The 18th Annual Needlework Exhibit at Woodlawn Plantation is open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. through March 29. Admission is $3.50 for adults and $1.75 for children. Woodlawn Plantation is at Rte. 1 and Mount Vernon Highway, west of Mount Vernon.

In colonial days, or so we are told, women carried their spindles and wool everywhere and would stop to chat and gossip, working their spindles as a remedy against idleness. It made for friendlier times, and a lot of thread.

What necessity nurtured, affluence cultivated: Witness our headlong return to needlecraft, the leisure-class version of the homespun task. And if you though it took a lot of gossip to make a colonial dress, you ought to see what can be produced in a town like Washington, where gossip is an industry.

The place to check this out is Woodlawn Plantation, home of Martha Washington's granddaughter Nellie Custis, just down the road from Mount Vernon.

Through March 29, the plantation's 18th Annual Needlework Exhibit shows off 1,500 needle and thread efforts -- everything from little girls' samplers to queen-sized quilts, needlepoint monopoly boards to soft sculptures, key chains to miniature furniture, hand-smocked christening gowns to quilted vests. c

The entries, divided into 51 categories, are mostly by amateurs, although a few works are from professionals like syndicated needlework columnist Erica Wilson and celebrities like Barbara (mrs. George) Bush.

Men's entries are in a class and room all by themselves, though their careful stitchery differs little from their separate-but-equal female competitors. Perhaps the show's organizers intended this bit of reverse chauvinism to demonstrate how men take to these demanding arts -- and how they succeed.

Family themes show up again and again, with family trees in evidence everywhere, in needlepoint, quilts and embroidery.

But the most endearing items are the family keepsakes, handstitched evidence of one generation's love for the next. One of the most impressive is from Jytte Hambric, who entered the dress her grandmother made for her mother's trousseau in Denmark -- an example of smocking and embroidery that has to be seen to be believed.