What is a Pillow Sham?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

The word sham means something that is false, and a pillow sham is a false decorative pillow. It lends the illusion that you have purchased specially decorated pillows instead of just covering a standard bed pillow with a pillow sham. Unlike the typical pillowcase, the pillow sham is often open in the middle of the back, with slightly overlapped fabric. Typically, you insert one side of the pillow into the pillow sham, and then insert the other side of the pillow into the opposite side of the sham. The overlapping fabric in the back covers the pillow completely, and by having pillow insertion in the middle instead of on one side like a pillowcase, the pillow sham allows for a uniform design around the four edges of the pillow.

A patterned pillow sham over a pillow.
A patterned pillow sham over a pillow.

Pillow shams are often sold as part of comforter sets, and may either be of the same fabric that makes a comforter or quilt, or may be a different contrasting fabric that works well with the rest of the bedding. Because they turn regular pillows into “decorative pillows,” people don’t usually sleep directly on pillows covered by a pillow sham. Instead these may be placed behind pillows with pillowcases when one is sleeping, or they may simply be removed from the bed. When making a bed, pillow sham covered pillows often are placed in front of pillows in pillowcases.

Pillow shams are traditionally used to turn regular pillows into decor pieces.
Pillow shams are traditionally used to turn regular pillows into decor pieces.

The benefits to using a pillow sham is that it adds decoration to the bed, but is more useful than specially purchased decorative pillows. Often pillow shams are washable, while decorative pillows usually don’t always feature washable covers. Elaborate pillow shams may require hand washing or dry cleaning.

Shams are typically washable, while decorative pillows might not be.
Shams are typically washable, while decorative pillows might not be.

Additionally, unlike a decorative pillow, you can replace the pillow if it gets worn, without having to search for another decorative pillow that matches your bed. The pillow sham cover will remain the same, but a new, more comfortable pillow, as long as it is the same size as your old pillow, can be purchased. This is definitely a convenient feature of the pillow sham, because comforter and sheet styles may no longer be available in the design you own.

Pillow shams might help accent other pieces of furniture.
Pillow shams might help accent other pieces of furniture.

If you do need to replace a pillow sham, these can be purchased separately from comforter sets. You can often find them in simple colors and in a variety of fabrics which will still match or contrast well with other bedding. Alternately, if you have solid colored bedding you can find shams with various designs that can increase the decorative appeal of your bed.

Pillow sham fabrics vary considerably and may affect price. High quality, high thread count cotton shams can cost a great deal. One can also find pillow shams with lace overlay, made of faux fur, or in silk, linen, and satin. Often the pillow sham has ruffles around the edges, but modern designs may forgo this.

Elaborate pillow shams may require hand washing.
Elaborate pillow shams may require hand washing.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments


I don't get it. More junk to make the bed when you don't have time to do it anyway.

Same thing with dust ruffles. You have to pick up the whole mattress to change the sheets?

What was wrong with old time bedspreads that came to the floor? You pulled them up, tucked them under the pillows and voila - made bed.

You can still find them in a few places but they are very expensive.

It's amazing that there is less time to do everything and someone comes up with a way to take longer to make a bed.


@wavy58 – It's always nice to have homemade things. My kids have pillow shams made by their aunt, and since they were monogrammed with their names, they are special to them.

My kids like to sleep with their heads propped up on two pillows, so they put the pillow shams under their regular pillows for extra support. I normally don't sleep like this, but if I am having problems with allergies or sinus drainage, I've found that it helps, so I do keep some pillow shams in my closet for times like these.


I have some beautiful imitation silk pillow shams that I only recently discovered were removable. They came in a set with a big gold comforter with golden braids around the edges, and they were like miniature versions of it.

A friend gave the set to me, and she had already stuffed the shams with pillows, so I didn't think to check the back. I just thought they were decorative pillows!

I was amazed to find the slit in the back when I finally turned them over one day. I washed them on the delicate cycle, because they had been on the pillows for two years!


Some regular pillowcases are made like shams. I have some dark blue and light blue striped pillowcases that look identical to cotton pillow shams, but they are intended for regular use.

They are washable, and I don't even have to use the gentle cycle. They make my pillows look more fancy, but the material is soft and comfortable.

I didn't know that they were designed like shams when I bought the sheet set. I wonder if it's possible to buy cotton shams like this separately?


My grandmother made me a quilt with pillow shams to match. These were the only quilted pillow shams I have ever seen, so they are very special.

I am just amazed that she took the time to make shams! Most people would have stopped at the quilt, so this is above and beyond!


I bought a 'bed in a bag' set which included a sheet set with a matching comforter, dust ruffle and king pillow shams. I would not have gone out and bought the pillow shams separately, and have never used them. I didn't have the extra money to buy two extra king size pillows, so the pillow shams currently sit on a shelf in my linen closet.


@anon169859 -- You might try spraying the ruffle with some starch and ironing it to make the ruffle on the pillow sham stand up.

I have some pretty floral pillow shams on my bed which match the comforter I have, but they don't have ruffles around them. I like using pillow shams because they are pretty inexpensive and you can just throw them in the washing machine.

If you buy a nice decorative pillow, the only way you can clean it is by spot cleaning it. I don't feel like this ever gets anything as clean as I would like it to be.


@myharley -- I keep lots of pillows and pillow shams on my guest bed. When my elderly uncle came to stay with me recently, he didn't know what to do with all the pillows on the bed. I think he felt kind of bad about just throwing them on the floor. When he asked me what he should do with them, I told him just to put them on the floor!


@anon143439 -- I usually end up putting the pillow shams on the floor. While I love the look of a made bed with lots of pillows on it, it does become somewhat of a chore keeping it that way everyday.

I find myself getting lazy, and many days don't even put the pillow shams on the bed. I figure at the end of the day, they are just going to be back on the floor anyway.

It does kind of seem like a waste if they are just going to be on the floor most of the time, but they still look nice when you go to the effort to keep there where they belong.


I can't get ruffle on a pillow sham to stand up. Anybody with any suggestions?


when i look at bedding ads the ruffle on the pillow sham is always standing up. mine won't. how do i get the ruffle to stand up?


Then where do you put them when it is time to go to bed?


Shams allow pillows to set atop the bedspread or comforter without being exposed to dust, pollen or other airborne particles during the course of the day.


Excellent post (if a bit wordy). Still unanswered: why? It all just seems silly to me. Maybe it's a male/female thing? But I do appreciate the advice to put the fancy pillow behind the real one when sleeping. Still seems like a waste. Oh, well.


Pillow shams are typically designed for the size bedset you purchased. If you bought a California king set, your shams should be for King Pillows. Best advice is to read the size description on the back. Best of luck!


what do you stuff the pillow sham with as they are larger than, say a king size pillow?

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