They ranged from the simplest of designs to the most delicate of creations. The 25,000 panels that were strung together yesterday to surround much of the city in commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki spoke in 25,000 different voices.

There was panel after panel in The Ribbon decorated only with prints of children's hands and feet, 20th-century versions of the hand prints prehistoric people left on the walls of caves. There were perfectly embroidered scenes of earth and sky, mothers and children, supermarkets and animals, all images of the things that would be most missed after a nuclear war.

There were drawings made by children in day-care centers, panels bright with batik, panels bearing pottery figures and panels bearing stickers of Bambi. There was a panel with a pattern of white thread, lines and Xs and circles, on green cloth: New York Jets running back Freeman McNeil's favorite play. There was a panel made up completely of socks. There were woven banners and silk-screened banners and banners on what looked like bed sheets.

And there was the rectangle of white muslin cluttered with words in black felt pen sent to Washington by a junior high school girl who knew very well what she would miss.

"Rob Lowe," the banner said. "Prince. Adam Ant. Madonna. Boy George. Pierce Brosnan. Stephanie Zimbalist. Lee Majors."

"There were many that were made by fabric artists," said Marianne Philbin of the Peace Museum in Chicago, "but the vast majority are by individuals who were moved to participate because of the strength of their feelings and the strength of their need to speak out. If that's not the source of powerful art, I don't know what is."

David Kay was typical of many Ribbon contributors.

"I haven't sewed much," the man from Ithaca, N.Y., said as he stood in front of the Pentagon, "except for camping gear, and one pair of shorts which I don't wear in public."

But with gray cotton, brown velour, a few strands of yarn to serve as strings, and some advice from his wife, he stitched up a three-foot banner of his acoustic bass and hung his creation, like some gigantic musical bib, from his neck.

"My wife just gave me this acoustic bass for Christmas," Kay said into a microphone in front of a crowd. "I want to learn to play it before something terrible happens."

For several hours, the rectangles of cloth seemed to be everywhere, drooping out of back pockets, serving as impromptu capes, shielding heads from the sun, blanketing legs resting under trees. Faces, words, photographs, collages -- they stretched on and on.

"This is Mark, and this is David," said Judy Russell of Rochester, N.Y., pointing to the two photographs of her children attached to the blue banner she carried across her chest.

"This is our family," said her friend Carol Root, also of Rochester, who wore a similar panel with pictures of her two children. "This is it."

"This one is newly registered for the draft," Russell said, pointing to David. "When he was born, it was during the Vietnam War. I rather trusted what I was hearing in the news, that what we were doing was right. But when he was a boy baby, I thought how I would feel if he were drafted. That's really when I started thinking about my feelings about war, about young men dying in old men's wars."

One woman, from what a friend described as a "nonsexist, nonviolent" community in Virginia, created a soft sculpture of members of the cooperative group, floppy bodies in blue jeans and T-shirts, felt feet flapping in the soft breeze.

"This is me here," said Todd Burks, pointing to a soft face encased in horn-rim glasses and beard. "These are my shoes too," he said, and stuck out his sneakers from behind the sculpture as verification.

Ann Fussell held a banner showing 11 purple, silhouetted figures hand in hand, dancing across a blue and green quilted landscape. Friends had sewn the panel in memory of her mother, Peg Fussell, who died of cancer several months ago.

"She was supposed to work on a segment," said Fussell. "She never got around to it. She was always a procrastinator. I just think it's really beautiful. I was down at the Cathedral yesterday. Just seeing that and thinking my mother would have been here -- I started crying. She was a peacemaker."

That much of The Ribbon was composed of antiwar slogans, song lyrics, Bible verses, rather than images of what would be missed, didn't seem to bother anyone. On the panels that did follow the original idea for The Ribbon there was much love expressed for grand, natural things: the sky, the sea. But some members of The Ribbon chose to be absolutely concrete and absolutely mundane.

"A lot of things have happened in the last year of my life," said Ellen Perry of Manhattan, "and the fox trot was one of the things that really kept me going."

And so next to the words "The Fox Trot," embroidered in letters suggestive of Art Deco, a graceful couple swathed in gold-flecked dress and purple tuxedo glides across an invisible dance floor.

The Peace Museum, which sponsors exhibits relating to questions of war and peace, has chosen 350 panels to be part of its permanent collection. The selection process began with the museum asking each state's Ribbon coordinator to select 25 panels.

"Not necessarily the best by strictly esthetic standards," said Philbin, "but those that were most powerful and most representative of what participants in that state created. As soon as a person sees even a single panel, let alone 100, much less 5,000, the effect of it is so apparent. I've never heard anyone suggest that it wasn't a powerful work of art."

Many of the panels were made by people who were nowhere near Washington yesterday and would never see the thin line of cloth stretched from the Pentagon to the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument to the Capitol. Their banners, some signed, some with only the name of a home town, some with no identifying mark at all, were carried by strangers.

Alma Yeomans of Arlington was carrying a blue towel covered with flowered applique's and a tiny, faintly stained baby's T-shirt that she had picked up from one of the huge piles of cloth. Even if the banner was not hers, and she only knew that its maker came from Vermont, the picture she held seemed appropriate. "I have a brand-new baby granddaughter," she said. "This is in honor of Emily Yeomans of Albuquerque.

"It is definitely a wonderful one," she said, touching the T-shirt. "You can see where it's stretched from putting it on the baby. This one you don't have to think about what the woman had in mind. It was her child."