Background Characterization of the molecular mechanisms underlying hair follicle development is of paramount importance in the genetic improvement of wool-related traits in sheep and skin-related traits in humans. The Merino is the most important breed of fine-wooled sheep in the world. In this study, we systematically investigated the complexity of sheep hair follicle development by integrating transcriptome and methylome datasets from Merino sheep skin. Results We analysed 72 sequence datasets, including DNA methylome and the whole transcriptome of four gene types, i.e. protein-coding genes (PCGs), lncRNAs, circRNAs, and miRNAs, across four embryonic days (E65, E85, E105, and E135) and two postnatal days (P7 and P30) from the skin tissue of 18 Merino sheep. We revealed distinct expression profiles of these four gene types across six hair follicle developmental stages, and demonstrated their complex interactions with DNA methylation. PCGs with stage-specific expression or regulated by stage-specific lncRNAs, circRNAs, and miRNAs were significantly enriched in epithelial differentiation and hair follicle morphogenesis. Regulatory network and gene co-expression analyses identified key transcripts controlling hair follicle development. We further predicted transcriptional factors (e.g. KLF4, LEF1, HOXC13, RBPJ, VDR, RARA, and STAT3) with stage-specific involvement in hair follicle morphogenesis. Through integrating these stage-specific genomic features with results from genome-wide association studies (GWAS) of five wool-related traits in 7135 Merino sheep, we detected developmental stages and genes that were relevant with wool-related traits in sheep. For instance, genes that were specifically upregulated at E105 were significantly associated with most of wool-related traits. A phenome-wide association study (PheWAS) demonstrated that candidate genes of wool-related traits (e.g. SPHK1 , GHR , PPP1R27 , CSRP2 , EEF1A2 , and PTPN1 ) in sheep were also significantly associated with dermatological, metabolic, and immune traits in humans. Conclusions Our study provides novel insights into the molecular basis of hair follicle morphogenesis and will serve as a foundation to improve breeding for wool traits in sheep. It also indicates the importance of studying gene expression in the normal development of organs in understanding the genetic architecture of economically important traits in livestock. The datasets generated here are useful resources for functionally annotating the sheep genome, and for elucidating early skin development in mammals, including humans. Supplementary Information The online version contains supplementary material available at 10.1186/s12915-021-01127-9.