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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.