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Contemporary textile practice in Australia

One way to appreciate the unique qualities of contemporary textiles in Australia is to look through the loop, at some of the fine detail and multiple layers of textiles that are part of professional studio practice and an arts and crafts tradition.

Elisa Markes-Young, The Strange Quiet of Things Misplaced no 37, 2011, detail textile-mixed media 7 panels, photographer Christopher Young, courtesy 1st Tamworth Textile Triennial, 2011

A glimpse into the practice of contemporary textiles can be had by looking at the works of textile artists in recent residences, exhibitions and design fairs as well as how textile designers contribute to the manufacturing process of textile production.

Textiles have been with us since almost the beginning of human time for warmth, decoration and as accessories. Some of the techniques for making textiles remain part of that long craft tradition. The techniques used by textile artists vary: they weave, crochet, knot, coil, twine, braid, knit, spin, felt, stitch, as well as print and dye.

Some of the most common organic materials are cotton, hemp, flax for linen, jute, silk, leather and wool; the mainstays of modern Australian fashion textiles.  Australian Indigenous plant materials used in textiles include: kurrajong, banyan and pandanus fibres that make soft strong flexible string that can be woven into fibres.

In contemporary textiles today in Australia the use of materials is changing. Organic materials are mixed with other media. New materials and new technologies (as well as old) are used to create textiles that can be interactive and responsive. Textiles are being woven with computer driven methods as well as with wood, fungi, bamboo, LED light tubing and recycled plastic.  Computer chips incorporated into textiles help create interactive and high performance textiles, which have developed as smart fashions.

Lucy Irvine, The Traveller, 2011, irrigation pipe, cable ties, steel, rust proof paint, Image courtesy Wangaratta Art Gallery and 1st Tamworth Textile Triennial, 2011

The speed at which technologies are developing is in contrast with the sometimes long gestation period for ideas in textile design.  For textile artists it can mean a balancing act between technologies directing the development of their work on the one hand and, having the time to explore complex conceptual ideas, on the other.

The combination of new technologies is sometimes combined with more labour intensive techniques, by necessity or choice, to create textiles that express the know-how, ideas, memory and processes of the textile artist.

The overall effect of this mix of technologies, materials and the gradual conceptual development of a unique textile design has created some innovate techniques and some startling results by Australian textile artists.  Whether as clothing, accessories or decoration, contemporary textiles have taken on new sculptural forms.

In Australia, as in many other textile importing countries, textile practice challenges and is challenged by, production processes which have to confront issues of environmental sustainability and ethical supply chains. The designs, the choice of materials, the manufacturing process and the patterns of consumption by the consumer will affect the future volume of landfill from textiles, as well as the enduring practice of the textile artist in Australia.

Textiles and structural technology

The influence of Sturt Weaving Workshop and European weavers

Solvig Baas Becking, Untitled, Directions in Fibre Exhibition 1976, courtesy of Craft Australia 1010018

Sturt, a national centre of Australian contemporary craft and design, has run weaving and spinning classes for professional practice since 1941 at Mittagong in New South Wales (NSW).  The Weaving workshop was set up in 1951 by Erika Gretschel (later Semler), who arrived in Australia as a refugee from Germany. Amongst other projects, she worked with Sydney designer, Marion Hall Best, to make upholstery and curtain fabrics.

Elisabeth Nagel arrived at Sturt in 1959 as a master weaver from Germany. Nagel's skill as a weaver greatly influenced weaving as a public art form in Australia from the 1960s. Amongst other commissions, Nagel wove 100 yards of upholstery fabric for the new National Library in 1967.

In 1971 Nagel invited Winifred Hilliard who ran Ernabella Arts and Crafts near Alice Springs, and three Pitjantjatjara women, Yipati Kuyata, Nyukana Baker and Yayimpi, to Sturt for five months. This later influenced the development of contemporary Indigenous textile production centres including Ernabella Arts – the longest continually run Aboriginal art centre in Australia who produce weaving, batik and screen printing),

Marcella Hempel, travel rug, wool, c 1960, courtesy of the Powerhouse Museum

A steady stream of highly trained weavers from Europe maintained a strong presence of professional weaving practice in Australia for half a century after the end of the Second World War, as part of the changing face of Australia. Solvig Baas Becking (1928-2011) was trained as a production weaver at Ekeby on the Norwegian border, knowing every part of the loom and design process in terms of structure. She developed her complex skills of weaving construction in Australia and arrived at a design process out of the technique and form of the weave.

