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Pillow Primer: All About Pillow Shapes, Types, and Fillers

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To say life would be hard without pillows would be putting it mildly. Where else would we hide a tooth for the Tooth Fairy? What else would we hit each other with in a harmless fight? Beyond their practical function as a headrest when we sleep and a way to soften hard furniture when we sit, pillows can be a dramatic decorating accent and are among the easiest projects to sew. We have dozens of pillow projects for you to choose from right here at Sew4Home. For this article, we thought we'd pull together everything you need to know before launching into pillow making: a little history, the basic types, and what we recommend stuffing inside.

Above: Lush Fringed PillowsNautical Ahoy! Appliqué Pillow, Bundle of Box Style Floor Cusnions, Long Bolster Pillow Set

A brief history of pillows

As long as humans have laid down to sleep, we've used pillows. Nobody has found a caveman pillow, because soft items don't last for tens of thousands of years. But we do have pillows that have survived from ancient times, from both China and Egypt.

You can go to a museum and see an unwrapped mummy with his head still resting on his original pillow. (We're not showing that here in case you're reading this at lunch.)

What survives better than soft pillows are the ancient depictions of them. Carvings from Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Americas all show royalty seated on cushions. Below is a re-created Roman sitting room.


Wealthy Greeks slept with both their heads and feet resting on ornately embroidered cushions. Ancient Egyptians, who believed the head to be the seat of life, not only spent heavily on lavish pillows for themselves, they also placed them in the tombs of their honored dead. The Chinese thought soft pillows robbed the body of its vitality and therefore made their pillows from wood, leather or even ceramic.

Until the mid-1800s, people slept in a position that was closer to sitting up than lying down. Using a combination of a large bolster pillow and two or three smaller square pillows, the sleeper would prop herself against the bed's headboard. This was thought to be a healthier position for repose

An ancient pillow tradition we still honor today

In Ancient Egypt, pillows were a sign of wealth and prestige and were often used to carry ornamental items, such as precious jewels. The amount of money a family had determined the number of jewel-covered pillows on display. Similarly, the Romans used pillows to present precious items to a bride and groom during a wedding ceremony. A page would be selected to bring in pillows laden with gifts during the ceremony. 

Royal families would present the couple with crowns brought in on a pillow. 

Today, the pillow continues as the traditional way to transport wedding rings down the aisle, usually in the shaky hands of the bride or groom's youngest male relative.


Ring Bearer's Pillow with Woven Ribbons

What are the different types of pillows? 

With all the different shapes, sizes, fabrics, and embellishments, the varieties of pillows are endless. But you can group them into a few basic types.

Toss/Throw Pillow

Above: Easy Ragged Edge Toss Pillows, Prairie Points Pillow, Designer Pillow Knock-Offs Classic Square, Fussy Cut Pillow 

The name says it all. These are small, decorator pillows you can toss onto a chair, a couch, a bed – anywhere you need a splash of color and design. They can be any shape and really any size, although if you go much larger than 24" along one side, you are venturing into the realm of the pillow's slightly bigger cousin, the cushion. The distinguishing trait is how the seam is finished.

Knife edge



Designer Pillow Knock-Off: Nautical Stripes & Grommets

Your basic pillow. The side seams taper into nice, sharp corners.

Box

Bundle of Box Style Floor Cushions

If your pillow has depth and dimension, you have a box-edge pillow, which doesn't always have to be "box shaped" as shown above. Usually the edges are defined with contrasting piping to show off the added dimension.

Flange

Uptown Pillow Trio: 9-Patch and Triangle Squares with Flange Accents

A flange is fabric that extends out from the side seams, usually at least two inches or more. It softens the look of the pillow, and can also be done in a contrasting fabric.

Piped

Hexagon Pillow with Wraparound Cording

Also known as welting, this is a covered cord that is sewn into the seam as a decorative detail. It's like an outline for the pillow. Self-piped means the cord is covered in the exact same fabric as the body of the pillow. Contrasting is just that: a different color, pattern or texture to define the edge.

Embellished 

This covers any heavily decorated pillow. It can include fancy trims around the edges, such as beading and fringes, or dimensional adornments attached to the front of the pillow, like embroidery, beading, tassels, and/or buttons.

Fancy Felt Flower Appliqué Pillow

Cushion

Round Patchwork Floor Cushion with Tufting and Piping

The next step up in size from a basic pillow is the cushion. Giant floor pillows, chair pads, and meditation rounds are all members of the cushion family. They can take any of the shapes described above, but since they are usually meant to be sat upon, be careful about adding too many embellishments to the top of a cushion. Unless you like to see your guests squirm.

Bolster or Roll

Vintage Style Bolsters

Cylindrical, which is a fancy word for tube-shaped, the bolster is a classic pillow type. Bolsters are the manicotti pasta of the pillow world. Adding a bolster shape to any grouping of pillows always adds interest. And, it's fun to decorate the ends with gathers, tassels, buttons, and ties. If you can't find just the right size bolster pillow form, you can make your own by rolling up quilt batting. Roll it snugly and fit it inside your bolster cover, just as you would a pillow form.

