while originality is something to boast of, there's nothing wrong with following someone else's instructions. Designs abound, as do books, magazines and regular newspaper columns.

Diversity is one of the show's drawing cards, diversity reflected by the works themselves and by the cross section of society behind them.

Every year, says Davis, a couple of psychiatrists enter. "They find that during sessions it relaxes them as well as their patients." The rendering of the Coronado Hotel in San Diego, after a design by Peter Ash, was done by antique restorer Tom Jennings of McLean, Va. A pair of Victorian side chairs, elegantly embroidered in floral patterns to represent the four seasons, represents nearly three years of work by Charles Crowder, chairman of the performing arts department at American University. A whole category, in fact, is devoted to works by men.

Some celebrities are regulars in the show. Julie Nixon Eisenhower, who exhibited a pillow last year, was the first to send in her entry this year. an Joan Mondale submitted a needlepoint pillow from the vice president's residence. It was made by Amada Mackenzie of Washington, D.C., and represents Andy Warhol's version of the Campbell's soup can. "Pinky" Matheson, a.k.a. Mrs. Malcolm Matheson Jr., spent nearly 10 years completing a needlework chair in the show.

Other exhibits are expected from Hope Hanley, Erica Wilson, Elsa Williams and the Royal School of Needlework in London. Many more, however, are made by children, handicapped persons and groups.

Sara Lienan, an 11-year-old from Independence, Mo., for instance, sent in a canvas piece reprsenting an Oreo cookie. It makes your sweet tooth ache. From a design by Karen Peabody, members of Histroic Occoquan, Inc., in Occoquan, Va., put together a quilt depicting old houses in the village. Margaret Miller, a fifth-grade teacher at the Hollin Hills elementary school in Mount Vernon, had her class make sewn fiber dolls engaged in a tug-of-war game.(Her husband, retired Army Maj. Frank Miller, last year entered two needlepoint chairs seats).

A rug offered in the show's benefit drawing was assembled by Bolte and several members of Nellie's Needlers, the plantation's affiliate needlepoint organization. The group is also working on the seats of 24 Chippendale chairs, which they donated for the mansion's Underwood room.

Craftsmanship continues to improve, show after show, and over the years Davis has seen all manner of needlepoint techniques employing an almost endless variety of materials. In the late '60s, reflecting the country's mood and art of the times, the exhibit included funky needlework: lots of feathers, beads, even cellophane. Today's work is turning toward traditions. Still, each year there is invariably something different from the rest, something splashy, something colorful and, perhaps, a little crazy.

One of last year's strangest entries wa a cape by Gary Chatmeyer of Berlin, Germany, that turned the wearer into a birdlike creature complete with optional beak. Schatmeyer is back, this time with a large table cloth of plush, Victorian green velour. The centerpiece is a circle formed by two long serpents devouring one another.

"I don't know if I want to touch it," said Davis.

Dobie Erlenborn's applique quilt of vibrant green is sewn in a series of geometric patterns, like a giant Parcheesi game. Erlenborn, the wife of U.S. Rep. John N. Erlenborn (R-Ill.), fashioned it after a doodle by Rep. Barber B. Conable (R.N.Y.). She calls it "Ways and Means" because the doodle wase done "during a meeting of the Ways and Means Committee on which he serves and is ranking minority member." w

Peggy Wormington, a housewife from Vienna, Va., entered a sewn jacket. The collar, which flaps over in a star shape front and back, is stitchery of the most intricate kind, like poetry of gold and silver threads.

This year entrants will be judged in more than 40 categories, including a new one for "most unusual" in the show. The judges are Needleplay columnist Erica Wilson, New York designer Vladimir Kagan, Hope Hanley, Lawrence Kane, Carter houck, Doris Bowman and Adelaide Bolte, All entries will be on display through March 23. The last week of the show is devoted to ribbon winners, work by notables and special exhibits.

"People have called this the World Series of Needlepoint," says Margaret Davis with a smile the size of Virginia. "I think we've moved into the Olympic category."