''Quilters,'' at the Jack Lawrence Theatre, is a lovely show - part oral history, part personal reminiscence, part narrated, and part sung. It celebrates the 19th-century American pioneer women who combined practicality and beauty in comforters artfully pieced together from fragments of fabric - calico and denim and the like. Working from a book by Patricia Cooper and Norma Bradley Allen, collaborators Molly Newman and Barbara Damashek pay tribute to the women whose needles and threads and sense of design created a folk art of which they were not even aware.
''Makin' quilts was just like opening my mouth to talk,'' says one of these many quoted quilters. ''I couldn't help it. I just couldn't do anything else.''
''Quilters'' begins with the arrival onstage of Lenka Peterson, the sustaining mother figure of the occasion, accompanied by the five actresses who portray her daughters, as well as many incidental characters along the way. Five side-stage musicians complete the family gathering and perform the score, composed by Miss Damashek or drawn from traditional sources. The result is a rich tapestry of musical expression and human incident.
Referring to the odds and ends that provide the quilters' raw material, Miss Peterson explains, ''We are going to put these pieces together block by block.'' The blocks blend individual experiences from childhood and adult life, individual and community crises, hardships and perils encountered, occasions for joy and for mourning.
Schoolchildren retreat to a storm shelter to escape the ravages of a twister. The whole town turns out to fight a raging fire (one of designer Ursula Belden and lighting designer Allen Lee Hughes's most vivid effects). The company teams up to build a log cabin and to simulate the liberating delights of a windmill, set to charming music by Miss Damashek. ''Pieces of Lives,'' the opening number, is reprised as the authors artfully piece together the real-life stories that constitute their flowing narrative.
''Quilters'' commemorates the comic as well as the tragic side of Western pioneer life - courtships, weddings, pregnancies, meetings and partings. There is the wife who learns carpentry skills from her husband. And there is the husband quilter who assists his wife and says: ''I only do the quilting. She's the artist. She's the one that makes the light shine.'' There is even a rebellious anti-quilting brat who gets so fed up with the quilts of her sister, Sunbonnet Sue, that she devises a revenge.
What makes the light shine in ''Quilters'' is not merely its prevailing lyric quality but the genuine admiration and affection it displays for the sturdy and spunky women pioneers who inspired this tribute. Sarah's daughters are splendidly acted, sung, and danced by Evalyncq Baron, Marjorie Berman, Alma Cuervo, Lynn Lobban, Rosemary McNamara, and Jennifer Parsons. ''Quilters'' is a theatrical work that can be truly described - with no condescension - as both entertaining and educational.