It all began when Justine Merritt, a 61-year-old Denver grandmother, decided to personalize her fears about nuclear war by embroidering a panel with the names of those she would hate to lose. A few friends joined her, portraying loved objects, people, ideas and the natural world. Then a call went out to all the 50 states and the idea spread to countries throughout the world.

Now, three years later, more than 17,000 embroidered, quilted, stitched, batiked, pieced, knitted, woven and painted panels of "The Ribbon" have reached the Center for New Creation in Arlington. Tied end to end, their length is 10 miles. All of them, based on the theme "What I cannot bear to think of as lost forever in a nuclear war," will be unfurled in a five-hour walking demonstration Aug. 4, the Sunday before the 40th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. Thousands of participants will circle the Capitol, the White House and the Pentagon with three lengths of "The Ribbon."

The low-keyed demonstration will extend the hours of quiet handiwork and contemplation that went into the creation of these "works of heart," in Merritt's words. More than 150 representative panels from each state, selected either for their messages or their artistry, will hang from pillars of the Washington National Cathedral through Aug. 3, the date of a memorial service in which 3,000 ribbon segments will be held up by participants.

The personal statements encompass all of creation. An intricately embroidered panel from Hedgeville, W. Va., glorifies the state's mountains, trees and deep hollows on silk and denim. An applique' panel from Minnesota sports calico wildflowers and mushrooms, its design capturing the woodland lushness, its fabric selections perfect suggestions of lady's slipper, trillium, iris and lily of the valley. A quilted piece from Iowa depicts a child near a pump, barns, silos and embroidered barbed wire.

"Think of all that creativeness out there in little towns, kitchens and dining rooms," Merritt says as she holds up panel after panel. "Most of these people don't consider themselves artists. They say, 'I embroider,' or 'I'm a quilter.' "

No segments of "The Ribbon" will be returned to their makers, some of whom have obviously spent tens of hours on their creation. "The idea of relinquishing a work of art symbolizes that all will be lost," Merritt says. Elaine Jaffe, a Silver Spring artist who has created a panel using resist and fabric dye to portray rocks, sun and birds in a bright blue sky, says, "It's like a donation that you might give in money. It's my contribution."

On a panel from members of an Audubon Society in South Dakota are John Muir's words: "When we tug at a single thing in nature, we find it attached to the rest of the world." A panel from a Minnesota woman reads: "I dream of giving birth to a child who will ask 'Mother, what was war?' "

Thousands have responded with panels representing children and their growth -- handprints outlined in stitchery, photos encased in calico frames, locks of hair tied with ribbons. One reproduces a door jamb, the dates and heights of each child written in stitches.

"I think something powerful has happened," Merritt says, "because for the first time frightened people have had a creative task, not just a letter to the editor." And the need to choose a theme, she says, has heightened their sensitivity to what is loved. "You say, 'This elephant is wonderful. This moment when I take my children to the zoo is wonderful.' "

Because it is not confrontational, liberals, conservatives, church groups, families and individuals have found "The Ribbon" an acceptable form of expression, Merritt explains. "I think the politicians will say, 'Well, I guess we misjudged the grass roots,' " she says. "And the ripples are awesome. Now the work begins." Panels will be returned to their states for display, and a select 500 will go to the Chicago Peace Museum.