What Is A Pillow Sham?

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If you are a novice at bed-making and wondering “what is a pillow sham”, we’re going to go over ways to add layers of comfort and personal style to your bed. Textiles play a huge role in achieving an Instagram-worthy bed by adding textures, patterns, color and softness to areas that you occupy the most.

What Is A Pillow Sham?

A pillow sham is a decorative cover that is placed over a bed pillow. It is not, however, the same thing as a pillowcase. Pillow shams are far more sophisticated and complicated than that.

Everywhere you look, pillow shams are a staple of bedroom decor. Once you know the types, ways to use them and the thought process   behind choosing the right one, the way you make your bed will change drastically.

History Of The Pillow Sham

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A sham, or pillow sham, actually comes from the well-known word sham meaning fake or covered up. Pillow shams cover pillows, but unlike basic pillow cases, they are not meant to be slept on. They are meant to make an ordinary pillow look decorative. This does not make it a throw pillow; a pillow used only for decoration.

You can remove the sham from the pillow and replace it with a traditional pillowcase to use the pillow. Shams have a hidden opening in the back with an overlapping closure, a zipper or buttons. Regular pillow cases have a side opening that doesn’t close. Pillow sham styles can change depending on the trends. They can be finished on the edges with a flange, fringe, cording, tassels or a simple edge. If you want a clean look, opt for the simple knife edge.

When To Use A Pillow Sham

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Now that we’ve addressed the question “what is a pillow sham”, we can address when to use them. The most common reason people choose to use a pillow sham is when they want to dress up a standard bed pillow. Standard pillows can be relatively inexpensive, under $, and a sham can turn them into an elegant flourish.

Although you could get away with sleeping on a sham like a regular pillow case, these cases are typically removed from the bed or placed behind the pillowcase-covered pillow. Most shams can be washed in your washing machine, but some require dry cleaning.

Pillow Sham Sizes

Shams come in four basic sizes. It’s no coincidence that they correspond with pillow sizes. Keep these dimensions handy when choosing shams for your bed:

  • A standard sham fits a standard pillow, 20 x26 inches
  • A queen sham fits a queen-sized pillow, 20 x 30 inches
  • A king sham fits a king-sized pillow, 20 x 36 inches
  • A european sham (euro sham) fits a pillow of 26 x 26 inches

These are the commonly found sizes, but there are also custom pillow shams out there that fit decorative pillows and lumbar pillows.

How To Arrange Pillow Shams

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What is a pillow sham without a strategy to arrange it beautifully on your bed? There’s no need to spend a lot of time figuring out what pillow goes where. Decorating experts have established arrangements that are pleasing to the eye. All you have to decide is which ones you like best. We encourage you to try all of them. The results may surprise you.

Stacked Pillows

This pillow arrangement might appeal to you if you are a no-frills kind of bed maker. It’s the simplest arrangement that takes the least time to do. That’s why it’s a popular choice. If you only have a few minutes to make your bed, but still want a picture-perfect looking bed, this is your choice.

Begin arranging the pillows by laying the pillows you sleep on (in normal pillowcases) flat on the mattress. Point the pillow case openings, or cuffs, toward the edge of the bed. Next, stack shammed pillows on top of the sleeping pillows. If this is just too basic for you, you can lean 1-3 decorative pillows against your stacked pillows. This step is optional.

Layered Pillows

This pillow arrangement might be your choice if you want piles of style and variety in the look of your bed. Think magazine photos and posh hotels. This is a showroom bed that uses pillows of varied sizes, textures, fabrics, and colors. The arrangement is symmetrical and a showstopper, but it takes more time to arrange and more pillows.

Begin arranging the pillows by leaning the sleeping pillows against the wall or headboard. The cuffs of the pillowcases should align with the edge of the bed. Next lean several euro size pillows in shams in a row over the standard pillows. The euro pillows can overlap or sit next to each other.

Then place two king-sized or standard pillows in shams in front of the euro pillows. Lastly, add decorative throw pillows such as a bolsters or boudoirs. You can use as many pillows or as few as you want. If you aren’t sure how to match colors, patterns and textures, we’ll get to that in a moment.

Asymmetrical Pillow Arrangement

If you don’t like structure but still want to have a cozy bed, you can let your creativity show with this pillow sham arrangement. As the name says, you would use large and small pillows on one side of the bed. They don’t have to be the same on both sides, but they should be similar in colors and patterns.

Pillow Sham Colors

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Now that your question of what is a pillow sham has been answered, you may be asking, how do I choose the colors of my shams? Of course the colors depend on your personal preferences and current bedroom decor. But you can go beyond your current situation and make your bed a seasonal sensation.

You can use different colors for each season. Think about earthy and orange colors for fall, rich reds and greens for winter, and brights and pastels for warmer months. Look at your current bedding for inspiration. If you have a monotone bed, then you have a blank slate. Look for colors and patterns that compliment your bedding.

Tips For Getting The Most From Your Pillow Shams

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Use feather inserts instead of polyfiber or synthetic filled ones in your shams. Feather filled inserts last longer and fill out the corners of your shams better. Feathers don’t bunch, and the inserts are comparably priced to polyester filled ones. Fill your sham properly and it will look great. You may be tempted to hid your old pillows in a pillow sham, but don’t do it. Using a flattened, worn out pillow will not fill the sham, and it will look sad. Sad is not a word that should come to mind when you look at your bed.

Euro shams give you height and visual interest. They also provide great support when you want to watch TV or read in bed. Use 2-3 euro shams on a queen bed and use 3-4 on a king.

Mixing Pattern, Texture And Color

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Pillow Sham Colors

Color is the first element that needs to be established. You can create a color story by using three colors from your room. Even if your bedding is white, look to the art on the walls, the rug, curtains or knick-knacks. If your room lacks any color and you aren’t set on a color, these are classic color combinations that always look great.

  • Navy blue, pink, deep red
  • Gray, blush pink, amethyst purple
  • Black, white, red
  • Light blue, white, dark brown
  • Bright pink, orange and white
  • Grey, taupe and cream

Pillow Sham Patterns‚Äč

Patterns can also be mixed and matched. Choose one large pattern that will serve as your focal point. It should have all three of your colors. Then, the secondary patterns can contain one or two of your chosen colors. These patterns go well together:

  • Floral, geometric, solid
  • Buffalo check, ticking stripe, toile
  • Dotted, chevron, knit (texture)

There are also three categories of pattern scales, and you should make sure you have a small, medium and large version of your pattern. A small print looks like a solid from a distance. Your lead pattern will most likely be the large-scale pattern.

We’ve gone way beyond answering what is a pillow sham. There is much more to it than simply covering pillows! But there are a few more things to know:

Related Questions

How Many Pillow Shams Do I Need?

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The short answer: It depends. How do you plan to arrange them, and how many pillows do you prefer? At minimum, you should have two standard, queen or king sized shams. If you want a great looking queen bed, you’ll need three euro shams, 2, standard or queen-sized shams and a few throw pillows.

How Often Should I Wash My Shams?

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You can wash them as needed or on a schedule, say every 1-2 weeks. The pillow shams can be washed with your other bedding, unless otherwise indicated.


Pillow shams are a great and simple way to bring elegance to your bedroom without spending a fortune. Now that you know what they are, why not find some pillow shams that reflect your style and will elevate your bedroom look?