What Is a Pillow Sham?

Among the dizzying variety of terms related to bedding, you might have encountered the term pillow sham. Simply put, a pillow sham is a type of pillow cover used to turn ordinary sleeping pillows into decorative pillows.

Pillow shams (also occasionally referred to as bed shams) can sometimes be included as part of bedding sets along with bedspreads, duvet covers, bed skirts, and so on. Standard pillowcases, on the other hand, are typically sold as part of sheet sets along with fitted sheets and flat sheets.

What is the difference between a pillowcase and a sham?

Despite having a very similar relationship with the pillow, pillowcases and pillow shams are actually two different entities that serve distinct purposes.

Regular pillowcases are typically made of the same material as the sheet set they’re part of. Their primary purpose is to protect the pillow and create a comfortable enough surface to sleep on, so the fabrics they’re made with tend to be thin and plain. Pillowcases aren’t meant for decoration, although some fancier ones might feature embroidery or other embellishments along the edges.

Pillow shams, on the other hand, are essentially decorative pillowcases that are meant to turn normal pillows into additional room flourishes, similar to throw pillows. Unlike regular pillowcases, pillow shams typically open from the back and are bordered by a flange. Shams don’t usually match the sheets but instead are designed to match the bedspread or duvet cover.

Different pillow sham types and sizes

Like pillowcases, pillow shams come in a variety of types and sizes to accommodate any type of pillow and match any room decor. The types and sizes of pillow shams include the standard sham (26″ x 20″), king sham (36″ x 20″), and Euro sham (26″ x 26″).

Consult the below table for a breakdown of the most common pillow sham types and sizes:

Pillow TypeDescriptionPillow Sham TypePillow Sham Size
King-Size PillowKing-size sleeping pillowKing sham20” X 36”
Queen-Size PillowQueen-size sleeping pillowQueen sham20” X 30”
Standard-Size PillowStandard-size sleeping pillowStandard sham20” X 26”
Euro PillowDecorative square pillowEuro sham26” X 26”
Boudoir PillowSmall, decorative rectangular pillowBoudoir sham12” X 16”


Where does the sham go on the bed?

Shams typically stay on your bed together with ordinary pillows. During the day, pillows with shams are usually placed in front of ordinary sleeping pillows for decoration. At night, they’re either placed behind sleeping pillows to provide additional cushioning or removed altogether from the bed.

What is a sham on a bed?

Shams are decorative covers that turn regular sleeping pillows into accent pillows to add to the room decor or to create a specific look. Unlike ordinary pillowcases, bed shams typically match the bedspread and duvet cover and not the sheets underneath.

Can you sleep on a pillow sham?

It’s definitely possible to sleep on a pillow sham (after all, inside it you’ll find a regular comfy pillow)-but you may find pillow shams feel less comfortable than normal pillowcases. It’s also much harder to keep shams clean if you use them for sleeping.

Keep in mind that, unlike normal pillowcases, the fabrics for pillow shams aren’t chosen with comfort and washability in mind. Their primary purpose is decoration. That’s why most people tend to put pillows with shams behind their regular pillows for extra cushion against their headboards. Alternatively, they simply remove them altogether from the bed when it’s time for sleep.

Can you wash a pillow sham?

You can typically wash your pillow sham the same way you wash your bedspread or duvet cover. If the sham has embellishments like embroidery or beading, or if it’s is made of a particularly delicate fabric, you might want to hand wash it. Otherwise, it is usually OK to just throw it in a washing machine. Always check the manufacturer’s care instructions first. (Check out our guide to washing pillows.)

Up your bedding game at Saatva

A pillow sham can be thought of like a fancy cousin of a pillowcase. The two are similar yet serve very different purposes. A pillowcase is designed to protect your pillow and provide a comfy surface to sleep on, while a pillow sham’s primary purpose is to add to your room decor.

One doesn’t replace the other, and while pillow shams are definitely not an essential piece of bedding like sheets or pillowcases, they can greatly contribute to the decor of your bedroom and help create that special sleeping environment designed just for you.

At Saatva, we offer a variety of duvet cover sets that come with pillow shams. These bedding sets are made with high-quality fabrics including cotton and linen and are super-soft, comfortable, and stylish.

Check out our embroidered sateen duvet cover setsateen duvet cover setpercale duvet cover set, and linen duvet cover set to find a duvet cover and pillow shams that are perfect for you and your bedroom.

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