You might think bedding is straightforward, but when you start throwing in coverlets, duvet covers, bolsters, Euro pillows, and valances, things can get complicated—fast. So we’re here to clarify one especially beguiling component of your bed setup: pillow shams. A sham, at its most basic definition, is simply a decorative pillowcase. So how are these different than other pillows, and how do you use them correctly? Turns out there's quite a bit more to shams than meets the eye.
The History of Shams
The use of shams date back to the 18th century, when people started manufacturing “false front” covers for their bed pillows in order to spruce them up as bedding decoration. So the term “sham” in the bedding world is drawn from the word “sham,” which, per Merriam-Webster, means “a trick that deludes” or a hoax; though shams are not insidious in any way, they are a bit of a ruse in that they transform a traditional bed pillow into a decorative one that’s more akin to a throw pillow.
Pro tip: Cover an old pillow that you don’t love to sleep on anymore with a sham to give it a new lease on life!
How Are Shams Different Than Pillowcases?
While pillowcases and shams are both bed pillow coverings, pillowcases are typically made of the same material as flat sheets, and they’re designed to be slept on. Shams, on the other hand, are made from more decorative materials; they’re to be used primarily for display rather than practical use, though you can use them as support if you’re sitting in your bed during the day. (And if you really wanted to sleep on a pillow covered with a sham, you absolutely could! They are often washable, given that they’re removable.)
Now down to the nitty gritty: Pillowcases and shams differ in form, too. Pillowcases are typically open on one end, while shams usually have an opening on the back. It’s a subtle difference, but a key one!
How Are Shams Different Than Throw Pillows?
Though shams and throw pillows are both used as bedding embellishments, shams are technically the decorative covering that goes over a pillow, and a throw pillow is actually a pillow itself, usually without any removable covering. Shams are also designed to cover traditional bed pillow sizes—that is, standard, queen, king, and Euro (a square pillow)—while throw pillows are typically much smaller, either small squares, like the ones you might find paired with a sofa, or rectangular like lumbar pillows.
How Do I Use Shams to Style My Bed?
Shams are often sold in sets with bedspreads (be they quilts, comforters, duvets, or any other type of blanket-like bedding), so many people go with a matchy-matchy look. But you can buy shams individually, too, which gives you much more creative flexibility.
“They can be a great way to tie together the palette, connecting larger color elements, or introducing texture,” says designer Dana Wolter. “I love to use a Belgian linen as a custom sham. It holds up well and adds a beautiful texture to the bed.”
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