Long a loving-hands effort intended to induce sweet dreams, the quilt is becoming an urgent art medium designed to wake up the nation. In the last six years membership in the American Quilter's Society has risen from 1,000 to 70,000, and quilters who once stitched panels of pin-wheeling geometries or bonneted maidens are taking up needle and thread to speak out on nuclear war, racism and, notably, the AIDS crisis. Benefiting from new techniques like fabric lithography and hung on walls like tapestries, quilts are proving remarkably effective as vehicles for advocacy. Notes PENNY SISTO, 47, an Indiana artist whose recent subjects include Tiananmen Square: "A quilt is so soft and comforting that when you look at it, your barriers go down automatically, and the message gets right in."

These bold new designs actually renew a tradition dating back at least to the mid-1800s, when quilters unburdened themselves on abolition and the Union. "The quilter has always been a mirror of her society," says Robert Bishop, director of New York's Museum of American Folk Art.

Now, as in the past, women often sew in a group on one large or several individual works. "In the quilting process, people release emotional strain," notes Bishop.

The quilting movement is itself a kind of quilt. Environmental "Green quilts" are being popularized by artist-activists such as Ohio's SUSAN SHIE. Collectors are snapping up black-history quilts by slaves' descendants who confront the tragedies of the past. The nuclear accident at Chernobyl has found its way into arresting works by BARBARA CAROW, whose hangings sell for $2,000 at Boston's Society of Arts and Crafts. Soft-tech twits high-tech in PCB Bop, by New Yorker ROBIN SCHWALB. A colorful trompe l'oeil blowup of a printed circuit board, it is both alluring and faintly menacing.