Bed Pillow

Romantic Ruffled Pillowcases

Our favorite kind. The one our head crashes into at the end of a long, sewing day. In this case, you're usually better off simply buying the actual pillow insert, but it's super fun to make your own pillowcases. They make great, personalized gifts! Just remember the four basic sizes:

Standard: 19" x 26"

Queen: 19" x 30"

King: 20" x 36"

Euro: 26" x 26"

Body Pillow

Cozy Fleece Body Pillow

A bed pillow on steroids is a body pillow. Lots of people love to hug these while they sleep. They can also be lifesavers for pregnant women when positioned under a growing belly to allow a welcome alternative to flat-on-your-back sleeping. Body pillow forms can be purchased, and you can simply make a giant pillowcase as a cover. Or, you can craft your own body pillow using polyester, wool, cotton or down stuffing, depending on your desired firmness.

Another very popular "shaped resting pillow" is the Nursing or Support Pillow.  

Little Sunshine Support Pillow for Nursing & More

Sham

Ruffle Gingham Shams

Usually this word stands for an impostor or false promise. But, in the home décor world... a pillow sham is a lovely decorative covering for a pillow, often with a deep flanged edge. Pillow shams are a quick and easy way to change out the look of your pillows and update a room for a new season, a holiday celebration, or just because you feel like it.

What to stuff inside your pretty pillow cover

We tell our kids, "It's what's on the inside that counts." It's true for people and with pillows. What you stuff inside helps pillows hold their shape and makes them firm or soft in texture.

A hundred years ago, down feathers were the premium filler for pillows. If you couldn't afford that, you stuffed your pillows with chicken feathers. And if you were really poor, like Laura Ingalls Wilder, you stuffed your pillowcase with straw.

But fifty years ago, pillow makers got an attractive 4th option: a filler that was fluffy, comfortable, and economical. Sam Young, of Farifield Processing Company introduced a new kind of space age fiber that revolutionized stuffing. It was called Poly-Fil®. This innovative polyester fiber that was perfect for stuffing toys. It held its shape. You could wash it. Not only did Poly-Fil® became the favorite filler for crafters everywhere, it soon found its way into millions of pillows.

Choosing the right insert

There isn't a rule for choosing "right" insert. It's a combination of personal preference, how the pillow will be used (eg. inside versus outside), how much you want to spend, and availability. 

In general, we like to use use down insert or a down/polyester blend. This provides that "karate choppable" finish, a pillow you can gently mold and smosh. If "smoshability" is not necessary and you want a firm finish, the polyester pillows are excellent. 

There are other natural options that use rayon fibers in combination with the polyester filler or even bamboo. These inserts have a very soft and silky feel. 

If your pillow will be used outside, consider looking for a water resistant insert. Fairfield offers Weather Soft™ inserts in three sizes, which has a water repellent shell that keeps the inner 100% polyester fiberfill from becoming saturated in wet weather. 

If you need to create a cushion that's a custom size or you need to add foam to help fill out a larger cover, we recommend Fairfield's NU-Foam®. This unique product is a densified polyester that will not yellow or disintegrate, resists mildew, and is washable and non-allergenic. 

Outdoor Chair Cushions with Pom Ties

Picking the right size insert

Elegant Patchwork Pillow Trio

Inserts come in a myriad of standard sizes, but it isn't completely open-ended. Therefore, it's most efficient to make your pillow cover with a standard insert size in mind. However, you can create unique sizes and shapes by using filler or foam products.

And speaking of choosing the size of the pillow form for your project, you want one that's a half inch up to two inches larger than your finished pillow cover. For example, make a 15" x 15" cover for a 16" x 16" pillow insert. This isn't a hard and fast rule; sometimes you want the look of a roomy or slouchy cover, but in general, slightly over-stuffed pillows look best.

How about stuffing it yourself?

Ukulele Pillow

Scarecrow went to see The Wizard Of Oz to get a brain. But what he really should have asked for was a better stuffing material than straw! Advances in fiber technology have given sewers and crafters an amazing array of easy-care options.

Let's say you're making a pillow you're going to stuff yourself, and you want it to have a soft, down-like feel. You'd want to use Soft Touch® Poly-Fil Supreme. It's made from a blend of siliconized polyester fibers that stay very soft without clumping. And it's even machine washable, following Fairfield's instructions.

Want extra softness? Add a little batting.

30-Minute Neck Pillows

You can add quilt batting to pillow inserts to get a specifically needed effect. For instance, if you have big sofa cushions that need the stiffness of foam to stand up, you can soften them by wrapping their foam core with quilt batting. It will give a plush feel and nicely fill out your pillow covers.

Batting is also our secret to giving shaped pillows a smooth finish. 

Alternative pillow stuffing

Because you keep your face on your pillow for hours each night, you should be careful about "alternative" stuffing. For instance, we haven't been impressed by the people filling their homemade bed pillows with old pantyhose, fabric scraps or shredded newspaper.

But there are some alternative fillers that people do use for health reasons precisely because they have a beneficial fragrance or other property. Some of these are buckwheat, millet, and hemp.

There you have it: all the basics you need to know to sew a slew of pillows.

Part of the fun is that they are so easy to make, you can try something just to see if it works. Take a look through the Pillow & Cushions category under the Projects tab above. Or browse through all the pillow possibilities in our Project Index

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