SOUTHERN quilters have turned Atlanta into a patchwork paradise for the Summer Olympics. More than 2,000 of them have stitched together coverlets to give to the 197 countries participating in the centennial Games. Their colorful handiwork is now on display in an exhibit at the Atlanta History Center.
While members of the Georgia Quilt Project barely make up a thimbleful of the nation's 15.5 million quilters, this small but industrious group turned out more than 400 quilts. Men, women, and children from across the state, eager to be part of the South's first Olympics, devoted countless hours to cutting, piecing, and stitching fabric for the project.
All quilters had to be a past or present resident of Georgia or a member of a state guild. One woman from the Bahamas joined a guild just so she could participate.
Anita Weinraub, chairwoman of the project, first proposed making quilts as gifts in 1992. Ms. Weinraub, a longtime Olympic fan and a veteran quilter, says, ''Giving quilts as gifts has been a long-standing Southern tradition. Making and giving these quilts is a wonderful way for us to share our heritage with the world.''
Countries participating in the Games traditionally receive a welcome bag, miniature mascot, or souvenir medal from the host country. Olympic spokeswoman Laurie Olsen says, ''This is the first time anything like this has ever been done.''
After all the handiwork was completed, a lottery was held to determine which country would receive which quilt. The quilts will be presented to the Chef de Mission of each National Olympic Committee and the flag bearers at the official welcome ceremony.
The exhibit includes many traditional patterns - Log Cabin, Trip Around the World, Stars, Nine-Patch Sampler - popular with pioneer women. But those early homemakers wouldn't recognize the bold variations and original patterns incorporating Atlanta's gleaming high-rises and trim, toned athletes. Quilters were asked not to use Olympic symbols, namely the official torch or rings in their designs.
Each one of the 54-by-70-in. quilts is different, and each has a story. Some stories are almost as complex as the patterns and designs. And many quilts include personal messages.
A group of quilters from a small community outside Atlanta created a white-and-peach-colored quilt showcasing the cotton boll, which represents the fiber used by contributors and Georgia's textile industry. On the back of their quilt, they included a welcome: ''We extend the hand of friendship and wish you well.''
While some contributors were finger-calloused experts who regularly gather for old-fashioned quilting bees, others took up a needle just for this project. Working one day a week all year, 16 preschoolers put together a nine-piece sampler in browns and reds. A Girl Scout troop stitched together a friendship quilt in the Girl Scout colors, and each girl signed her name in a yellow band.
Longtime quilter Carolyn Kyle says, ''Grannies still quilt, but we have more young people involved [in the project] than we do grannies.'' In fact, Kyle's grandson-in-law drew 11 images of Olympic sports on his computer, so she could include female as well as male athletes in her design. Done in the Olympic colors and titled ''Golden Dreams,'' her quilt will be given to Billy Payne, chief executive officer of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games.
As in the early days of quiltmaking, for some contributors the project was a communal activity. Jewel Edwards, a retired teacher, collected fabric scraps from members of her church to put together a variation on the old Flying Geese pattern. She says, ''Most of the women in my church sew, and when they heard I was making a quilt, they wanted to get involved, too.''
The project also offered some contributors an opportunity to depict the history of Georgia and the history of the Games. A retired computer programmer appliqued one of the state's old covered bridges and Atlanta's infamous ''Spaghetti Junction,'' the intersection of Interstate 85 and Interstate 285, in ''Then and Now.'' The corners of her quilt show the ancient Olympic stadium in Greece and the new stadium in Atlanta.
For other contributors, the project provided a showcase for their artistic abilities. One quilter turned a muslin tablecloth she'd spray-painted for her son's bar mitzvah into a coverlet. Embossed with gold thread and titled ''Olympic Stars,'' her quilt silhouettes a volleyball player spiking a globe through a starry sky.
A graphic artist created a stylized phoenix, the symbol of Atlanta, emerging from flames set against the city's skyline. Her quilt will be given to International Olympic Committee President Juan Antonio Samaranch, and will hang in the Olympic Museum in Lausanne, Switzerland.
Inspired by the success of their collaboration, members of the Georgia Quilt Project are now making 120 quilts for countries participating in the 1996 Paralympics (Olympics for athletes with disabilities), which will be held August 16-25.