AT A QUILT SHOW, you expect to see colorful scraps of material sewn into patchwork, likely by little old ladies in a church basement.

But "The Artist & the Quilt" at the Textile Museum creates a new wrinkle in quilts. The 20 quilts on display here are collaborative efforts between artists, who invented the design, and quilters, who executed it in cloth.

The show expands horizons: There is apparently no limit to what can be said on a quilt.

Painter Charlotte Robinson and two other artists conceived of the show in 1975, as a celebration of the International Year of the Woman. Although the show took longer than expected to piece together, its purpose was always the same: to raise quilt consciousness.

Says Robinson, "Anything that's utilitarian has always been devalued. But what's wrong with rethinking the litany and talking about quilts as fine art?"

The quilts in this show cover a range of artistic possibilities -- from folk art to pop art, from surrealism to polemicism.

Little of the original artwork accompanying the quilts could stand alone. One that could, a painting by Alice Neel of her granddaughter, "Olivia in Blue Hat," the owners wouldn't part with. For the portrait quilt based on it, Chris Wolf Edmonds softly sculpted the granddaughter's muscles from cloth. Abstractions in her stomach bear no relation to anatomy, but that's part of the delight. Portrait quilts could easily replace vanity plates for self-promotion.

Repeating patterns are traditional in quilts -- stars, for example. But here's a quilt, "Echoes of Harlem," covered with Andy Warhol-like faces. And another repeats, with six silkscreens in six different colors, an Isabel Bishop painting of people walking.

The painting that Charlotte Robinson did, an abstraction of a river, presented a challenge for both the artist and her quilter, Bonnie Persinger: to achieve the softness of water in cloth, a medium hard-edged and unyielding.

Another quilt, "Starwort Phenomena," looks like a painting, with trompe l'oeil effects. It's layered with meaning, the arcana of quilters: Reaching from under a blanket, a surrealistic hand holds origami papers with the quilter's star.

A feminist quilt here looks more like a banner than a blanket, with a mystical chart listing the "great goddesses" (including Venus and Mother Goose). A drawing accompanying the quilt describes its central figure: "Woman rising from the water journey, flying her mountain, announcing to the patriarchy, 'Your 5000 years are up!' "

That's the strong version of the feminist message to this show, which is, says Robinson: "The work of our female ancestors shouldn't be dismissed because they were doing it for utilitarian purposes. That's all they were permitted to do. Quilting was one of the few emotional outlets they had."

THE ARTIST & THE QUILT -- At the Textile Museum through March 10. Twenty-eight area galleries are participating in "Threads of a New Idea," a festival celebrating the quilt show. A detailed brochure is available at the Textile Museum, 2320 S Street NW.