Along with Semler, Nagle and Baas Becking, other European weavers arrived. Marcella Hempel, a graduate of the Berlin College of Textiles and Fashion in industrial design and a master weaver, arrived in Australia in 1954. Ann Berney from Hungary and Jutta Feddersen (Poland), whose 10-metre-long woven wall hanging of raw jute, sisal and spun jute hung in the Sydney Opera House for 30 years, came from Europe to work at the Sturt Weaving Workshop.  They were all influenced by Anni Albers, the renowned weaver from the Bauhaus in Germany, in 1944. Albers had a belief in materiality and process:

We often look for the underlying meaning of things while the thing itself is the meaning.

Erika Semler, textile piece, c 1960, courtesy of the Powerhouse Museum

In Australia, this philosophy contributed to a body of work from weavers who adopted 'this inventive care for repetitive structure and process, where the pattern unit takes meaning from the scale'.  In 1977, Baas Becking stressed the essential fusion of practical elements in constructing a fabric.

The difficult problems are the fundamental problems - simplicity stands at the end, not at the beginning of a work...Get to the core of what you want to express and keep trimming and pruning all that is not essential to the design...Each design element must serve a definite purpose in the whole concept.. if it does not make sense in the overall design ...it should not be there.
Solvig Baas Becking, 'Weaving', Craft Australia, 1977/1, pp.32-35 in Diana Wood Conroy, Solvig Baas Becking - A sense of infinite order, Craft Australia, May 2011

This school of weaving around Sturt, highly technically skilled and deliberating on the know-how, ideas, memory and processes of the weaver to arrive at a design, has influenced textile practice and subsequent generations of textile artists in Australia. For example, one of Marcella Hempel's students, Paul Harvey designed the interior colours and fabric in both Houses of Parliament.

Lise Frølund – Weaving light at Sturt with a digital jacquard loom

Lise Frølund, Business Tie for Females, Sturt Gallery, Mittagong, 2010, courtesy Lise Frølund

Textile artist Lise Frølund, who lives and works in Denmark and Australia, described the connections between traditional weaving and new possibilities at the Sturt weaving workshop:

Sturt is like a time warp: past and future. Here there are tools, knowledge and proficiencies which we all needed in the past to produce our own utensils and clothes.…the weaver´s workshop was crammed with looms, warping mills, swifts, bobbin winders, shuttles and many more things – all the tools needed. Pots and gas cookers for dyeing were also available, and there were cupboards full of yarns and pigments.
Lise Frølund, Woven Light - A journey in time and space, Tale of adventure, Craft Australia, March 2011.

For Frølund, the attraction in weaving lies in the use of contemporary tools, digital and new materials, as well as technological opportunities like her digital jacquard loom. At the same time, Sturt offered Frølund the opportunity to spend weeks experimenting with all kinds of materials - silk, reflective, copper, silver, translucent, paper, wood, LED light tubing, sea grass, wool, and over spun yarns, to create new kinds of weaves, even without her digital jacquard loom.

Frølund's experience demonstrates how there are a great many modern tools to which artists, craftsmen and designers are attracted, need to know about and have access to, in order to be able to steer themselves towards the future

Second Glance - commercial knitting and hand stitching

Alana Clifton–Cunningham, Second Glance, 2011 wool, nylon, leather, image by Lou Farina, courtesy 1st Tamworth Textile Triennial, 2011

At the 2011 Tamworth Textile Triennial, one of the twenty two finalists chosen for exhibition was Alana Clifton-Cunningham, whose work Second Glance made from wool, nylon and leather, was done in collaboration with Sydney based commercial knitting company Calcoup Knitwear Australia.

The work, Second Glance comprised two pieces of fabric, the first showing a three-dimensional surface patterning created through combining stocking and reverse stocking stitch structures.  The second piece was another representation of the first piece, but was been formed through jacquard knit patterning. It adopted tonal variations of colour that gave the illusion of three-dimensionality.

Machine and hand stitching techniques were incorporated with Clifton-Cunningham using Calcoups Shima-Seiki digital knitting machine. (Alana Clifton-Cunningham  in Tamworth Regional Gallery, Sensorial Loop, 1st Tamworth Textile Triennial 2011, 2011, p, 10.)

