How to Fluff a Pillow

The short answer: a sham is a decorative covering that you slip over a pillow—sort of like a pillowcase. But, pillowcases and shams each have a unique purpose. So, read on to learn more about the difference between pillow shams and pillowcases, plus which kind of sham is best for you.

Pillow Shams vs. Pillowcases

At first glance, pillow shams and pillowcases seem pretty similar; they’re both types of pillow covers, and they can both slip onto the same sized pillows. However, you can usually tell pillowcases and shams apart by their design and how they’re used.

Design

One of the easiest ways to tell a pillow sham apart from a pillowcase is the design. Pillowcases are usually one color (for example, a solid white pillowcase), and they have a cuff, or opening, on the side meant for inserting the actual pillow. 

On the other hand, shams have more decorative and complicated designs. Instead of having a visible cuff on the side, shams can have a hidden envelope-like fold on their back side. Some shams avoid folds or cuffs altogether and have a zipper that runs along a side or down the back.

Lastly, while pillowcases are typically a single color and have a smooth or flat texture, shams can feature multiple colors, patterns, raised stitching, and embroidering. 

Purpose

This difference in design between pillowcases and shams has a lot to do with purpose as well. While pillow shams are more visually appealing, they don’t work as well for sleeping. Their complicated designs and stitching can be less durable, less comfortable, and harder to wash than a regular old pillow case. So, it’s more likely you’ll use your sham as a visual piece for your bed, but your more boring pillows for actual sleeping.

Which Should I Use?

Depending on the size of your bed, it may be a good idea to have a mix of pillowcases and shams that match the rest of your bedding. If you have a larger bed especially, skipping the shams can leave your bed looking more empty, but you still want to make sure you’re leaving room for actual pillows. Lastly, if you’re working with a smaller bed size, you’ll be able to get away with fewer shams.

For more specifics, here’s a quick guide on sham, or decorative pillow, count by mattress size:

Mattress SizeNumber of Shams
Twin/Twin XL3–4
Full3–5
Queen5–8
King/California King7–9

If you’re planning for a King size bed, check our full guide on King mattress pillows.

Which Size of Pillow Sham Is Best?

This really depends on your current bed setup. Aside from choosing a design or color pattern for your shams that matches your comfort, other pillows, etc., it’s important to make sure you’re choosing a sham size that also works with your mattress size. This may sound like a lot to keep track of, but the good news is that sham sizes follow pillow sizes exactly. 

For example, if you have a Full-size mattress, then you’ll want to choose Standard-size pillowcases (20” x 26”) and similarly sized shams (20” x 26”). If you have a larger mattress, like a Queen-size mattress, you could also include shams and pillowcase of Queen-size (20” x 30”) or smaller.

Check out our full pillow size guide to learn more.

TLDR; Should I Get a Pillowcase Or a Pillow Sham?

For a complete set of bedding, regardless of your mattress size, you’d ideally want to have both pillowcases and shams. The main difference is that shams are more decorative and ornate, while pillowcases have simpler designs, and they are more easy to wash and sleep on.

Finally, if you’re having trouble telling a sham or pillowcase apart, pillowcases often have an open cuff on the side, while shams hide their opening on the back or have a zipper.