As of 1997, the quilt was now over 30 acres long and would cover almost thirty football fields. It presently weighs over 40 tons.

The first name on the quilt was Marvin Feldman, a friend of Cleve Jones, who conceived the idea of the quilt. In 1986, Jones noted that the number of San Franciscans killed by AIDS had passed 1,000. Jones, who had been a protege of San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk, arranged for cards proclaiming the names of the victims to be carried by marchers in that year's candle-light vigil marking the 1976 assassiniation of Milk and San Francisco mayor George Moscone. At the end of the march, the cards were taped to the Federal Building near City Hall. It was that image that inspired Cleve Jones to start the quilt.

He spray painted Feldman's name on the first panel. In 1987, when the quilt was first displayed there were 1,920 panels. As of 1997 there were are over 45,000 panels with over 70,000 names. More than one hundred panels a week arrive at the Names Project in San Francisco.

In 1996 the complete quilt was assembled for the final time on the Washington Mall. It will be too large to be displayed in one place in the future.