Notions of slow making in the computerised age

In presenting a range of machine and hand tooled pieces as contemporary, textile practice has to be fresh and unique.  The 1st Tamworth Textile Triennial, 2011 suggests that where digital technology is used, such as in printing, computerised machine knitting and jacquard weaving, the qualities of craftsmanship and the uniqueness of materials necessarily have to remain apparent.

Jennifer Robertson – loom and computer

Jennifer Robertson, The Making of a Slow Journey, 2011, Australian merino wool and silk , courtesy 1st Tamworth Textile Triennial, 2011

In her work, The Making of a Slow Journey (2011), Jennifer Robertson visually explores the ephemeral nature of weaving, reflecting upon the time it takes to weave a cloth and repeat its patterns. Robertson has created a soft cloth, of wool and silk, that has

endearing human qualities, engaging nuances, subtleties, and incidental effects such as slight variations causing undulating, tessellating changes that are found in nature
Jennifer Robertson in Tamworth Regional Gallery, Sensorial Loop, 1st Tamworth Textile Triennial 2011, 2011, p. 25.

Yet, Robertson works on a unique purpose-built computerised and semi-automated loom, built with funding from the Australia Council for the Arts.  The loom has 32 shafts which allow Robertson, based in Canberra, to create complex structures, repeated images, different densities, textures, weights and widths for cloths of different purposes. A hand-woven appearance is achieved due to the weft shuttles being inserted by hand which gives rise to variable tensions. (Jennifer Robertson, Craft ACT Portfolio – loom)

Emily Green and Lucy Hall scarves

Emily Green and Lucy Hall scarves at Hut 13, Melbourne, courtesy of Hut 13

In Melbourne, Emily Green, an emerging designer with 'colour credentials', teamed up with Lucy Hall, 'a knit guru'. Green created each design colour palette, and together they worked through each design. Originally the pair intended for Lucy to create every scarf, however a trial run indicated that this process was more labour intensive than they expected.  Instead they sought a local manufacturer where each scarf is machine knitted in Melbourne.  Emily Green and Lucy Hall scarves were launched at Hut 13 in 2012. (Design Files, Melbourne)

The curator of Sensorial Loop, 1st Tamworth Textile Triennial 2011, Patrick Snelling, comments on the textiles created with digital technologies compared to those made with hand-made processes

These technologies are not overt; they camouflage their industrial aesthetic seamlessly with the hand-made pieces of other artists.
Patrick Snelling, 'Curatorial essay', in Tamworth Regional Gallery, Sensorial Loop, 1st Tamworth Textile Triennial 2011.

Hand-made process and international design fairs

A trend of making textiles by hand is also presented today as deliberately connecting to the interaction of textile materials, processes and tools.  At the 1st Tamworth Textile Triennial 2011, the majority of the Tamworth artists created pieces that did not rely upon digital technology but were created using traditional tools and hand-made processes. This is true for many other textile artists.

Liz Williamson – Master Weaver

Liz Williamson, Sac no. 1, 2008 Leather, silk dyed with black henna, polycotton, courtesy Object Gallery

Whilst Liz Williamson might hand weave, she has created innovative techniques to create double cloth; a technique in which two layers of fabric are woven at the same time. 

Williamson seats herself at a pine loom that operates in much the same way as the looms weavers were using before the industrial revolution. She throws the shuttle from hand to hand to interweave the threads before the weft is patted into place, just as weavers have done down the centuries.
Elizabeth Wynhausen, The Face: Liz Williamson, The Australian December 20, 2008.

Williamson is now using her double cloth weaving process to create flexible tubular forms woven in rayon, cotton, silk and leather. Williamson is also exploring weaving 'sacs' or bags, one of the earliest forms of textiles as accessories. The 'sacs' act as containers but can be displayed as sculptural wall objects.

Hand-made - Gaawaa Miyay prints, Cloth and Ink & Spindle textile studio

Lucy Simpson, Barigan fabric print detail, 2010, courtesy of Lucy Simpson

An emerging textile artist who works with hand-made processes is Indigenous designer, Lucy Simpson from NSW.  Simpson introduced her Gaawaa Miyay range of prints, through Cloth, at the Matilda Australian design showcase at the London Design Festival in 2010, and at Design Made Trade fair at the Melbourne Design Festival 2011. In collaboration with Cloth, Gaawaa Miyay prints have entered the national market.

