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What Is a Sham? Bedding Guide from Parachute

bed made with euro shams
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Parachute Team
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There are several pieces of bedding you need to make the perfect bed. But it's totally understandable to be a tad confused about the names of each item and their exact purpose.

So, what is a pillow sham? Further, what's the difference between a sham and a regular pillowcase — do you need both?

Find answers to these questions below, along with insight into the different types of shams, tips for buying a sham, and how it fits in with all the other essential bed linens.

What Is a Sham?

A sham is a type of pillow covering that's more decorative than functional. The opening is typically in the back (also known as envelope closure) to ensure the insert is entirely hidden. Sham-covered pillows are usually placed in front of regular pillows so they're visible when looking at the bed.

Sham vs. Pillowcase

The main purpose of a pillowcase is to protect your bed pillow (the one you actually sleep with at night) from dirt, stains, and dust. While some pillow inserts are washable, they can be tricky to clean, but you can remove the pillowcase and wash it at any time.

Pillow shams, on the other hand, are primarily decorative. Though there are no official rules, they're supposed to go over a second set of pillows you don't sleep with but use when making the bed.

Sham literally means "false front." Taking on the literal sense in the context of bed linens, a sham is essentially a more visually pleasing pillowcase.

Not sure which options to use for your space? See our Pillowcase and Sham Guide for pointers.

Sham vs Other Bedding

Here's everything you need when making and layering your bed.


The pillow sham is often the same color and fabric as the duvet cover. It goes over a pillow placed in front of your regular bed pillow.


The pillowcase goes over your bed pillow — the one you sleep with.

Fitted Sheet

With stretchy sides and pocketed corners, the fitted sheet goes over your mattress.

Top Sheet

As the name suggests, the top sheet goes on top of the fitted sheet. While not everyone uses one, the idea is that you sleep in between the fitted and top sheet.

What Is a Top Sheet? Do You Actually Need One? Read our article for answers.

Duvet and Duvet Cover

Sometimes called a comforter, the duvet is your main bed cover. It's technically an insert that goes inside a removable, washable duvet cover.

Throw Blanket

You can finish your bed with a throw blanket to add warmth, texture, a pop of color, and aesthetic appeal.

Types of Shams

There are two main types of shams. The first is a bed sham, which covers regular, rectangular-shaped bed pillows. (You can use the same type of pillow you sleep with or opt for something fluffier if you want a more voluminous look for your sham-covered pillows.)

The second type of sham is a Euro sham, which is designed to go over a square-shaped Euro pillow. More on this below.

What Is a Euro Sham?

A Euro sham is a European-style pillow sham. It's shaped like a square and usually measures 26 x 26 inches to cover square-shaped Euro pillows. Though some people use Euro shams to prop themselves up while reading or watching TV in bed, the main purpose is for decoration. You can place them on chairs and sofas as well.

What Are Euro Shams and Euro Pillows? Read our blog for insight into sizes, materials, and more.

How to Choose the Right Pillow Sham

The first thing to look for when shopping for a sham is the size. Like regular pillowcases, you'll want to make sure the sham is the proper size to cover your pillows. You can typically choose from king or standard, the latter of which fits both standard and queen-sized bed pillows. And as noted, you can also get a square-shaped sham to go over a Euro pillow.

Shams come in various fabrics. Some of the best options include linen, percale, brushed cotton, sateen, organic cotton, cloud cotton, air cotton, matelasse, and linea. Lots of folks get shams to match their duvet cover, and there's a wide range of colors and textures to choose from.

Frequently Asked Questions About Shams

Find answers to frequently asked questions about pillow shams below.

What is a sham vs. pillowcase?

Shams and pillowcases are both removable, washable enclosures that go over bed pillows. However, a standard pillowcase is more functional, as it goes over the bed pillows you actually sleep with. Sham-covered pillows are placed in front of your bed pillows and are mostly used for aesthetic purposes.

See our guide on How to Wash and Properly Care for Bedding for laundering tips.

Are shams just for decoration?

Generally speaking, yes, the primary purpose of shams is for decorative appeal. Unlike regular pillowcases, the opening is hidden in the back to create a more presentable, seamless look when making the bed.

Are shams meant to be slept on?

Generally speaking, no, shams are not meant to be slept on. They're supposed to cover a second set of pillows you place in front of your regular pillows when making the bed to create a fuller, layered appearance.

Do you put a pillowcase under a sham?

You don't need to put a pillowcase underneath a sham. Since you're probably not sleeping with your decorative sham-covered pillows, the single layer of fabric should be enough to protect the insert. Pillowcases are supposed to go over the pillows you sleep with at night.

High-Quality Bedding Essentials From Parachute

Ready to revamp your sleeping situation? You'll find all the best bedding essentials and layering pieces here. Parachute carries high-quality, naturally sourced bed pillows, pillowcases, shams, sheets, duvets, duvet covers, throws, and Euro pillows.

If you need more guidance, a seasoned design consultant from Parachute is ready to assist. They can help with selecting fabrics, choosing colors, furniture layouts, decorative accents, and more. Schedule your free virtual consultation today!

Read Next:

How Often to Replace Sheets, Pillows, and Other Bed Linens

How to Organize Your Linen Closet

Guide to Quilts, Blankets, and Coverlets: A Modern Take on Traditional Covers

Bed Sheet Color Trends for 2022

How to Style Throw Pillows Like a Designer