"All of these were art expressions, all lost, none of them taken seriously, none of them recorded," says Washington-area painter Charlotte Robinson.

She is talking about her grandmother's forgotten accomplishments: serious writing, organizing a book club for the women in her county, entering pressed-flower pictures in all the county fairs, establishing the first ladies' room in the local courthouse -- after she'd seen mothers sitting in wagons nursing their babies.

Robinson and two New York artists, Dorothy Gillespie and the late Alice Baber, discussed finding a way to honor their female forebears during the Year of the Woman, 1975. "The quilt seemed the really logical way to do it," says Robinson, "because that was one of the few things that people seemed to hold onto."

Traditional quilt patterns -- Log Cabin, Blazing Star, Rose of Sharon, Baby Blocks -- seem to evoke a response in the soul. The abstract, ordered patterns are an expression of female artistic energy, and the carefully saved, selected, snipped and stitched pieces of fabric represent the beauty women wrought out of their lives -- created from day-to-day fragments.

Quilts long remained second-class citizens in the world of fine art -- they were a lowly "bedcovering," something to keep you warm and comfort you, not meant to make headlines or strong political statements. But as women have changed, so have quilts. They have acquired an importance as record, as document, as art expression and, most recently, as art object.

The museum show that put quilts on the map was the Whitney Museum of Art's "Abstract Designs in American Quilts," a 1971 exhibit organized by quilt collector Jonathan Holstein and painter-printmaker Gail van der Hoof. Robinson heard Holstein speak about the quilts at the Textile Museum. "He had just returned from Paris," she says, "where he said these quilts had caused such a tremendous stir in the art community because they were so much like op art."

Quilts were now out of hope chests and hanging on the walls of major American art museums. Other quilt shows followed, including "Baltimore Album Quilts, 1843-1852," shown at the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

"The Artist and the Quilt," a traveling exhibition midway through its three-year tour of 17 museums, opens today at the Textile Museum (and continues until March 10). This project, coordinated by Robinson, also asks us to consider quilts as fine art. But these quilts are contemporary. "There's something very threatening about a woman just living and producing a quilt and people calling it fine art," says Robinson. "Somehow those quilts that have withstood the ravages of time have more of a chance of being taken seriously."

The project took more than seven years to complete, and involved 18 artists and 16 quilt makers in creating 20 quilts. Annapolis quilter Bonnie Persinger, a computer company manager by day, had the difficult task of translating a soft-edged painting by Robinson into what is a typically hard-edged medium. To resolve the dilemma, she invented a new form of machine embroidery that imitated the gradations of color in Robinson's watery evocation, "The Blue Nile."

The show raises the question: Was this image really improved by turning it into a quilt? "We felt that the quilts we were involved with all benefited from becoming quilts," says Robinson. "The designs benefited enormously. They were expanded and explored." The original artist's images included finished paintings, sculptures, collages, drawings and works in progress.

Money, or rather the lack of it, beleaguered the project. "I really did close it up a couple of times," says Robinson. "Somehow or other we always managed to pull ourselves together and continue. In retrospect, I'm glad we did." But, she continues, "It's amazing how projects like this can hang by a hair."

The exhibition's soft-cover catalogue, "The Artist and the Quilt" (Knopf, $12.95), is a provocative and thorough documentation of the collaborative effort. Philip Morris Inc. has purchased the entire collection of quilts, which will go on display in its new corporate headquarters in midtown Manhattan.

From the time she started work on this project 10 years ago, Robinson wanted two things: "some kind of document that would say we did this, and to keep this collection together. Because 100 years from now, this would have some meaning."

An area-wide quilt festival -- workshops, panels and quilt-related shows by 28 local galleries -- is being held in conjunction with the exhibition. Among the events is a panel discussion on "The Great Needlework Debate: Ten Years With the Artist and the Quilt," at the Washington Project for the Arts, Sunday, 2:30 p.m. (347-4813).