If the "sham" in the term "pillow sham" sounds like some sort of trick or gimmick, that's because this style of pillow cover was actually designed to fool the eye. The sham's opening in the back is designed to go unnoticed, unless the pillow is flipped over, thus making it look as though the pillow fabric is permanently part of the pillow.
What's a Sham, Anyway?
A pillow sham, a type of pillow cover, typically has an opening in the back instead of on the side. The cover stays in place thanks to overlapping fabric, a button or two, or even a zipper. Most of the time, a sham is used for decorative pillows, rather than for the pillows used for sleep. The fabric is typically patterned or a bit more ornate than found on pillowcases; it may also have flanges or decorative elements around the entire perimeter of the pillow. Pillow shams are not sold with sheet sets, but in some cases are part of those "bed in a bag" sets offering comforters and bed skirts. If sold as part of a complete bed set, the shams usually match the comforter or duvet cover. The fabric is also usually a little more stiff or upholstery-like than what's found on a pillowcase, although that's not always the case.
The Pillowcase Difference
The more common pillow cover, the pillowcase, opens on the side. It's usually made from the same material as sheets, often sold as part of a matching sheet set. A pillowcase is designed specifically for the pillows used for sleeping and is sold in typical bed-pillow sized. Pillow shams, on the other hand, are available in a wide array of sizes, including shapes for oversized square pillows, sometimes called Euro sham pillows.
Pillow Sham Care
Read the care tag on the inside flap of the pillow sham to determine the best way to clean it, as instructions can vary greatly depending upon the materials or the decorative elements attached to the fabric. If possible, read the package before purchase to ensure you get a product that you can wash at home, if that's important to you. If unsure how to clean it, hand-wash the sham in cool water with a detergent designed for colorful delicates. If the sham is ornate or seems like it may fall apart or distort when washed, consult a dry cleaner instead. To keep that sham looking great as long as possible, don't sleep on it, as hair and body oils may discolor the fabric.
Pairing Shams and Pillowcases
To give your bed a comfy, luxurious look, prop up several large decorative pillows covered in shams against the headboard. Rest the bed pillows up in front of those, covered in cases that look good against the decorative pillows. Mix patterns and solids if you like. The decorative pillows in back are also great for propping yourself up as you read or watch TV in bed. Use the bed pillows behind your back as well, for added comfort.