It has to be one of the gentlest antiwar protests ever conceived.

No banners, no bullhorns, not even any speeches. Just people, perhaps thousands of them, armed only with colorful swatches of needlework, encircling the Pentagon, the Capitol, the Ellipse, on the first Sunday in August.

At a given signal, the demonstrators will tie their lovingly crafted panels together into continuous ribbons around the citadels of power, two days before the 40th anniversary of the detonation of the world's first nuclear bomb, as a statement that people yearn for peace.

In a bare, rented house off Arlington's Wilson Boulevard where a handful of volunteers are trying to put together the logistics of "The Ribbon," Justine Merritt talked about how an idea that came to her in a religious retreat three years ago has taken shape, far beyond her wildest dreams.

"I literally was praying, and it occurred to me to tie a ribbon around the Pentagon, just like I tie a string around my finger to remember something. This would be a gentle reminder to the people in power that we love the earth and we love the people."

The 61-year-old former schoolteacher, mother of five and grandmother of seven squirmed and offered a faintly apologetic smile -- "I don't go around talking about my prayers a lot."

She had never been involved in the peace movement. "I was one of those people who said, 'Don't talk to me about nuclear destruction, don't talk to me about nuclear war. I don't want to hear it,' " she said.

But she was not without a social conscience. In 1969, when police killed two Black Panthers in their Chicago apartment, she quit her teaching job in a Chicago suburb in protest, "thinking we were headed for formal genocide," she said.

"I always wondered what the good German women were doing when they came for the Jews," she said.

As she sat "in that terrible week in December, making fruitcake, sending Christmas cards, grading papers . . . I decided they had probably done the same thing."

Her original goal for The Ribbon was to solicit enough 18- by 36-inch panels to wrap around the Pentagon.

Each panel would reflect, in whatever medium its creator chose, the theme of "what I cannot bear to think of as lost forever in a nuclear war."

Without a high-powered promotional campaign or even a ready-made organization to push it, the idea took off.

Instead of the 1,700 pieces Merritt had initially figured it would take when she went to the library to look up the Pentagon's dimensions and found its circumference was one mile, there there are more than 10 times that many completed, with more coming in every day.

They have come from Catholic convents and Ethical Humanist Societies, from senior citizens and third graders, from antiwar groups and VFW auxiliaries. "I spoke at the Fishkill N.Y. Correctional Institution and 15 of the men made panels," said Merritt, adding that "many have come from women in prison."

Every state in the Union is represented -- "Twice as many panels came from Kansas as from Massachusetts. That's kind of fun for the East Coast to understand," said Merritt, who lives in Denver.

Panels are done in embroidery, needlepoint, petit point, applique, quilting, photo-montage, silk-screen, batik, patchwork, weaving, tapestry, decoupage and painting.

Many of the panels contributed for The Ribbon would bring hundreds of dollars in exclusive shops. But equally moving are pieces such as the contribution of a Cub Scout pack from Clinton, Miss. -- eight muddy hand prints smudged onto the muslin, each signed boldly with a yellow Magic Marker.

While a few of the panels are preachy, with doom-and-gloom portrayals of war's results, most answer the theme question with colorful and joyous interpretations of what is most valued.

"They are simply translating the statistics" -- scientists' projections of the havoc a nuclear cataclysm would create -- "into the loss of real people, real things," Merritt said.

Children, nature and music are the themes most commonly portrayed, she said.

A dentist and his dental hygienist from Providence, R.I., contributed a panel with eight bright smiles.

A third grade girl from Abingdon (Pa.) Friends School had half a dozen answers to the theme question. " . . . My sister, coming into my room and saying, 'Jen, are you awake?' " she wrote neatly on the lines penciled onto her panel. "My days as a little kid . . . . My mom waking me up on my birthday." She concludes: "I know this sounds silly but I would miss Effie, my stuffed cat."

Many are movingly personal. Elaine Shelton of Denver used pieces from the faded jeans, shirt and armbands she wore in the antiwar protests of the 1960s for an artful montage proclaiming "Peace."

A New York couple placed an ad for old socks in a religious peace journal and worked the dozens of responses into their panel.

Contributors were invited to include a written statement, which is attached to the back of the panels.

Some are short and pithy, some long explanations of the symbolism of the panel and the life experiences that inspired it.

Some of these statements will be read on Aug. 4 at the various staging areas in lieu of speeches.

Katherine Dohner of Park Forest, Ill., whose intricately worked pink-and-blue panel and message is devoted to "My Unborn Child," explains she is participating in The Ribbon in the hope "that another child does not die by hunger or man's war on the day you are born."

Ellen Sarkisian of Cambridge, Mass., said that while she had no aptitude for "speaking, writing, or organizing" for peace, "when I read about The Ribbon I said to myself, 'I will sew.' "

Estelle Torpy of Rockville explains the symbolism in the patchwork scene on her panel.

"The number on the hot air balloon was my husband Dan's race car number . . . . The clouds are from my baby-sitter's prom dress and an angel costume of my mother's. The oldest piece is from the headpiece I wore at my best friend's wedding . . . . "

When the tens of thousands of panels that symbolize so many yearnings are tied together on Aug. 4, "our hope is that it will change things . . . that the three symbols, the military, the political and the personal, would be linked," said Merritt.

She is fond of quoting Eisenhower: " 'I think that people want peace so much that one of these days governments' -- and he said governments, plural -- 'had better get out of the way and let them have it.' "

She believes that The Ribbon, "because it is nonconfrontive," will enable politicians to say, " 'We misjudged the grass roots.'

"I think that if the leadership has the opportunity to see all the symbols -- birds, trees, family trees, football fields, wrapped around the Pentagon, it enables a change of heart and that's what's going to be required to save the planet."

Pieces of The Ribbon will be on display at a number of churches in the area.

Churches in Southwest Washington have scheduled a peace vigil centering on The Ribbon from 12:30 to 2:30 p.m. tomorrow, beginning at Riverside Baptist, Seventh Street and Maine Avenue SW.

The vigil will visit four other Southwest religious institutions where segments of The Ribbon will be on display during the afternoon: St. Augustine's Episcopal/Temple Micah, 600 M St. SW; Westminster Presbyterian, 400 I St. SW; Christ United Methodist, 900 Fourth St. SW, and St. Dominic Roman Catholic, 630 E St. SW.

Other segments of The Ribbon are on display at the Washington Cathedral where they will be dedicated at a special service at 4 p.m. Aug. 3.

The service will include readings on peace from a variety of religious traditions. Justine Merritt will speak.