Gaawaa Miyay designs represent a new brand of visual storytelling…. the new design - Burrul Warrambool was created from a Yuwaalaraay story of the Milky Way told to me by my sister.

Simpson records that Burrul Warrambool was actually a print that she began developing in 2010.

Playing with mark making techniques, symbolism, style and imagery and representations takes a while, and finding the perfect combination of these elements to retell the story in my own words can be quite a lengthy process.
Lucy Simpson, 'Gaawaa Miyay textile prints and visual storytelling, A tale of adventure, Craft Australia, August 2011. 

The process for developing a new range of hand screen printing products for the home and body involves some necessary steps: deciding upon the scale, preparing the artwork ready for screen, sampling, selecting the application, establishing and developing the base cloth, as well as choosing the inks and colour way. 

Another independent textile studio based in Melbourne selling to the national market, also using hand printing processes on organic fabrics, is the Ink & Spindle textile studio, run by designers Lara Cameron and Caitlin Klooger.

Textile Design – pattern, image and process

Whatever their materials, the key fundamentals of textile design are pattern, image making and process. Patterns are developed from image making, whether hand-drawing or computerised, and this can be either a very individual or a collaborative response. Process is considered as a technical response, how you get from developing an idea to constructing with textiles.

Michele Elliot, Hemispheres drawn to you, still, 2011 cotton thread, hand-made wooden pin, courtesy 1st Tamworth Textile Triennial, 2011

Michele Elliott – 'pattern is where I begin'

Pattern is a fundamental within all the textile disciplines.  Textile artists create ideas for patterns around the notion of repetition.  Michele Elliott writes of pattern;

Pattern is frequently where I begin, with the repetitive gesture of making.  It is an essential part of my methodology and bound up in the construction process.  In 'hemispheres', pattern is the work, and it emerges out of the work in the making of the loop, in the back and forth, in the rhythmic ordering of restraint and excess.  Through this gradual gathering of gesture and material, the work comes into being,
Michele Elliott in Tamworth Regional Gallery, Sensorial Loop, 1st Tamworth Textile Triennial 2011, 2011, p, 12

Matching patterns with aesthetic, functional and marketing requirements

There are many textile designers who develop fabrics used in furniture, soft furnishings, clothing, vehicles and products such as luggage and personal hand-bags.

Textile designers working towards the commercial production process apply the same skills to the development of patterns for wallpapers, laminates and patterned plastics as they do for bespoke fabrics. At the same time, the fabric design has to satisfy marketing and manufacturing requirements. As trained textile designers, they have to balance aesthetic and functional aspects, they consider the nature of yarn types, thicknesses, weights and textures to produce fabrics to cost and production constraints.

They prepare design concepts and assess them for market viability. They resolve the concepts into artworks and instructions suitable for a variety of fabric production and printing techniques. They develop colour specifications and multiple colourways for ranges of fabrics. They communicate with manufacturing and production personnel to resolve details for manufacture.
Textile Design, Design Institute of Australia

Barbara Rogers, Circles (1, 2 and 3), 2009, silk, courtesy of Barbara Rogers

Barbara Rogers - unique contemporary method for shibori techniques

An established independent textile designer, Barbara Rogers, based in Sydney has developed her interest in patterns, image and process in experimenting with colour and design on soft silks.  Rogers has developed a unique contemporary method, derived from Japanese shibori techniques to create textiles for fashion fabrics, clothing and accessories.  A particular interest of Rogers has been in selective bleaching and dyeing, in building up layers of both colour and design to stunning visual effect.

Kelani Fabric and Vixen Australia – screen printing for international market

Vixen fabrics and cushions by Georgia Chapman, courtesy of Vixen

A range of patterned fabrics showing aesthetic and functional requirements, tested for market, and resolved in their manufacturing can be seen in the Kelani Fabric Australian Designers range in screen printed fabrics for furnishings.  Kelani is based on Diamone Creek Victoria but sells to an international online market.

Vixen Australia by Georgia Chapman is another Australian company based in studio practice that has resolved the textile design process production experience, to offer a large range of textiles for furnishings.

Textiles as multi-disciplinary creative contemporary art

Brook Morgan, Untitled, 2011, Grass, horsehair, silk, cotton thread, image by Lou Farina, courtesy 1st Tamworth Textile Triennial, 2011

Contemporary textile practice today also involves new collaborative, cross-over practitioners who are defining themselves as multi-disciplinary creative artists. In exhibitions such as Make Lace Not War, 2011 and the 1st Tamworth Textile Triennial 2011, there was an even number of non-textile trained artists compared to textile trained artists.

In recent years, other disciplines, such as architects and industrial designers have embraced the materials and techniques of textiles to create buildings, interiors and products that have tactile and empathic qualities. This is not a new idea.

Other disciplines that engage with textile design range from sound engineers to scientists working in nanotechnology. Wearable technologies use sensors, actuators and logic circuits, embedded into traditional weave, knit and non-woven structures to create truly interactive textiles. This development in fashion has been described as 'Smart Fashion'.

Interactive video lace - InterLace

Cecilia Heffer, Interlace 02, 2010, courtesy Cecilia Heffer

InterLace is an example of a collaborative interactive project that took three years to come to fruition.  It is an interactive video lace installation that brings together two artist's approaches to pattern making from different disciplines.  Contemporary textile designer Cecilia Heffer and interactive media artist, Bert Bongers, designed a sensory tactile experience combining the intricacy of lace and interactive video projections. The work transforms lace in a three dimensional virtual environment on a large scale.

Sensors stitched into fragile delicate lace surfaces detect changes in light, and proximity of audience. Echoing the qualities of transparency and strength; the work hints at a history of lace-making, collective women intensely working to create adornments for clothes and furnishings.
Cecilia Heffer, 'Sustainability and the Material Revolution', Craft Australia, March 2011

In looking at the nexus between traditional and contemporary textiles and contemporary art, at the Biennale of Sydney, 2010, Meredith Hughes wrote;

The relevance of textiles in contemporary art to trajectories such as the craft art divide, feminism, philosophies of sustainability or the implications of technology sit in the consistent shadow that is the cultural dimension of cloth.
Meredith Hughes, 'The Global Dimension of Cloth', 'Craft Australia', '13 July 2010.

Love Lacer, 2011 - International Lace Award

Kristina McCaffrey, Flash metal dress, Love Lace, 2010, courtesy of the Powerhouse Museum

Love Lace, part of the Powerhouse Museum's International Lace Award in 2011, included beautifully constructed textiles and exquisite pieces, some featuring the finest of lace techniques including needle and bobbin lace, and some new techniques and all presented with a contemporary twist.

Kristina McAffrey's Flash Metal Dress, described as conceptual fashion, straddling sculpture and fashion, was considered a blueprint.  A floral pattern was cut from the metal which was suspended from a metal coat-hanger 'making it into a strange but beautiful disembodied sheath.
Adam Geczy, 'Syntax of fetish and fashion: Love Lace, Powerhouse Museum Sydney' in Art Monthly Australia, April 2012.

Yet, when hung above the metal pattern flower cut-outs and lit, or when worn as a dress, the flashes of the metal shine like diamonds, suggesting the long-term endurance of textiles in our lives, despite their often ephemeral materials.

Textile sculpture – natural fibres, metals and plastic

Lucy Irvine's work The Traveller (2011), appears to defy the pattern and process of its making.  Despite the modern materials of irrigation pipe, cable ties, steel, paint and post-modern haptic quality, the work was made in tiny increments with each alignment, cable and stitch adjusted and looped by hand. A sharp cutter, a hand tool, gave a clear cut to cable ties, cord and piping; pliers securely fixed the cable ties and pulled them through the weave; and a long cable tied the end, to loop around and pull through the other cable ties. Irvine wrote of her work,

…the work addresses what we perceive as disruption and interruption in the way we live, think and create; seeking greater insight into the perpetual flux in the meta-cycles of our cultural and physical environments.
Lucy Irvine in Sensorial Loop, 1st Tamworth Textile Triennial 2011, 2011, curated by Patrick Snelling, p. 16.

Production processes - sustainable and ethically made textiles

CUE Coat winter 2011, courtesy of Ethical Clothing Australia

The key issues for textile production processes today in Australia are environmental concerns, ethical supply processes and overall sustainability of an industry that has been in slow decline over the last one hundred years. Both Design Victoria and The Council of Textile and Fashion Industries of Australia (CTFIA) believe that a systematic approach to the whole system of textile production is needed in order to address sustainability.

The main environmental impacts for textiles arise from material selection and use in the manufacturing processes due to the mountains of waste that result.  An indication of the environmental issues of accumulating textiles is given in a study in the USA. In the United States,

approximately two-thirds of clothing materials are sent to landfills, making it the fastest growing component of waste for households. Within the last five years, the proportion of disposed textiles represents almost 8% of total waste generated, approximately 12 million tons with an overall recycling rate of 17%, compared to over 55% for paper, albeit with 77% for cardboard boxes, and 63% for steel packaging.
United States Environmental Protection Agency's 2008 Report on Municipal Solid Waste (MSW), Generation, Recycling, and Disposal in the United States.

Hemp Gallery, Australian made hemp and organic cotton, courtesy Hemp Gallery

Whilst the use of organic natural fibres can be useful strategies in reducing environmental impacts, a life-cycle perspective can reveal other issues that also need to be addressed. (Designing sustainable fashion)

An example of an Australian company that is addressing the use of organic natural fibres is the Hemp Gallery in Sydney.  Hemp Gallery manufactures and distributes Australian made hemp and organic cotton bed linen and baby wear as well as wholesaling and retailing high quality hemp and hemp blend fabrics sourced from China, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand.

Supporting ethical supply processes in clothing in Australia is being addressed by both textiles workers and also companies engaged in the marketing of ethically made clothing.  Ethical Clothing Australia (ECA) initiative is a business–union collaboration between the CTFIA and the Textile Clothing and Footwear Union of Australia (TCFUA) as well as major corporate stakeholders such as the companies Pacific Brands and Jets.

Ethical Clothing Australia, Swingtag ethical fashion labelling

Jo Kellock, CEO, CTFIA in 2011, argued that the dominant model of faster, cheaper, easier consumption by importing ninety percent of Australia's clothing items is not sustainable. Kellock believes that this fast model has serious environmental, economic and social consequences for the Australian textile and fashion industries.

Last year Australia purchased one billion units of clothing and ninety percent of this was imported. This happens because it can be delivered faster and cheaper….In the long term, 'churning' out ever increasing ranges, product costs, margins and sales is not sustainable in an environment which has to consider mountains of waste, supply and cost issues for natural resources, ethical [practice] and award payments to workers in the lower end of the supply chain.
Jo Kellock, Textile and Fashion Industries of Australia, 'Sustainability - the future for fashion textiles', interview, Craft Australia, 21 March 2011.

The future – small, 3-D, pop-up and molecular

Esther Paleologos, Framework, 2011, enamelled copper wire, stainless steel, wool yarn and nylon, image by Christopher Sanders, courtesy of 1st Tamworth Textile Triennial, 2011

Whereas previously, the revolutions in textiles required large machines, nowadays, new technologies have reduced the size and footprint of the textile production. Today, some of the machines are small enough to fit on the kitchen table.

Already, we can see solutions to the dilemma of waste and ethical production processes being addressed by the textile studio practice. Can we anticipate that it is most probably the SME (small manufacturing enterprise) that will take us into the future with a model of textile practice requiring a nexus of art, design, craft and technology?

The incredible diversity and ingenuity of Australian textile studio practice suggests some solutions to this dilemma of waste and ethical processes as well as offering us the benefit of textiles we cherish as humans.

Related links

Look, listen and play

Practice

Lucy Simpson, Burrul Warrambool Milky Way print cushion 2, courtesy of Lucy Simpson

Studio textile production

Exhibitions, conferences, galleries and workshops

Lucy Irvine, Continuous interruptions, 2011, Irrigation pipe, cable ties, steel, proof paint, courtesy 1st Tamworth Textile Triennial, 2011

Peak bodies and organisations

Design, manufacturing sources and retail standards

Select textile schools

Reference Articles from Craft Australia

Reference material

Papers of Marcella Hempel, notebooks comprising designs, patterns, descriptions of fabric and fabric and yarn samples; correspondence, financial records, press clippings, lecture notes and photographs of teachers and students weaving, National Library of Australia

Last updated: 24 June 2012
Creators: Kathryn Wells

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